A Comment on Pentecostal Identity

by Rev. Dr David Perry
19th February 2015

Australian Christian Churches is a movement of Pentecostal churches in voluntary cooperation.”

So says the ‘Who We Are’ page on the ACC website (www.acc.org.au).  As a part of the ACC, both in terms of employment and church participation, I appreciate our Pentecostal heritage and am eager to embrace all that being a Pentecostal Christian entails.

Lately, however, I have been reflecting on what it actually means to call myself a ‘Pentecostal’ Christian.  Or, in broader terms, what is unique about the Pentecostal movement as opposed to the numerous other ecclesial traditions? And the more I read the more I realise I’m not alone in this reflection…

From the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, and for many decades thereafter, it could be argued that the key distinctive of Pentecostalism was the post-conversion experience of Spirit baptism and the associated evidence of speaking in tongues.  While I still believe and have argued elsewhere that Spirit baptism and tongues are extremely important for Pentecostals, the question that consistently arises is whether these unique experiences and doctrines (Spirit baptism and tongues) remain constitutive of the movement.  That is, can Pentecostalism still be distinguished on the basis of these alone?

As Pentecostalism has emerged as a global phenomenon, one thing that is borne out time and again is the incredible diversity of Pentecostal expression around the world.  Pentecostalism in Sydney, Australia may in fact look very different, at least on the surface, to Pentecostalism in Africa or South America.  Furthermore, attitudes towards cardinal doctrines like Spirit baptism and tongues vary significantly in Pentecostal communities from different contexts.  Which leads many to ask: ‘what now is the hallmark of Pentecostalism?’

While several possibilities have been proposed, I am becoming convinced that the uniqueness of Pentecostalism is not a single doctrine or practice, but rather a unique way of viewing the world (worldview) which shapes and influences Pentecostal spirituality.  This Pentecostal worldview is not usually explicit, but rather implicit in thought and action.  If this is true, the obvious question then is what does this worldview look like?

For the sake of discussion, I would like to propose four possible elements of this worldview.  In doing so I draw heavily from the work of James K. A. Smith in Thinking in Tongues:

  1. Expectation of personal encounter with God

At the heart of Pentecostal spirituality is the expectation of a personal, experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit.  This underpins so much of what we do as Pentecostals.  This encounter may take many forms, but the point is that God is not simply appreciated from afar – God is to be personally encountered!

       2. Radical openness to God

This bears obvious relationship to the previous point, but also takes things a step further.  A radical openness to God means that, as we encounter God, we are open to God surprising us and doing something different or new.  As Smith says of Pentecostals, “the unexpected is expected”, and “the surprising comes as no surprise”.  As someone who has been in Pentecostal churches my entire life I can relate to this.

       3. A positive view of embodiment and materiality

The Pentecostal belief is usually that God is interested in our whole person and our whole lives – not just our inner spirituality.  Because of this we see our embodiment in a positive sense, and because of this we believe in the healing of the body and liberation from oppression and poverty.  Taken too far this can lead to an implicit materialism, but in a positive sense this affirmation of the goodness of embodiment also contributes to the expressiveness of Pentecostal worship and spirituality.  We worship and serve God with our whole person.

       4. Appreciation of experience as a source of knowledge, and of story as a means to communicate that knowledge

If we expect to experience God, we also believe that these experiences can tell us something about God.  Thus intellectual knowledge is not the only means through which God may be known.  It has often been said that ‘a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument’.  While this approach carries inherent risks, there is also much richness to be found in a spirituality grounded in personal experience.  Lastly, we communicate these experiences and the knowledge learned from them in stories.  Smith calls this an “affective, narrative, epistemology”.

So there you have it…the beginning of a suggestion about what it means to be Pentecostal.  Obviously this list is not intended to be final or exhaustive.  It is a conversation starter rather than an authoritative conclusion.  What do you think?  Can you identify with one, or more, or none of these worldview elements?

Whatever the case, it is always helpful to reflect on what it actually means to call ourselves Pentecostal.  For many it may just be a label or a loose ecclesial association, but for others it is a meaningful statement about personal spirituality.