Theological Education in “Azusa”

In my last theological education post I described the model of Azusa proposed by Cheryl Bridges Johns.  Again, the name is a bit misleading. When I think of the city Azusa, I think of the closest movie theater to my hometown growing up, and an example of a concrete/asphalt suburb that developed in the 50s and 60s before civic landscaping was a priority.   Split in half by the 210 (Interstate 210), it’s more of a working class town with recent renewal projects. Route 66 is a straight arrow through the northern portion alongside which sits Azusa Pacific University.

In my experience of formal theological education, it was on my commute to Fuller. It was the city before Irwindale and after Glendora, the east half of the drive before getting to the 605.  More recently, now on the other side of theological education, it is the city where I first taught theology full time. Teaching at APU radically influenced my experience and understanding of theological education. But that’s not what Johns is referring to.azusaacrepair

She’s not talking about the city of Azusa in her framework. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not.  She’s talking about the Azusa St. revival, which started in the city of Los Angeles on Bonnie Brae Avenue. The revival that began on one street moved to Azusa St, which is about 25 miles from Azusa, California.

So, really, she should call her model “Los Angeles.”  Given that the Pentecostal movement more formally began in Topeka, Kansas that might be the most fitting name. That said, Azusa is much more evocative than Los Angeles, and entirely more so than Topeka.  Sorry, Topekans. Bias against the fly-over states predates the ability to fly over them.

Yet, Azusa St (if not Azusa, CA) still does fit because while the movement itself began in Topeka, blossomed on Bonnie Brae Ave, it took root on Azusa St as a theological movement that spread throughout the world.  As a model of theological education, it seeks after holistic learning and expression.

Cheryl Johns notes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

That’s a handful of a description.  What it comes down to is orientation. What is the orientation of a theological education? Is it about becoming better citizens in a given society? Is it about becoming esteemed within the structures of academic life? Is it about being a faithful participant in an established ecclesial tradition? Is it about drawing others into the life of Christ?   Each of the cities we discussed so far orients in one of these directions.  azusastreet

The Pentecostal emphasis focuses on becoming whole in light of the dawning Kingdom of God.

If that sounds outside the realm of theological education, then that’s another indication of how the Modern project has so totally dominated contemporary discussions. In this project, we look for objective knowledge or pragmatic expression. In the Pentecostal approach, learning about the world coincides with expressive participation in it and for it.

This is ultimately pragmatic, but not always immediately so. It enters into the mystical and transcendent as it radicalizes hope in a new way of encountering life.  We become who God has made us to be in the fullness of our particular gifts in the context of a community.  In effect, the Pentecostal model adds a “lab” requirement to theological learning, in which all that a person is becomes honed and sharpened.  A person is invited to risk utterances and expressions in the rhythm of the Spirit, a risk that should be coupled with discernment. This discernment isn’t about negating a person, however, it is about helping them best determine the ways in which God is using them to contribute to the whole community.  Ideally at least.

This has been a worthwhile discussion for me personally as it has pushed me to think about my own theological influences and journey.  Most of what I’ve shared so far has been part of long-term reflection. But this discussion on Azusa (St.) got me thinking about the importance of my informal theological education, especially prior to going to Wheaton.

Growing up, my family had a lot of financial and health issues. Pervasive. These led to a lot of less than voluntary moves, assorted other upheavals, constant encounters with crisis.  In one of the brief relatively stable times of my life we lived in Santa Barbara where my dad was a branch manager for a security company. We had moved up there from eastern LA county and where my mom had gotten involved with a flock of charismatics.  We had been going to a Wesleyan church but then in the new place started attending an Assemblies of God church.

LFC-FBI don’t remember a lot about the theology of the church, just the assorted odds and ends that stand out to a 9-10 year old boy. My first clear memory of speaking in tongues was at what I think was a Mario Murillo event at the church. I could be wrong about it being Murillo, but I do remember speaking in tongues, probably around age 10 or 11.  I felt a call to ministry not long after that.  But life twisted and turned, forcing us to leave the sun-kissed Santa Barbara area in summer of ’87, and returning back to less than ideal circumstances in La Verne, CA (about 12 miles east of Azusa, CA and 37 miles east of Azusa St.). Less than ideal because both financial and health issues entered into even sharper crisis for a extended time.

We went to church, but I don’t remember having any connection with church.  If there ever was a time in my life where I just felt a non-relationship with God this was it.  Probably a lot of clinical depression and other issues in the mix but a major part was the upheaval of a community.  While my parents worked at a boys home in the city, we lived for a year on that campus, which was located in an upper-middle class neighborhood.  We found a place to rent across the street where we lived throughout my time in high school. But we were in desperate straights. I have a wonderful immediate family who I love very much, as good as a family as a person can ask for in terms of love and commitment.  But everything else in life was caught in turmoil. The youth groups I attended tended to be of the entertain ’em and sneak in a bit of Gospel approach, targeted for upper middle class kids.  I had zero connection with that life and with that message.  I had good friends and a loving family, and even a renewed life with God borne out of constant lament, but my connection to church was tenuous.

While in junior high, I became friends with a guy whose dad was a Foursquare pastor in town. After floating along in various churches, which had various problems of holding on to good pastors, we started attending this Foursquare church. FourSquare_church_logo

And it was here that I had my first real encounter with Azusa (st.) theological education.  Now the basics were that of most youth groups at the time.  Fun, games, a bit of singing, bit of teaching, very young youth pastor, still attending Life Pacific at the time.  Deeper than the basics, however, was the freedom and investment this pastor gave.  We were invited into an exploration of depth of our understanding and expression. We were given space to take risks, some of which bore fruit and some of which still haunt me with their awkwardness. I was invited into discovering the Spirit’s work in my life, a work of developing leadership, prophetic, prayer, music, expressive exploration that wasn’t always profound but was allowing me to hone listening to the Spirit’s work in my life.

After high school, I began attending another church, one that was not formally Pentecostal, but which I think was just as interested in fostering this Azusa (st) approach. It was the Flock that Rocks. NewSong is now considered one of the proto-emerging churches, launching the Gen-X ecclesial movement, and otherwise expressing a postmodern style, though with Modern framework behind it still. It was Conservative Baptist in formal connection, though hardly anyone would know this.  This was my home church during some radically different phases in my life and in its life.

The early experience was the most vibrant, where everyone was under thirty, most everyone was single, and the church had manifold ministries in all sorts of directions based on the interest and passions of those involved.  I was part of a setup-teardown crew (it met in a gym) and part of a small group, one that was really a holistic house church in the way that it transcending a weekly meeting and became a community in life together.  I got a chance to teach, to experience transforming worship, to see the vibrant nature of a body of women and men expressing and learning the life of Christ in the context of eastern LA county.

Then I went to Wheaton. Where life was Athens and that had little room for Azusa.  The freedom and vibrancy got packaged back into a box. There was certainly spiritual growth for me, but it became highly isolated as I just didn’t fit well into the model of Midwestern Reformed ecclesial assumptions. I didn’t know how much freedom and learning I had prior to Wheaton and how it radically shaped my responses to my time there, disappointing and frustrating me while I learned what Athens could teach.

To be sure, my time at Wheaton was far from entirely negative. As I’ve written before, I met God at Wheaton, but I wasn’t able to process this learning into a positive embrace of joy and renewed life. I certainly was not able to express it freely and as the particular person God was forming me to becoming.

My critique of Azusa, however, is that in emphasizing the subjective side it can prioritize the expressive over the contemplative and intellectual. It can become unmoored from tradition and then get caught up in the more dramatic, more glittery, kinds of Spiritual moves.  People are still people and people tend to want to show off, appear more mature, do great things for God while not grounded in God.

As my mom suffered from severe health issues, a lot of people saw her as target, a way of somehow proving their own spiritual adeptness. They were oriented in competition and performance, not love.  My wife had encounters with Pentecostals when she was younger who likewise were spiritual bullies of sorts, insisting on a narrow range of expressive spirituality rather than understanding the broad work of the Spirit in a person’s life.  Neither of these experiences are uncommon. There is a certain elitism and performance expectation that if not pursued results in alienation or diminishment. If expressive spirituality is a sign of faith, then lacking particular, expected results becomes a sign of unbelief. Only that isn’t the case, not whatsoever.  Spiritual expressiveness does not always indicate spiritual maturity or Spirit-endowed wisdom, both of which seem a priority for true theological education. And the work of the Spirit can often be profound in non-dramatic expressions.

I’ve not been a part of a formal Pentecostal institution, but my impression has been they tend to be a hybrid of Berlin and Azusa, with the classroom formal education not fluidly interacting with the expressive.  Fuller Seminary has some history with an attempt at integration, with its “Signs and Wonders” course becoming a lab for expressive experimentation. That was not without its own problems and critiques, however, to say the least.

Azusa type theological learning gave me a sense of my calling, propelled me into a confidence of exploration, but gave little depth in continuing to navigate through dark nights and deep valleys of the soul and life’s continued crises.

It was in a dark night that I first heard told of another city, and it was in that “city” that I found restoration and renewal.  This city isn’t unknown, but it isn’t included in these frameworks of theological education, so I’m going to add my own creative contribution to the framework.  Next up: the city of Skete.

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