Pentecost mosaic

Some time ago, one of the founders of this site, Joel Daniels, pitched to me the concept of Engaged Pentecostalism, a community blog wherein members could share their unique experiences engaging their Pentecostal faith in a rapidly changing world. My gut-level initial response was simply, “I don’t think I qualify.”

To be honest, I struggle with identifying as Pentecostal*. Even though I have been raised in one particular Pentecostal denomination since I was in diapers, even my Methodist grandmother started speaking in tongues at a Billy Graham crusade in the 1970’s, I was “baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues” at youth camp when I was 13, and my husband and I have been – and currently are – serving over a decade in full-time youth ministry in churches of that same Pentecostal denomination, the label is still a mental hurdle for me.

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Google’s dictionary definition isn’t entirely problematic, though my history in the church has taught me a lot of theological baggage that goes along with these terms. Keep going down the search results, and we run into a lot more of that “baggage” that I’m not willing to cart around on my faith journey. While each of our editors and contributors could probably write a post on what being Pentecostal means to her or him, part of the purpose of Engaged Pentecostalism is to help each of us unlearn the junk and unpack the truth of what it means to live in light of the miracle of Pentecost in that first upper room.

Pentecostalism is a movement born from an egalitarian community, even from the very beginning. The earliest believers in Jesus’ message were mostly the marginalized: women, slaves, the poor, lepers and other outcasts, Samaritans (the contemporary equivalent of ethnic minorities), widows, the lonely and forgotten. Who else would be so eager for a gospel of hope and redemption? While we don’t have a roster of those present on the Day of Pentecost, given the diversity of those first believers, we should faithfully assume the first recipients of the Holy Spirit represented both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, etc. In addition, the prophetic voice of scripture has always been on behalf of the poor and marginalized, proclaiming freedom for the imprisoned, justice for the oppressed, and belonging for the orphaned and outcast. It is inherently a social justice mission, one compelled by the miracle of Pentecost, when the believers were empowered to share Jesus’ message of inclusion and redemption for all (Acts 1:8, 2:39).

Modern Pentecostalism – the early 20th century version, anyway – was faithful to that diverse history when it began. The first modern person known speak in tongues was a young woman in 1901; the leader of the 1906 Azuza Street Revival – most often cited as the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement – was an African American preacher; emphasis on Holy Spirit authority allowed many poor and uneducated preachers a platform, especially in Southern Appalachia where my own denomination was founded in 1886.

Today, the first results on my Google search do not equate Pentecostalism with radical inclusion and prophetic justice. There are results about glossalalia (speaking in tongues) and healing, but others describe theological fundamentalism, subjugating women’s bodies, and effectively controlling behavior as a means to morality. (Many famous names identified as Pentecostals are also associated with prosperity teaching, though that logical jump to equate the two may or may not be true for most people.) Maybe this is what Pentecostalism means in SEO metrics, maybe even in practical application for some familiar with the tradition, but does that mean the label should be rejected by those for whom all these ideas do not hold true?

“Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Just like any dynamic movement – even the first century church – Pentecostalism has changed over the last century as it grew in number and prominence. Some of those changes were necessary and beneficial, others may have led adherents away from the fundamental principals of freedom and empowerment. Even so, identifying with the spirit of Pentecost does not require being handcuffed to any set of unnecessary doctrines, traditions, or stereotypes perpetuated by over a hundred years of organizational drama. The Holy Spirit came upon the believers in Jerusalem that day, empowering them with miraculous gifts to reach and teach outsiders about Jesus. They were emboldened to preach the Gospel in the face of persecution, and they were inspired to live in such radical community to share everything with anyone in need.

I am Pentecostal because I believe in the active, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church today. My life is purposed for and propelled by the desire to share hope and love with the marginalized, hurting, lonely, and forgotten. My Pentecostalism invites everyone to the table – even to lead – regardless of the labels that had previously been used to ostracize them. For me, being Pentecostal means working for justice, dismantling systems of oppression, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, and forsaking my own interests for someone in need. My church’s music is loud and our worshippers are often louder, and that’s a little bit of Pentecostal for me too, but there is so much more. If you’re wrestling for yourself with what it means to be Pentecostal, or if you’re not part of the tradition but are seeking a fuller understanding, don’t get bogged down by a particular experience, church, or denomination. Life in the Spirit is about freedom – from sin, from spiritual bondage, and even (especially?) from religion.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30, The Message

*While Engaged Pentecostalism seeks to share the perspectives of Pentecostals across the globe, for the sake of clarity and time, this particular post only discusses American Pentecostalism. The rapid and widespread growth of Pentecostalism in other parts of the world is, in many ways, very different from the American experience and deserves to be explored in dedicated posts.


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: Mary Beth Unthank

Mary Beth is a stay-at-home mom to four wildly wonderful children, and she serves with her husband as middle school pastors in their hometown of Knoxville, TN. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Maryville College and over a decade of ministry experience. In her abundance of free time, she enjoys scrolling through Facebook, using the bathroom alone, and folding clothes that will never be put away.

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[…] of the Spirit in her religious journey from Pentecostal churches to the Presbyterian Church, and Mary Beth Unthank described what she believes is the heart of Pentecostalism: “Pentecostal means working for […]