Snake-handlers … tongue-talkers … holy rollers, jumpers, runners … and prosperity gospelers … this is what comes to mind for many when hearing the term Pentecostal.
Well, there is a certain amount of truth within these statements. And yes, within the stereotypes there are legitimate concerns to be considered. Yet, at the heart of Pentecostal theology and practice is the recognition that the Spirit who fell upon the followers of Christ at Pentecost is the same Spirit that blazes the gospel within our communities. The beauty of this dynamic extends well beyond the stereotypes. Further, the encounter between God and humanity is significant to Pentecostalism globally becoming one of the most influential Christian expressions of the 21st century.
Personally, not only have I prayed in tongues, but glossolalia – the technical, theological term for tongues-speech – is a common expression within my life of prayer. I also have had experiences when I have laid prostrate in prayer, the result of a powerful dynamic that I can only explain as what must have been the Spirit of God. Now about those snakes … no, I have not handled snakes and do not plan to do so. I have killed a few snakes, growing up in the Ozarks and as an adult spending many years in Kentucky. There are annual snake hunts down in the Everglades, just south of where I now live. But,
a snake-hunting trip is not on my agenda.
I chose, at least as a final decision, to become a Pentecostal theologian while in seminary. This decision was based upon a choice to embrace my heritage. My parents were Pentecostal in their theology. The source of our river of heritage was the community-based churches of the Ozarks, where people might personally identify as Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, or Pentecostals. We worshipped in churches such as Richland View Community Church, where my father was the pastor most of my younger years. This was the church of most everyone who lived in the Richland Valley. On Easter, when everyone made it to church, we might have 40 to 50 attend. Prior to pastoring in the Richland Valley, Dad pastored an Assemblies of God (AG) church in the university town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, pastored a Baptist church east of Fayetteville, and was a circuit preacher in the mountain area, a circuit that among others included communities within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tradition. For a while Dad was the Sunday School director for the Fayetteville ecumenical alliance. When I was a teenager Dad became the pastor of Pentecostal Temple in Fayetteville, where he pastored from that point forward. To summarize the heritage which I came to embrace, I imbibed a Pentecostal theology that was formed within an ecumenical way of life.
The Pentecostal theology that I came to embrace recognizes the narrative of the Bible as a model for life. Scripture models how we should understand and worship God, how we should study that we might develop as persons, how we should lift up others as equals, and how we should point others and ourselves toward the present and future kingdom of God. From the Scriptural narratives, and from the Pentecostal models that I have experienced, I have learned to advocate for the marginalized, welcome the foreigner in the land as one of us, and to encourage economic and social uplift for those whom our society, influenced by our sinful natures, tends to leave behind.
I have learned to advocate for the marginalized
Early Pentecostals at the turn of the twentieth century believed that through the power of the Holy Spirit they would speak in the particular tongues of the various ethnicities. These early Pentecostals believed that they would become missionaries to the peoples whose languages they believed they had spoken. Well, that didn’t go so well. Those faithful missionaries found that learning the languages through traditional methods of study was necessary. What I have come to recognize, however, is that the early Pentecostals were correct in noting that the tongues represented the peoples of the earth. That is mentioned in Acts, where persons from throughout the Mediterranean area heard the praises of God spoken in their own languages. The biblical narrative indicates that the people had not learned those particular languages, but spoke those tongues as they were prompted by the Holy Spirit. Further, the Apostle Peter, in interpreting the event of Pentecost, stated that the Spirit was falling upon all people that “sons and daughters will prophesy.”
The Spirit of Pentecost changed the perspectives of the people at Pentecost and the trajectory of the church. This event served as a prophetic voice and model for the church. This Spirit called all people to identify as believers in Jesus as the Christ. Further, the Spirit called us to holy living. The Spirit called us to live like Jesus lived, love like Jesus loved, study like Jesus studied, preach like Jesus preached, heal like Jesus healed, model the peace that Jesus modeled in the midst of anger and war, embrace the marginalized like Jesus embraced the marginalized, break down walls of division as Jesus broke down walls, and to value others as equals, as sisters and brothers. The message of Pentecost declared that all peoples – of all languages and ethnicities, women and men, poor and wealthy – were to participate together and fully as family.
With this gospel, in which the Spirit embraces all, I can run with the holy runners, I can jump with the holy jumpers, and I can shout and rejoice with those who are uplifted economically and socially. I can also praise God in the tongues of the ethnicities, knowing that it is the Spirit that speaks through us together to proclaim the glories of God. Yes, there are a few persons and communities that I would like to engage in further theological reflection, in light of the differences in our practices and my concerns regarding our differing practices. (Still don’t want to come close to those snakes.) Yet,
I am pleased that the Spirit embraces us all.
It is this heritage—in which the Spirit continues to speak and work in the manner that is described and modeled in Scripture, engaging an ecumenical community—that has brought me to serve the church and society as a Pentecostal theologian.