Strange Fire and Demography

I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this conference that haven’t already been said better by others. I do believe a happy middle ground on an assessment is important, because mischaracterizations going both ways are quite overwrought.

As I listened to Dr MacArthur’s podcast, I do appreciate his preaching style for many reasons, there were several installments over the last several months that framed out his approach and thoughts on this conference.

Perhaps the only thing I can contribute at this point is a couple of thoughts about demography and what it looks like to have a global face on theology.

It has been noted by a number of researchers, that the growth of Christianity across the world is being driven by those in second and third world countries and is primarily among Pentecostal congregations. Most specifically, Philip Jenkins has provided some insightful data to support these claims in his book The Next Christendom. This means Christianity across the entire world probably looks very different than what is taught and caught at churches like Dr MacArthur’s church in southern California.

This makes me wonder (as I did on Twitter) about what the demographic cross-section of the Strange Fire Conference would have been. Is the conference representing a global ethnic group, or one slice of the demographic pie? 

Granted, I was not in attendance nor am I aware of any data like this which has been put out. As a result, I cannot speculate as to what happened beyond a few of the pictures of the conference that were posted on social media and news sites.

It would seem that if this kind of conference were to move forward it would be bolstered by a diverse section of believers who were able to engage in compelling conversations and robust debate. For any of us that would visit Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations around our communities, we would find that they are highly integrated ethnically and often have prominent leaders from minority groups. Now this isn’t a strike against white evangelicals (as I am one of those,) but it does give a moment of reflect. If we are truly hoping to develop and represent a global reach in our theological conversations, it might be important to have recognition of the global realities we are facing.

Now, sheer numbers of adherents do not blindly qualify a theology or religious position. Yet if we are honest about what we see in our own churches it should provide us reason to either continue these conversations, or at least get another perspective. No one is helped by aimlessly talking to those who look like us, talk like us, think like us, or live like us. Instead, thorough theological reflection and conversation is deepened when we engage those who are not of our tribe.

As a white evangelical, who holds the “Open but Cautious” view of miraculous gifts, I am challenged by my brothers and sisters in Christ who are from other places in the world and report seeing these things and activities in authentic encounters. My own position has moved, because of robust conversation with friends while at college, from a cessationist position to this current one. The primary expression of these miraculous gifts, in my theological beliefs, is for the burgeoning church in communities and countries where the Gospel is not readily accessible. Having been around several experiences where these gifts were both forced and unbiblically practiced, I am challenged to think there is open license to experience all the giftings of the New Testament times in all churches today. These giftings seem, at least in my own theological and biblical research, primarily spontaneous and not planned or organized.

However, I could have stayed in my cessationist position to this day, but the kind encouragement of friends who were different than myself pushed me to reconsider and actually research that position. 

So my only though concerning Dr. MacArthur’s conference would be, are the organizers and attenders willing to engage others who differ in their perspective and have authentic dialogue. I do disagree with the harsh assessment of our brothers and sisters in Christ given by several speakers. We need not see fellow Christians as our enemies, but should see them as friends even if we disagree over theological issues. Likewise, the unfair categorization of all Pentecostals and Charismatics by extreme examples is a straw man that aids no appropriate reflection.

There are plenty of issues within these movements. Each of these excesses can be, and should be responded to and correction made. Of course this will never be accomplished if you begin the conversation with open disregard to their salvation.

A global theology for a global church necessitates a global audience.

Yes, I am worried about the continued colonialization of theology. Convinced tribes of any stripe will only rediscover their own beliefs. If there is any movement to be made in our conversations it must begin by seeing the realities that different people might practice differently but are still received legitimately.

So, what did you think of the conference and its global face? Can an evangelical audience from southern California appropriately engage a global theology in this way? What demographics do you see in the global spread of Christianity? How am I wrong?