Friday, September 23, 2011

Religion Friday: Pentecostalism

We’ve got the Spirit, yes we do, we’ve got the Spirit, how bout you? –what I imagine Pentecostals saying to each other in the parking lot after church.

The Pentecostal movement is really broad, tying in to the earlier Holiness movement and good ol’ Great Awakening ideas and paving the way for the newer charismatic movement. But many agree that Pentecostalism officially began with the Azura Street Revival. William Seymor, the son of former slaves, began his revival in 1906 in Los Angeles. He preached baptism of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues. His services consisted of emotional alter calls, faith healings, and speaking in tongues. Most churches rejected his teachings, but he gained followers from the poor white, Hispanic, and African-American neighborhoods. Services at Azura Street continued almost around the clock for years as visitors came to see what all the fervor was about. In its early years, the movement encouraged racial integration and gender equality, but as it grew and became more organized, it fell back on the established culture, separating the races and restricting preaching and leadership to men.

Pentecostals believe in being baptized by the Holy Spirit. This often manifests itself through the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. Early in the movement, people thought that the tongues were languages of other countries, and missionaries were told they didn’t need to study languages. It only took a few mission trips to discover this error, and leaders redefined their definition of tongues to a non-earthly language. For salvation, Pentecostals believe a person must receive three “baptisms”: the baptism of Christ (accepting Him as your Lord and Savior), baptism of water, and baptism of the Spirit.

Worship services usually include a lot of emotion and movement. Worshippers may clap, dance, or shout. There can also be healing services and speaking in tongues. It’s all a bit (ok, a lot) chaotic for me. I do believe their experiences with God in that style are genuine, but God doesn’t speak to me that way (suddenly, loudly, emotionally). God speaks to me little pieces over a long time. I hear God in stillness. I focus on God through order. The Pentecostal concept of worship might as well be another foreign religion to me.

Another tenet of Pentecostalism is the belief that Christ is returning very soon. You have to get right with God RIGHT NOW because the end is near. I agree that the end might be near, but I also think it might also be a few centuries away. You can’t use any political changes or natural disasters as sure signs. I’m sure people in the early 14th century thought the plague was a sure sign, or people in 1883 thought Krakatoa was a sure sign, or people in 1917 thought the Bolshevik revolution was a sure sign. If those aren’t signs, than neither is U.S. debt and hurricanes. There is no knowing. And more importantly, there is no point in knowing. While we shouldn’t put off getting right with God, I don’t like using apocalyptic fear tactics to do so. Focusing on the end makes us ignore (or hate) the present. Love should lead us to God, not hyped-up fear.

Today, it is estimated there are more than 11,000 different types of Pentecostal denominations all over the world, which obviously makes it hard to fit Pentecostal beliefs under one revival tent. How does one movement (whether Pentecostalism or Christianity as a whole) result in thousands of interpretations? And these aren’t just little differences. Oneness Pentecostal churches reject the doctrine of the trinity. That’s pretty fundamental. I believe individualism is important. If someone wants to quietly mediate and another wants to jump and speak in tongues, both should considered valid expressions of faith. But I can’t believe that Christ would have wanted us to have to sort through tens of thousands of Christian options to find one that’s the right fit. The fact there are so many options speak more about American consumerism and individualism than Christianity. Faith shouldn’t be like Burger King; you don’t get to just “have it your way.” You have to accept or reject what already is. And while I’m not saying my personal opinion is the only right path, I do know there aren’t 30,000 truths to Christianity.

[I'm using the flame to represent the Pentecostals since it usually represents the Holy Spirit and the holiday of Pentecost. Obviously, with thousands of denominations, they don't have a symbol representing the whole group.]

Next Friday: wrapping up Christian movements with the Evangelicals

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