King's Evangelical Divinity School

17 November 2009

Interview with William Kay

Last year I interviewed Dr William Kay (then Reader in Pentecostal Studies at Bangor University, now Professor of Theology at Glyndwr University) for King's Evangelical Divinity School's Talks With Scholars.  He has researched and written widely on the subject of Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, a burgeoning field within theological departments which, by virtue of the movement's widespread growth over the past quarter-of-a-century, is widely studied by observers and insiders alike. If you are interested in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements and their treatments within the academy I'm sure you'll find this interview interesting.

Dr Kay, first of all tell us something about what you do, where you work, and so on.

William Kay: I’m the Director, founding Director, for the Centre of Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies at the University of Bangor, which is in North Wales. The post was created in order to study the burgeoning Pentecostal and Charismatic movement. The post has been in existence, first part-time then full-time, for about eight years. We have conducted a number of research projects in Britain, and published a number of books and articles, as well as giving conference papers, exploring the history and characteristics of Pentecostalism as measured by social science methods.

Are there any other Pentecostal Studies centres in the UK? Give us an indication of the extent to which this area is being researched in other universities.

The only other university in Britain is at Birmingham, where there is, if not a centre, a professor of Global Pentecostal Studies. There is a similar centre at the Free University of Amsterdam. But basically the theology departments are somewhat behind the Church in the sense that some of them are still stuck in the nineteenth century. Certainly, twenty-five years ago you would not very often find theology departments which had a lot of interest in modern church history, or if they did they would mainly be writing on Bonhoeffer or Barth. But the idea of writing on the Pentecostal movement just didn’t appear on the academic horizon at all.

For the benefit of our readers, could you please explain what, exactly, is Pentecostal Studies.

It is the study of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. These are churches which have a strong experiential component to their worship and theology, particularly centring on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and experience of the love of God, and normally accompanied by some kind of charismatic manifestation, very often speaking with other tongues, though not always. As a consequence, these churches very often have an emphasis on healing as well, so that Pentecostal churches usually stress divine healing and prayer for the sick. They are also different in the sense that they are much more participatory, because any member of the congregation might in some way contribute to congregational life. So the division between clergy and lay people is much less distinct in the Pentecostal setting. Ministers tend to be pastors and preachers, but it isn’t the case of sitting in a service with a prayer book and following a set pattern. The movement involves people much more, and the view is that the Holy Spirit can distribute Gifts of the Spirit to members of the congregation. So the congregation is a much more active body than is often the case in other Evangelical settings. That, I think, has partly contributed to the growth of Pentecostal churches.

In addition, Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies is interested in the history of Pentecostalism, which has now been going for about a hundred years. It is an extraordinary worldwide movement, probably comprising over 600 million people, but certainly over 300 million people… it depends how you do the counting, and people are not quite sure what is going on in China. There are more Pentecostals than Buddhists. There are about 360 million Buddhists in the world and there are about 600 million Pentecostals, neo-Pentecostals and charismatics. See

Interestingly, the movement emerged about the same time as Communism, in other words at the beginning of the twentieth century. And yet without the state apparatus that supported Communism in China and the Soviet Union, Pentecostalism has spread around the world, and it is perfectly reasonably to argue that the movement is more active, vibrant and influential than Communism in term of its social activities and transformations of society in Latin America and Asia. It is a huge movement which has been largely neglected by the academy, and very often neglected by the secular media. It is simply not known about as widely as it should be, and where it is known by the secular media they often attack it.

So Pentecostal Studies is the academic study of the movement.

Yes, that’s right, both historically and theologically, and also in terms of the social-scientific description of the Pentecostal church.

So presumably, then, there are non-Pentecostal scholars who also study and research the movement.

Yes, there are non-Pentecostals who very often study the movement, anthropologists, for example.

And which areas of the world do you believe are witnessing the greatest Pentecostal growth at this time?

Again, the figures are not always easy to obtain, but Latin America is clearly experiencing enormous impact, Africa also. And then parts of Asia also are impacted, especially Hong Kong, Singapore, also countries like Burma and the Philippines.

Within this field, what is your specialist area, whether a particular geographical focus or some other aspect of this discipline?

I really focus on two aspects. One is the history of Pentecostalism. I’m fortunate in that a lot of Pentecostal work is in the English language. Also, Pentecostal history is not too long, about a hundred years. So it is reasonably possible for a diligent scholar to have a view of how Pentecostalism works out across the globe throughout the last century. So I look at Pentecostal history in Britain, Europe, and also North America. Secondly, I am also interested in the application of social science methods exploring Pentecostal churches, and I have surveyed Pentecostal ministers, finding out what they believe, what their living conditions are, what their hopes and fears are.

One of the things that I’ve done is a study of how Pentecostal churches grow, looking at the dynamics of church growth to establish if it is the pastor or a congregation that makes a church grow. My discovery is that in the early days, when a church is small, it is the pastor who helps the church to grow. But when a church gets above about two hundred members, it is the congregation which is really the driving force. So you have a congregation full of people who are prophesying and praying for the sick, and who are really active in their spiritual lives, and that will cause that congregation to grow, while the pastor is a more distant figure on the platform.

Both my grandparents were Assemblies of God ministers in the 1950s and 1960s when the movement in this country was growing and vibrant. What is the state of both classical Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement as a whole in the UK today?

The Charismatic movement, of course, by definition flows in different denominational streams. So the Catholic Charismatic movement, as far as one can see, is fairly quiet at the moment. The Anglican Charismatic movement is doing well, and part of that is because it is contained within its own subsection of Anglicanism, which is the New Wine network, although whether that is entirely Anglican I’m not sure. There is a Methodist Charismatic group called Dunamis, and there is a Baptist group called Mainstream. Most of these denominations have a Charismatic focus or organising group, which may amount to around twenty per cent of their numbers.

Now the classical Pentecostals are different. There are really four main groups in this country: the Assemblies of God, Elim, the Apostolic church, based originally in Wales, and the Church of God, which came over from the Caribbean in the 1950s. There are also smaller groups (for example, Churches of God in Christ) and they are mainly African groups which have largely come into the country within the last twenty years or so – Ghanaian, Nigerian and Zimbabwean – which have started to flourish.

So as far as you are concerned, classical Pentecostalism continues to grow and expand as a movement in the UK specifically.

I would say that the African Pentecostal churches are definitely growing. The Elim churches are growing. The others are holding their own. Concerning whether the Assemblies of God is growing, they have gone through a constitutional crisis over the last two or three years which seems to have taken the edge off things.

There is also the Restoration movement, and of course you recently published a book exploring such groups. Can you tell us a little about your book and its main findings.

The book is called Apostolic Networks in Britain, published by Paternoster, and it concerns a group of churches that came out of the Charismatic movement. So these are people who very often were Baptists, Anglicans, some were Pentecostals, and they left those groups in the 1970s and 1980s to form new groups. They are radical churches formed deliberately in contrast to classical Pentecostal and the Charismatic movement. The Charismatic movement exists within denominational structures, while the Pentecostal movement has built up its own traditions. So these new churches came out, and the one thing they wanted to avoid was committees and constitutional machinery. They basically centred around relational networks with apostolic figures. So they are much simpler in their structure and decision making processes. They are groups like Ichthus, in South London with Roger Forster, New Frontiers with Terry Virgo, Pioneer with Gerald Coates, and there was one called New Covenant, led by Bryn Jones. I looked at about twelve of these networks – some big, some small – which are all clusters of churches supervised by an apostolic figure.

So how does your book shed fresh light on this movement and these groups?

I think I was able to show one of the reasons how and why these churches grew. They were very often young churches with students in them. The expansion of British higher education meant there were a lot of people who left home to go to university or college in the 1980s and 1990s, and many of these young people would be happy to join new churches which were relaxed in their ethos, direct in their preaching, and which believed in spiritual experience. So I was able to show, partly how these churches grew, and I was also able to tell their story beyond the 1990s when the Toronto Blessing came in, through to the beginning of the new millennium, as well as give some kind of account of where they might be going next.

You mention the Toronto Blessing. In recent years there have been various such phenomena which arguably even some Pentecostals and Charismatics (certainly some that I know) believe are at the periphery and somewhat extreme. Is this so? In other words, for the benefit of our non-Pentecostal and Charismatic readers, in your view how do everyday Pentecostals view such phenomena?

Contrary to caricature, Pentecostals are remarkably stable. They are not swinging from the chandeliers, or climbing up the walls. Pentecostals may have done that once, but they have become much more capable of discerning and testing spiritual modes of excitement. So classical Pentecostals are unlikely to be carried away very much by fairly temporary moves of this kind. The impact of the Toronto Blessing may have been a wave of refreshing, but it didn’t make any structural changes. I think that this is probably also the case for the Restorationist networks. They saw the Toronto Blessing as a kind of pastoral issue – “How do we pastor this? How do we look after people who are caught up in this?” – but they didn’t see it as a reformation or something that would create new structures, although there were one or two groups which saw the Toronto Blessing in eschatological light, as indicative of revival breaking out by the year 2000. So some attached an eschatological significance to it, but most of them didn’t.

It is interesting you say Pentecostals are not swinging from the chandeliers. I know many Pentecostal churches, especially in the U.S., which hold very orderly services, with very few or no messages in tongues, or where such messages must be cleared with the church leaders beforehand. Yet many non-Pentecostals are unaware of this. Would you like to comment on this?

Well, I think the Pentecostals have a balance to strike, because they can simply relax and become very like Baptist churches, effectively. I can take you to Pentecostal churches in the U.S. which appear to be just like Baptist churches or Evangelical Methodist churches, you can hardly tell the difference. But if they do relax in this way and basically quench their spiritual fire, then they eventually lose out. So they have a balance to strike between orderly Charismatic manifestations on the one hand, which they need to preserve and must avoid going into absolutely extreme sensation- and experience- seeking, seeking orderly manifestations and spiritual gifts. But they mustn’t quench them altogether, because if they do they then become very legalistic if they are not careful.

OK. Just a couple more questions before we wrap up. I understand that as well as an academic, you are still an Assemblies of God minister, is that right?

I am indeed.

So are you still involved in ministry work?

Yes, I still am. I believe that when I gave my life to Christ, as I did at a Billy Graham crusade in 1966, I gave the whole of my life to Christ, and that included all my academic work, my family, everything that I do – so as far as I am concerned everything is brought into and under the call of Christ. And I’m not ashamed of that. It is a conscious decision at every part of life, including the academic part, which is incorporated within the general sense that the whole world is under the authority of God.

We’ve mentioned your recent book. Are you working on any other projects right now?

I’m working on a book to be published by SCM for what is to be a core text on an introduction to global Pentecostalism, and that will deal with both history and theology aimed at giving a global perspective on Pentecostalism. [Since this interview the book has been published.]. Just at the moment I am looking at African Pentecostalism, including what came out of the missionary efforts of the Victorian era and how some of that laid the foundations for the subsequent African explosion of Pentecostalism.

Finally, for the benefit of readers who have never really delved into Pentecostal studies, can you recommend any books which offer an introduction to the subject?

The best and most comprehensive book I know is the New International Dictionary of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, which is a big book with articles on history, theology, statistics, individual people. It is edited by Stanley Burgess and Eduard M. van der Maas, which is published by Zondervan. That is the most comprehensive book, and it is the best book for giving a statistical overview of Pentecostalism (if you are interested in such things!). There are other introductions of various kinds around, but I think that would be the first book to obtain. There is also a book by Allan Anderson, called An Introduction to Global Pentecostalism, published by Cambridge University Press.

And then there is yours, which comes out next year.

Yes, mine is coming out then. And there is a very good book on the Azusa Street revival by Cecil M. Robeck. So there plenty of material out there.


Anonymous said...

Hi Calvin

This is very interesting. I found a book by Jon Ruthven 'On the Cessation of the Charismata' which made some important points about historical cessationism.

My own interest is in comparing the rise of cessationism with loss of belief in miracles through the Enlighenment to the rise of belief in evolution and rejection of creationism.

I am guessing though that the current renewed interest in creationism is partly mirrored by the growth in pentecostalism and the charismatic movement.
Andrew Sibley

Calvin L. Smith said...

Thanks, Andrew. I also have a book review on a volume coming from the opposite perspective, though it seeks to posit a less rigid cessationism (the authors refer to it as progressive cessationism). The book review was published in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies and can be found here: