In this post, I will discuss my religious experience, Pentecostalism, how it is elusive to identity (and why that is an identity) and characteristics of a Pentecostal worldview.
Since my earliest years I have been in either neo-Pentecostal or Classical Pentecostal churches. At around the age of six, my parents started taking me to Christian Life Center, a large, multicultural, Classical Pentecostal, Assemblies of God community. It was in this community that I first became aware of God’s presence. Particularly in Children’s Church, I had encounters with the Holy Spirit that have shaped me. Much of who and what I believe today was because the encounters I had at those tear and snot drenched altars. These encounters continued throughout my younger years – whether in children’s church, youth group, adult service, or what was considered the promised land by most Pentecostal teenagers – youth camp.
At the age of 12, my dad became the outreach pastor at this church. Thus, involvement in church only escalated. The goal of my parents was and is to make the lives of the less-fortunate look a little more like the eschatalogical new heavens and earth by bringing the message of salvation, along with clothing, food, furniture, pool parties and cook-outs. Yes, I said pool parties and cook-outs (Pentecostals like, no, love food). Around this time I began playing drums for the youth group. Fast forward five years later and I’m interning, teaching Sunday school, and leading prayer meetings.
And then – seemingly out of the blue – I found myself doubting everything: God’s existence (and if he does exist, does he love me?), denominational identity, calling. Shortly thereafter, I began studying theology at Southeastern University. While I was studying there, I attended various churches. First, an emerging esque Christian & Missionary Alliance community. Thereafter I became a youth pastor at an Assemblies of God church. Sometime after this, I started attending the CMA church again, and then ended up serving as an intern at a liturgical Presbyterian church for almost two years. Still, after all of the diverse denominational experience, I consider myself P/pentecostal.
What does it mean to be a “Pentecostal”? Much like Brian with Evangelicalism, I’m hesitant to use the term “Pentecostalism” with an upper-case “P”. Why? Well, there doesn’t seem to be a solid definition of what “Pentecostalism” is. Discussing Pentecostal identity is extremely nuanced. In discussing this matter, sociological and historical matters are almost as important – if not as important – as theology. In the West, Classical Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God – my clan -, the Church of God, and the Church of God in Christ have attempted to define Pentecostalism by doctrinal affirmations. Defining markers of these groups are speaking in tongues and a pre-millenial eschatology. To the contrary, Pentecostal groups in the global South typically have a larger umbrella and would probably define Pentecostalism more as a way of doing theology as opposed to a fixed theology. Thus, the late Walter D. Hollenweger contends that we can talk about Pentecostalisms in the world.
A few stories that overlap can exemplify Hollenweger’s ‘Pentecostalisms’. Around April 1906, the Spirit moved powerfully at Azusa. People began to speak in other tongues. Charles Parham and William Seymour understood tongues-speech as a sign of Spirit baptism. A similar experience occurred on a different part of the globe. In April 1906, a revival led by Minnie Abrams broke out in Mutki, India. Similar to Azusa, people began speaking in other tongues. What makes this interesting is that there isn’t any known contact between Azusa and Mutki. Where Azusa and Mutki diverged was interpretation of the tongues phenomena. It’s interesting that where many at Azusa believed tongues denoted a sign of Spirit baptism, many at Mutki believed tongues to denote prayer to God. It wasn’t until January 1907 that Americans from the Azusa mission arrived in India and began to insist that tongues-speech is evidence of Spirit-baptism (See William K. Kay’s, Pentecostalism). While both groups had a similar experience, they both came to different interpretations of their experience. As of right now, I see Pentecostalism(s) similarly.
While interpretation and doctrinal formulation is important, I think Pentecostalism is to first be defined as a worldview. A Pentecostal worldview is one that has an expectancy to experience God in unexpected ways. As James K.A. Smith says, it is “openness to a God who exceeds our horizons of expectation and comes unexpectedly” (Thinking in Tongues, 34). People in both Azusa and Mutki had a similar worldview and a similar experience of the Spirit. Can we say that because they came to a different – albeit similar – interpretation of tongues-speech that one is Pentecostal and one isn’t?
As mentioned above, many have tried to define Pentecostalism in a number of ways. To define something is to give it borders, to make it exclusive. Ironically, I think the difficulty in determining what Pentecostalism is or isn’t has given it an identity of non-identity. In my opinion, because there are Pentecostalisms this has caused Pentecostals to remain extremely ecumenical. This is seen especially true in groups such as the Society for Pentecostal Studies. While the SPS focuses on the development of constructive Pentecostal theology, praxis, and worldview (and more), they are comprised of people that are from nearly any denominational background, but typically hold to a similar worldview. Thus, this identity of non-identity has caused us to find affinity with people we typically wouldn’t. Such an example is Jeffrey Gros, a former president of the SPS who is also a Roman Catholic.
Further Characteristics of a Pentecostal Worldview
With this said, I think there are beliefs that are often characteristic of a Pentecostal worldview and historical classical Pentecostal churches. Some of these are more characteristic than others. Some of these might be considered non-negotiables. These also are reasons why I consider myself a Pentecostal.
- Earliest Pentecostalism was very Christocentric. In his phenomenal book, The Gospel Revisited: Towards a Pentecostal Theology of Worship and Witness, Kenneth J. Archer contends that the five fold Gospel is at the heart of Pentecostalism. This would affirm that Jesus Christ is: Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Spirit Baptizer, and Soon-Coming-King. Constructive Pentecostal theologians would attribute sacraments to each of these five parts of the Gospel. The sacramental sign for Jesus as Savior is water baptism, for Sanctifier it is foot-washing, for healer is it the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, for Spirit baptizer it is tongues-speech, and for Soon-Coming-King it is the Eucharist.
- Azusa Pentecostalism had a strong racial reconciliatory dynamic. In the wake of the Jim Crow era, Frank Bartleman said, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” To be Pentecostal (and I would also say a Christian) is to embrace the Pauline belief that there isn’t Jew or Greek, Slave or free, male or female.
- Earliest Pentecostalism and contemporary Pentecostalism both share an affinity for story-telling. If you grew up Pentecostal, you probably heard stories like God healing Pastor Sol of colon cancer, or of a check Sister Lucie received in the mail just before rent was due. For Pentecostals, the living-witness of the Spirit’s activity is Christ’s body, the Church. And the medium of this witness are often stories. In a very real way, Pentecostals find stories to be sacramental, and as a Pentecostal, I believe they are.
- Pentecostals believe in divine healing. Pentecostals believe that while there are physicians, Jesus is the “great physician.” This is a reality that I have experienced first-hand and part of the reason why I call myself a Pentecostal.
- Pentecostals most-often have a synergistic understanding of grace. This is cooperation with God. While the Spirit is a gift, one tarries for their “personal Pentecost.”
- Pentecostals believe the gifts of the Spirit – prophecy, healing, tongues, teaching, preaching, wisdom, etc – are for today.
- Pentecostals are people of the Book. Nevertheless, Pentecostals typically have a quite different hermeneutic than Evangelicals. For Pentecostals, the end of interpretation isn’t always authorial intent (if that’s even possible to ascertain). To the contrary, they believe that the Spirit speaks through the Scriptures to particular contextual situations. Further, Pentecostals see stories in the Scriptures as stories to guide and give meaning to their experience.
I’m confident that some will disagree with what I believe are features or characteristics of Pentecostalism(s). Nevertheless, I think these are the notes played and heard by many Pentecostal communities globally. To those raised in Pentecostal communities, what I have listed probably resonates as a familiar tune or sound. Thus, I have attempted in giving a large-blanket definition of Pentecostalism, one that includes most and excludes few.
Instead of saying, “I’m a Pentecostal because I believe tongues-speech to be the sign of Spirit baptism” I’m a Pentecostal because a panoply of reasons that are characteristic of a worldview. In summary of the above, I think what my friend Dan Morrison posted on his Facebook grasps the heart of what it means to be a Pentecostal. He wrote, “This is what it means to be Pentecostal… to live a life surrendered to the Spirit, making life the adventure that it is.”
What do you think? What does it mean to be a Pentecostal?