After being engaged in classical Pentecostalism for almost 20 years, completing my undergraduate studies in an affiliated College, teaching in and attending its churches, and studying its history, theology and practice, I thought I would take a few moments to provide seven reflections on some of its current (and not so current) trends.
For the record, these reflections are meant to be summary statements based on my own observations, and are not intended to be formal conclusions that represent national concerns. As a result, I invite dialogue and further reflection from others as we attempt to move forward together.
1. We have a tendency to divorce Spirit baptism from the ‘other-centered’ emphasis the scriptures (and early Pentecostal history) clearly delineate (the almost exclusive focus on personal tongues speech as initial evidence, coupled with questions like “did you get it?” are two such examples). When we do this, it becomes nothing more than a deeply privatized spiritual experience that does not in any way reflect the original teaching of the early church – which centered on witness to Jesus Christ (words/works). As a result, we’ve lost our collective center of gravity. For far too many, the personal component of Spirit baptism is where it begins and ends (the pinnacle of Pentecostal spirituality). However, as Clark Pinnock wrote in his book Flame of Love, “God did not pour the Spirit out for us to exult in it as a private benefit. The purpose was (and is) to empower witnesses to God’s Kingdom” (pg. 141).
2. The personalization of faith has led many to embrace a privatized spirituality that disconnects itself from the larger church community. A lone ranger (or wonder woman) mentality quickly ensues and we forget the New Testament emphasis on the body of Christ and the necessity for interdependence and mutuality.
3. As a result, individual gifting has taken precedence over corporate purpose; which is to encourage, strengthen and comfort the community. Whatever gift you may consistently function within isn’t nearly as important as why and how they are used in your local context, and what motivates the usage (love). Furthermore, spiritual gifts cannot be fully understood and realized by taking a simple online assessment, but only with the practice that takes place within the community. Only by ‘doing’ can we acquire an informed and accurate understanding of the Spirit’s endowments. The privatization of faith has inevitably led us here. By focusing on the trees, we have often missed the beauty of the forest.
4. Our spirituality is largely defined by individual power (crisis) encounters that ignores the biblical emphasis on journey. As a result, we jump from one power experience to another, and downplay the influence of the mundane, everyday and communal orientation necessary for spiritual formation.
5. We are more inclined to listen and respond to a message in tongues and its subsequent interpretation, or a free-lanced prophetic word, than the sermon and readings, as though the former is somehow more valid and authoritative than the latter. We forget, at least in practice, that the Spirit inspired and continues to speak primarily through the biblical witness. And, that such witness remains God’s primary means of communication about Himself to creation. We need to keep in mind that scripture will always trump the former and in fact should be used as the primary litmus test to determine its authenticity.
6. Our triumphalism has ignored the balanced New Testament approach that combines the activity of the Spirit with suffering. Victory is assured, but it’s ultimate scope is eschatological. Many Pentecostals have instead embraced an over-realized eschatology, where the benefits of salvation are to be fully expected and ‘realized’ now, leaving little hope for future kingdom realities (for further reading on this subject, check out Martin Mittelstadt’s book Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology).
7. Our increased affluence has lessened our dependance on God and has negatively impacted our desire to see the fullness of God’s kingdom promise fulfilled. As a result, the second advent of Christ has become little more than a theological relic. After all, who needs Christ to return when we pretty much have everything we want now?
These are but a sample of some of my recent musings on contemporary Pentecostalism. My concerns may cause you to think that I’ve pretty much given up on the whole movement, but such is not the case. I still remain devoted to the fellowship and the many good things it has to offer. However, we cannot cover our eyes and pretend that all is well. If we desire to move forward with intensity and longevity, it will be absolutely essential to consider and address these and other future concerns. If not, the potential exists that we will lose what we’ve been graced with and miss out on the opportunity to impact the world through the Spirit’s love and enablement.
You may also be wondering if I have any proposals to offer as a way of moving forward. While my focus at this point is not directed towards providing explicit examples of where and how to address these concerns, my response has been implied along the way.
I am also fully aware that a contextualized approach will always be the better way when it comes to implementing change. What may work in one part of the country and in an urban setting, will more than likely not find equal success in another part. Furthermore, some of these observations may not be immediately applicable in your area as emphases can change from one locale to another. With this in mind, localized reflection and implementation is the recommended way forward.
With these things in mind, I look forward to reading your stories!