Several recent posts on Engaged Pentecostalism have been wrestling with how to define Pentecostalism and how to identify within it. Enoch Charles offered a biblical Luke-Acts based approach, Mary Beth Unthank offered her personal experiential approach, and Joel offered a philosophical approach inspired by Buddhist metaphysics.

What strikes me in this dialogue has been the radically different ways each author has defined Pentecostalism. In many ways, these differences reflect the language shift that many scholars have begun to utilize. Many have started to speak of “pentecostalisms” rather than “Pentecostalism.”

The Birth of “Christianities”

This shift to the language of “pentecostalisms” has followed the rise of the use of “Christianities” as a way to describe the lived reality of Christians around the globe. Popularized by Bart Ehrmann’s The Lost Christianities, the language is rooted in the historical recognition that there was a great deal of diversity among the early followers of Jesus.

I’m some ways, this language of “Christianities” sounds like heresy, and that is because it is. Most of the “Christianities” that defined themselves differently than the “orthodox” Christian tradition were labelled heretics. Their books were burned, and their memories were largely forgotten.

For the orthodox, Christianity could only be one thing, and could only be represented by one body: the Church. The Nicene Creed went so far to say that, “we believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” For those unfamiliar, the wording might be a bit confusing (e.g. what’s the difference between Catholic and catholic?). In laypeople’s language, the creed affirms that God’s true Church, whatever it’s physical manifestation, is a spiritual unity (one) made pure by Christ’s sacrifice (holy); it stretches across time and space (catholic), and it is rooted in the way of life and teaching laid out by Jesus’ first followers (apostolic).

This is a beautiful theological idea about the nature of the Church, and for most of Christian history, it has stood unchallenged as a historical idea. The Church, and by extension Christianity, were treated as one continuously existing thing. The recovery of these forgotten “Christianities,” however, has helped complicate our picture of the early church in suprising ways that we are still coming to terms with.

More recently, this language of “Christianities” has also helped scholars of contemporary Christianity recognize that the “unity” of the Church is often marked by surprising amounts of diversity in practice and belief.

Even among so-called “orthodox” groups, the amount of difference is staggering. Asian Presbyterians might include special prayers and rites to commemorate and recognize the ancestors. African Aladura Churches might include ritual practices borrowed from traditional religions. North American Baptists might use language and ideas from the world of business to structure their church. While they all might affirm the same creed, in practice these “Christianities” can look downright syncretistic. And perhaps they are. Missiologist Louis Luzbetak argued that every form of Christianity is a form of syncretism that will only become “pure” at the end of all things.

From Christianities to Pentecostalisms

If that is the case, then the language of “pentecostalisms” is not at all strange. As Walter Hollenweger, the father of Pentecostal Studies, observes:

“All observers notice in Pentecostalism a bewildering pluralism. The reason for this is the lack of a common hermeneutical basis. Pentecostals use as hermeneutical basis their experience. This experience is coloured by their respective cultures.”

Walter J. Hollenweger, “An Introduction to Pentecostalisms”

Pentecostals, perhaps more than other sectors of the Church, embrace and recognize the plurality of experience. People are enmeshed in different cultural frameworks, historical narratives, and personal identities. The Spirit knows this and responds to this reality, and Pentecostals are just along for the ride. The Spirit might lead me one way, it might lead you another, yet it is the same Spirit.

“Pentecostalisms,” then, is just a recognition of the diversity of human experience and an affirmation of God’s unifying presence within that diversity. There is no one definition of Pentecostalism because the Spirit can only engage concrete particularities.

What About “Pentecostalism”?

The question we should really be asking is why use the singular at all? Isn’t forcing these diverse experiences and communities under one label just an imperialistic form of power? Well… maybe.

We can’t ignore that grouping diverse groups under a single “ism” can be a coercive move that seeks to exert definitions over people that they never asked for. There is no doubt that placing people in the “Pentecostalism” camp without their consent could be part of a triumphalist discourse that seeks to cast Pentecostalism as a hegemonic movement. When we encounter the term “Pentecostalism,” we have to ask why it’s being used and what it’s trying to do.

Not just trying to sound the alarm, there are good reasons to use the singular (you may have noticed, the name of this blog is not “Engaged Pentecostalisms”). The phrase “Pentecostalism” can also be a theological statement about the Spirit-enabled unity that exists between the various “pentecostalisms.” Pentecostalism is an aspirational theological statement, an experiential, Spirit-focused expression of catholicity. Pentecostalism, at least for me, is an eschatological hope.

What Kind of Pentecostalism Are You?

I get that debates about “Pentecostalism” vs “pentecostalism” seem overly academic and beside the point. Yet, recognizing the diversity embedded in what we call “Pentecostalism” can have a real impact on people’s lives.

Many people in Spirit-filled communities can feel like they don’t belong. They identify as Spirit-filled, yet there own experience doesn’t seem to match up with those of their community. They might feel like they don’t shout enough, dance right, tongue-talk enough, or vote right. Truthfully, this experience can be a gut-wrenching crisis of identity. “If these people are Pentecostal… then what am I?”

Well, maybe that community just isn’t your kind of Pentecostalism.

Recognizing that Pentecostalism is not one thing gives us the freedom to ask the more interesting (and more Spirit-oriented) questions like: What kind of Pentecostalism am I? Who is the Spirit leading me to be?

Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.

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Author: Alex Mayfield

Alex is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Mission Studies at Boston University, and he is a minister in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. He is married to an amazing wife who puts up with everything those two facts entail. When he's not reading or writing, he's usually dreaming of eating Chinese food.