Episode 45: “Holiness and American Culture” featuring Cheryl Sanders

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 45: "Holiness and American Culture" featuring Cheryl Sanders

How have the holiness and Pentecostal movements influenced American culture? In this episode we speak with Cheryl Sanders about why these movements grew so rapidly, how they influenced our culture, and the challenges they face in our modern world.

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How have the holiness and Pentecostal movements influenced American culture? In this episode we speak with Cheryl Sanders about why these movements grew so rapidly, how they influenced our culture, and the challenges they face in our modern world.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the Director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Sanders, Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard Divinity School and Pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC. Our focus for this podcast is learning how the Holiness-Pentecostal movement is shaping the United States’ Religious Culture. Cheryl is the author of several books, including Ministry at the MarginsLiving the Intersection, and Saints in Exile, just to name a few. Thank you for joining us on our podcast today Cheryl, we’re glad to have you here and I would like to welcome you.

Cheryl Sanders: Well thanks for inviting me, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.

Doug Powe: Great! I want to begin, because many of our listeners really don’t know a lot about the Holiness and the Pentecostal movement. Can you give us a little bit of history? I know we could take the whole podcast if you gave us the whole history. But can you just help them become more familiar when we use that term and that terminology.

Cheryl Sanders: The Holiness and Pentecostal tend to be linked with a hyphen. But the Holiness movement historically precedes Pentecostalism. And there are two dates, two years, that are landmarks. One is 1858, which is the time that the Holiness movement is launched in the United States. It’s associated with Phoebe Palmer in New York. And really, it was more like a Bible study, prayer, almost a revival kind of movement. But it emerged out of mainline denominations, especially Methodists, Methodist teaching. But, as the Holiness movement spread from its urban beginnings, throughout the country, even into rural areas, in the South and the Midwest, it really was an ecumenical movement. And, in some cases, people were expelled or excluded from their denominations because of following Holiness teachings. The basic teaching that marked the movement is some sort of Doctrine of Sanctification. Most Christians believe in some notion of sin and salvation, redemption. But there’s a second blessing, or sometimes it’s a third blessing, that the Holiness peoples spoke about — living a holy life. And you add to that John Wesley’s emphasis on the social holiness — and it wasn’t just personal piety, but it was also in the Holiness Movement a deep commitment to social justice. And that history really gets obscured and lost from the 19th Century. Salvation Army, for instance, which comes out of England, but Salvation Army, for many people, they think of it as a charity. But it’s a widely known charity. Everyone knows Salvation Army. Not a lot of people know it as a church. But it’s a holiness church, and it’s an example of a holiness church which was totally given to acts of charity and mercy and compassion, having actual residential facilities to help people who are affected by addiction, that kind of thing. So, holiness movement then, flourishes in the late part of the 19th century. And then, to add to the hyphen Pentecostals, generally, the Pentecostals are holiness people who began speaking in tongues. And there was an Azusa Street revival in 1906 — roughly 50 years later — in Los Angeles. You see, you go from New York to Los Angeles, so you’re coast to coast, right. In South Central Los Angeles, a group of black, mostly women ministers, they were holiness preachers in South-Central Los Angeles. They called a man by the name of William Seymour to come and be their pastor. And when he came, they started having meetings. People were speaking in tongues and it attracted. Los Angeles then, as now, is a very diverse city. So, there were Spanish-speaking people, Asians, African Americans, whites. And people started coming from all walks of life. The revival lasted for two years. Out of the revival emerged the Pentecostal denominations. And there’s a whole history there. But we’re now 113 years out from 1906 and Pentecostalism is a global movement with probably upwards of 500 million adherents. And so, that movement really took off. And it has a great impact on the religious landscape of the United States. But it is also a global movement. It was global from the beginning, though, because that revival in 1906, people went all over the world and spread the message of this particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Both of the groups – Holiness and Pentecostal — some of the Holiness groups did not follow Pentecostalism, but both adhere to a strong Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. And that’s what distinguishes them from other denominations.

Doug Powe: You have said so many things that I think we could fall upon. But I’m just going to pick a couple. One of the things that you mentioned was women. And women have always played a prominent role in the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. In some ways, you can tell me if you agree or disagree, I think almost a more prominent role than mainline denominations, in terms of involvement in some aspects. Why do you think women have always been so prominent in the Holiness-Pentecostal movement? And why do you think they were attracted to the Holiness-Pentecostal movement and not so much, maybe to mainline? What is it about it that made them feel like this was a better home for them?

Cheryl Sanders: A real simple answer to your question, as I just said, the distinctive factor of the Holiness-Pentecostal movement is the strong Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. You can’t have a strong Doctrine of the Holy Spirit and discriminate. Because any church that focuses on the Holy Spirit is not like “the Holy Spirit only blesses men, or only blesses whites!” All of those movements — and if you look at the history — they were all egalitarian movements. But, the doctrine required, what happened though, after this experience of people having the experience. The Bible says the Book of Acts is where you have these key scriptures, the biblical narrative of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after Jesus goes back to heaven. And the whole point of the Pentecost, as recorded in Acts Chapter 2, when I say the whole point, Peter’s sermon to explain it is that the Prophet Joel said, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” That means all kinds of people. So, obviously, people were like “these are all kinds of people, why are they doing this?” And he says, “Well, this is what God intended from the beginning.” So, the Pentecostals are trying to replicate what they saw and read in the scriptures (Acts 2). So you don’t have any choice. You can’t. There’s nowhere in the Bible where only men receive the Holy Spirit. So if you’re going to be Biblical, or restorationist, you have to restore the egalitarianism. Now, as compared to the mainline denominations, I mean, then as in now, the mainline denominations were, well, some of them have never changed their exclusion of women. And they have their own doctrines that support that. But women are in those churches as well. And they just, it’s just a matter of whether or not they accept the marginal status or not. But in the Holiness movement, just by definition, the Holiness movement itself starts with Phoebe Palmer. She’s a white woman of means, an upper-middle-class or upper-class person. The Pentecostal movement is associated with poor blacks in Los Angeles. So you have a class difference. But in the Pentecost, when Peter is explaining it, he’s quoting Joel, “that even slaves will prophesize.” So that’s saying, whatever your social location, you’re not exempt from the Holy Spirit. So, as long as the Holy Spirit focus is there, then you’re forced to view people equally.

Doug Powe: Thank you. That’s helpful. The other one I want to fall upon at this point is, you talk about second blessing and third blessing. Some individuals won’t be familiar with that language, can you explain a little bit more, when you use that language of second blessing and third blessing, what you mean?

Cheryl Sanders: Well, I was just saying that, for Holiness and Pentecostal, as compared to other denominations, every denomination has some kind of soteriology. But it’s you are a sinner, or you’re saved. And what the Holiness movement did is to say “it’s not enough to be saved, you have to have the Holy Spirit.” Now, whether that’s just a thing that happens when you’re saved, or if it’s a third thing, and they split hairs over what that exactly means. And I don’t know if we want to get entangled in that conversation. But basically, it either occurs, in fact, one of the sort of controversial doctrines among some Pentecostal denominations is that, if you do not speak in tongues, you are not saved. That it’s the required evidence of salvation. So, in that case, you’ve got a second blessing. But there are others who would say it’s a third thing that happens after you are saved. And that makes it a third blessing.

Doug Powe: Right. Thank you. I’m going to move us in a little bit different direction. James Baldwin or Neale Hurston, both are very well known African American authors. Both have written about the Holiness Church. But for individuals who have only read their accounts of the Holiness Church, what do you think would surprise many of those individuals if they actually went and experienced a worship service or a congregation in person?

Cheryl Sanders: The first thing that would amaze them is that they would be told, have in mind, well the service begins at a certain time. And they will show up at that time and it’s not started yet. Because they wouldn’t have read in Baldwin or Hurston that there’s a different time zone that many of these churches function on. Nor would they have read that three hours later, we might still be in church. And so, there is a different. And it’s a cultural thing, largely, I’m sure there are white Pentecostals who do things on time, but the time zone would be a surprise. Perhaps the improvisational element in how worship is done. As you know, in some, depending on what they experienced, everything is scripted. And everybody gets a copy of the script, and if it’s not on the script, it doesn’t get said or sung. Whereas, in some of these churches, nothing is scripted, and everything is spontaneous and improvisational. That doesn’t mean that it’s disorganized. But it’s just the script is seen as restrictive. Although you would expect to find the Bible as central, but other than that, you may not have any particular text that is guiding the worship. So that would be another factor. And they also might be impressed, they wouldn’t get this from Hurston or Baldwin, they would be impressed with the quality of the musicianship. Because one of the stereotypes of Holiness and Pentecostal people is that they are ignorant and uneducated. It’s a stereotype. But many of the most prolific and skilled sacred musicians in our culture come out of that tradition. And they are people who are as well trained as any other church musicians. But it’s a stereotype, “well, you just play by ear.” Well, play by ear, but there are people who also are very competent musicians. So you might be impressed by the musicianship.

Doug Powe: Yeah. I think the last point is especially helpful. Because, I think even today, you still hear people refer, often, just in general, in saying “well, they don’t really know music.” So, I think, yeah, that’s a helpful point. For many years, we can argue, mainline congregations have been experiencing decline and the Holiness and Pentecostal congregations were not. Although I know that’s changing a little bit now. But why do you believe they were not experiencing decline in the same way as mainline congregations here in the United States?

Cheryl Sanders: That’s a difficult question. I do think that, going back to the Gospel’s and the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about Christians being salt and light. You are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth. And I think there’s a saltiness, a distinctive flavor that the Holiness and Pentecostal denominations offer that has a certain appeal that might account for, it’s not just a sort of white bread, flat-line approach. But there’s a certain kind of excitement, and even unpredictability because of the belief in the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. And so, to enact that in worship, it’s not that the Holy Spirit is absent from mainline religions. But when you go to these churches, you anticipate a certain level of intensity in the worship and the preaching. And so that might be a factor. I call that the salt, or the flavor. And then, also, I think the thing that historically gets downplayed is the social gospel, the social justice emphasis. You probably could make the case that any and every church has some kind of act of compassion, but it may, or may not be linked to their theology. Whereas, some of these churches, their reason for being is to make a difference in the world. Whereas, in a mainline churches, we really just don’t have anything to say about the world. We separate church from the world. So people are tired of debt, if they want to have a more integrated religious experience, they might be drawn to these churches. So, but I think it’s complicated. And as you indicated in how you framed your question, to the extent that Holiness and Pentecostal churches have begun to adopt the practices of mainline Protestantism, they’ve also participated in the decline.

Doug Powe: Why do you think they have started to adopt those practices? You sort of anticipated what I was going to ask you. Why do you think, it seems to me, you had an advantage in you were distinctive, but it seems like it almost sort of feels like we need to become more like what is taking place over here, even though that’s what’s declining. So why do you think there’s a move in that direction?

Cheryl Sanders: Well first of all, they don’t do the math that is declining before they decide to emulate. They don’t do the math. They would figure out, you know what; we don’t want to be like this. But really, people don’t do history. They don’t even know their own history. But I think some of it has to do with the intergenerational. There’s an inevitability in any church that you have a challenge. People in churches tend to form themselves into families. Then their children either stay or leave. If the children stay, and generations stay, you have an intergenerational, sort of, built-in culture war. Because young people engage the culture differently than older people do. So sometimes those culture wars get responded to by adapting more readily to the culture so that the young people won’t leave. Or think somehow you can get them back if you adopt a certain culture. There’s also another factor, which might be more complicated than I can really explain. But let me try this. I think that, I’ve been in Holiness church all of my life, and the church where I’m pastoring, there’s four generations of my family in that church. So I have a lot of history. But one of the things that I’ve noticed in the long term of my view of Holiness Church, and this applies to some of the Pentecostals as well — I’ll just say the class. There’s a class evolution. These churches do start off with poor people. But poor people, especially, if they mind their manners and they don’t drink and they don’t get in trouble, and they don’t get locked up in prison, and they make the best of their education opportunities, then they become more affluent. They get better jobs. Then the next generation and the next generation. So, class-wise, some of these practices that they’re bringing in are because there’s an evolution of class in the church itself. So they don’t have the same sensibilities that the previous generation did. For instance, in my church, two generations ago, we did fundraising; you sell chicken dinners, because you don’t have the wealth that you just write a check. So you raise the money. People come together to work. It’s like $5, $2, but you put those dollars together and you get it done. Now, it’s like, we have the Givelify App and the Cash App. You know, it’s just a whole different thing. But then you have to convince people, now you might not even get the $2 out of them. But there may be people who can give $200,000, or $2 million because of their affluence. So, I think the class factor doesn’t always get incorporated into this. But I think that’s largely it. That the people in the churches and their children have a much broader cultural experience, and then the wider culture, they’re just practices that are different.

Doug Powe: I want to pick up on, you talked about intergenerational and class. Let me start with intergenerational. How could mainline denominations — I would say almost all of them are struggling with this — how is it that congregations can continue to adapt and grow with the times but maintain some semblance of being intergenerational. Because what it seems to me, what you’re going to do is just constantly be turning over and starting anew if you can’t figure out how you keep people connected or linked together. So, do you have any thoughts on how do we invite people to participate and understand that we may have to do some things differently but we don’t give everything up that helped this generation stay faithful in their journey.

Cheryl Sanders: That’s a tough question. And it may, the answer may be what you just said. That you just have to keep starting all over again. I do, because of my position as a professor, and also the kind of churches, pastors, and ministers I have relationships with. I spend a lot of time listening to younger pastors, right? And some of them are like “You know what? We just have to do this differently. And if the older people can’t get with the program, then you just have to reinvent and go with that.” But then, when we’re talking about the decline of mainline Protestantism, the image of a big church with three or four elderly people sitting in the pews, that’s not just a mainline picture. And so, if you refuse to do anything to attract, or keep the interest of the younger generation, then it’ll just be an aging congregation. And the numbers are going to decline. And then you’ll get to the point, heaven forbid, that you can no longer afford to maintain the property and you close the church. But then, those young people either will become, the popular name for it now is “nones.” They just won’t go to church anywhere. Or they’ll be attracted to a church that has other young people and they’re doing things that they feel are not contradictory to the cultural preferences they’ve acquired in the world.

Doug Powe: Yeah, makes sense. In terms of class, do you think one of the challenges is, and actually Wesley talked about this, you mentioned Wesley, or Wesley taught about this, is that it’s inevitable that, as you mature, as you say, that you become comfortable. And when you do that, you lose that social gospel. You disconnect being out there and integrating that our job is to really be in the community and with the people verses, “I’m comfortable now in my building.” So that, a part of what takes place in this, sort of, class divide is, as I become more comfortable and more middle class and upper middle class, what it really does is get me building focused and not community focused.

Cheryl Sanders: Yeah. I would agree with that to some extent. And you can also put a demographic geographical factor. If I’m middle class, and at our dinner table, a couple days ago in my household, I have two adult children, and we were all having dinner and we were talking about restrictive covenants. I was explaining to them, my husband and I were explaining to the kids, that when we bought the house we live in and when during the settlement there were some documents. I asked, “may I see this loan?” “No, you don’t want to see it.” “No I want to see it?” And it was the restricted covenant that said, “No Negro or Jew may ever buy or occupy the house.” Now after the Civil Rights Act, 1964, all those things got struck down. But they didn’t go away from the documentation. So you have, it’s like an artifact of a time, when the discrimination was in stone. And so, after you do away with restrictive covenants, now there are other ways you can enforce the discrimination. Okay, but basically that means you can live in any neighborhood you can afford to live in. That means you can go to any church. So, if you live in the suburbs, you don’t need to come to church in the city. Go to a church where the deer and the antelope play. You don’t even have to look at them! You don’t even have to smell them! And so, we have options, beyond just the building. It’s just the location and, you didn’t ask me this, but I’ll throw this in for free — under the forces of gentrification in the city, many of the church is under pressure to get out of the city. Sell your property, go the suburbs, and you can have a family-oriented, middle-class congregation and not have to deal with the problems of the city.

Doug Powe: Very true. And thank you for throwing that in for free. You wrote an article in 2006, in Christianity Today, “What’s the Most Pressing Theological Issue Facing the Church?” And you named “discipleship” at that point as that issue. How, working in the seminary, how can seminaries better prepare students to lead congregations and focus on discipleship. I would argue that almost every seminary in our country, there’s a weakness in having students prepare to actually lead congregations in discipleship, which seems to me, then we’re all doing something or missing something if that’s the case.

Cheryl Sanders: Well, I don’t remember what I was thinking in 2006. But in 2019, my thought about what we should do at the seminary is to emphasize and emulate formation for transformation. And by that, I mean not just spiritual formation, because some of us do spiritual formation, and that’s a part of discipleship. But there’s also an intellectual formation that we do — theological formation, if you will. But a formation for activism is the part that we maybe stumble, but it can be done. And, as I said, we not only can engage it, we need to emulate it. You can’t practice or teach what you don’t do. But many of, you said seminaries, yeah. Because none of them, that’s a strange statement. Not too many seminaries are really doing the kind of socially transformative work. They might be sending their students into organizations and field assignments where they encourage them. Or even insist that they do social transformation, but they don’t emulate it. I think that, in fact, I did a paper a few years ago on Martin Luther King as a model for how you do theological education for what I call “prophetic citizenship.” Now prophetic citizenship, I mean, when King was one person who’s extraordinary public intellectual. He was a Christian. He was a leader. When the mantle fell from him, it was not picked up by another individual. It was picked up by a community. And I call that the “prophetic community.” The people who buy into King’s vision, how do you prepare those people to function as prophetic community? To me, those are the kinds of things we can teach. We can teach about community organizing. We can teach homiletics for transformation. We can teach a lot of the things that King did. Not that we’re going to make you Martin Luther King, but let’s just learn the lessons from what kind of strategizing did for social change. So I think we can do that. But we just have to be intentional about it. And not just worship King but emulate him in ways that put it in a pedagogy that make sense. And I think that’s doable. But there has to be a commitment to social change. In the Bible — always go back to the Bible — we’re supposed to be turning the world upside down. Now if we don’t wanna do that, we will always be stumped. But if we’re committed to turning the world upside down, we’ll find a way to encourage that formation for that purpose.

Doug Powe: Good. You’re a bi-vocational individual — pastor, and professor. How have you thought about ministry differently? Not being full time in a congregation. Do you believe that it helps you to think about it differently than people who are full time in a congregation? Or do you think it makes no difference, bi-vocational or being full time?

Cheryl Sanders: Well here’s the difference that bi-vocational ministry makes to me: Jesus was bi-vocational, Paul was bi-vocational, Priscilla and Aquila were bi-vocational, Moses was bi-vocational. In fact, you don’t find too many leaders in the Bible who are not bi-vocational. So we have, the thing that we have decided is sort of the standard ideal of the full time minister is really way out of wack with what we see in scripture. So, for me, I don’t have a problem with being bi-vocational because that’s the way I think ministry should be. At least from a biblical perspective. Now, having said that, there are challenges. But there are also aspects of bi-vocational ministry that enable you to see things more as your parishioners see them. Unless all your parishioners are retirees, or unemployed, then they’re trying to figure out “how do I do ministry and do my job? And meet my family responsibilities?” So you’re identifying with them in that it helps you to frame the assignments that are necessary to be made. If you’re a leader, you make an assignment, but you understand what it is when people have things, their resources, their time. It’s not like “Oh, I can just make myself totally available.” Now, sometimes you have people like that. I figure it out, maybe I’ll have a better answer at whatever point I retire from one of my jobs. If I retire from my job and say “okay, now I know what it’s like now to have a full-time…” But I’ve never been a full-time one. I’ve always done more than one thing. In fact, when I was in graduate school, I had about four jobs. And, you know, in graduate school you’re not supposed to have any jobs. And so I’ve just, that’s just the way I’ve lived my life. I’m not going to over-simplify it. I’m just saying in terms of the perspective that it gives you, Jesus was a carpenter. Paul was a tent-maker. Paul talked about working with his hands. And the freedom that it gave him, that he wasn’t always totally reliant upon, because if you’re a full-time pastor, that means you’ve got enough people giving money, or you’ve got some denomination that’s providing your salary. But what happens when that is in jeopardy? Do you quit? Or do you get a job?

Doug Powe: I think that’s helpful, particularly when you talked about the leadership perspective. Because I think, often, when you are full time you work out of the framework that everybody can do the same thing you can do, not realizing that people are working 8-10 hours a day and then coming and you’re asking them to do something else. So, you know, I think that’s a really helpful perspective. As we get ready to bring this to a close, I’m going to ask one more thing: Where do you think congregational life in the United States is heading in the next ten years?

Cheryl Sanders: Well, I do believe that there’s going to probably be a continued winnowing out of congregations that haven’t figured out strategies for growth and survival. But I also think there’s going to be lots of opportunities to do new and different things. Social media, for instance, gives a whole new opening to do ministry that is not based on face-to-face, just like education, online education is a thing. And it’s not like “oh we do that because we…” no, it’s something to be intentional about. So I’m very hopeful about some churches will say “we have an online campus and we have a physical campus.” So I think the use of social media is going to be a big thing. I think the challenge is going to be getting younger people to position themselves to be formed for leadership. Because those congregations ten years from now are not going to be lead by people like you and me. They’re going to be lead by younger people who are convinced and equipped, but not equipped in terms of “you’ve got to do it the way we’ve always done it.” But you’ve got to be open to the adaptability, the spontaneity, the improvisation, and the cultural skill to do ministry with integrity for the generations following.

Doug Powe: Well thank you, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it and, hopefully, it’s been an enjoyable conversation for you also.

Cheryl Sanders: It has. Thanks for having me.

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About Author

Rev. Dr. Cheryl Sanders

Cheryl J. Sanders, Th.D., is professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity where she teaches courses in Christian ethics, pastoral ethics, and African American spirituality. She has also been Senior Pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC, since 1997.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.