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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Community Organization

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Historically, Pentecostals have viewed their community involvement and organization as being closely related to their church activities.  Heeding the biblical command to be "salt and light," Pentecostals have believed that their very presence in the community improved the area.  Since the chief reason for being in any community was evangelism, community involvement was often limited to door-to-door witnessing.  Churches held events and invited their neighbors as a way to introduce them to church in the hope of converting them.  

Other churches, particularly those tied to the historic black church, such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), engage their communities on a different level.  COGIC churches, probably more than others, seek to preserve their social mission to the community by being visible as a resource.  There are many Pentecostal churches that offer more than religious services to their communities; such services usually take the form of informal networks or small "compassion" ministries like food pantries.  

Some Pentecostal networks, especially those associated with the charismatic movement, have historically attempted to re-formulate notions of community along the lines of living in intentional communities. Such attempts continue today. One example is that of the larger charismatic Jesus Movement of the 1960s.  This movement, propelled by a post-war youth movement dissatisfied with denominationalism and perceived theological legalism, was a charismatic-evangelical hybrid, stressing informality and freedom in worship, and an overt-co-opting of popular culture to "sell" itself.  

Part of this countercultural ethos was associated with the prevailing cultural currency in intentional communities.  The Jesus People, U.S.A in Chicago (JPUSA) began as a charismatic conglomeration of like-minded followers attempting to carve out a piece of communal living on the North Side of Chicago in the 1970s.  Other intentional communities, born out of the Jesus People movement and that stress Pentecostal practice include the Jesus Army in Great Britain.

Generally, however, Pentecostals organize in much more traditional structures, like denominations and parachurch organizations.  Within these there are varieties of polity.  Most Pentecostal denominations are either congregational or episcopal in their structure.  Some denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, stress local autonomy of churches and allow local districts to elect superintendents who oversee a certain number of churches.  Other, such as the Church of God in Christ, are episcopal in structure and therefore elect bishops and hold centralized authority at their headquarters in Memphis, where final decisions regarding leadership are made.  There are Pentecostal parachurch organizations, many of which have some loose affiliation with denominations, but operate largely on their own.  One such organization is the missions group Youth with a Mission (YWAM), founded by Loren Cunningham in 1960.  YWAM is based on a vision Cunningham received to found a missions organization for young people.  It is an interdenominational organization heavily influenced by charismatic practices such as prophecy and healing.  

The Pentecostal movement began with a desire to be intentionally non-denominational and unaffiliated.  Early leaders such as William Durham refused the idea that his church in Chicago would be affiliated with any denomination, and even today the Assemblies of God in its official literature calls itself a fellowship, not a denomination.  This anti-denominational ethos stems from a basic aversion to organized forms of religion, many of which are viewed as "dead formalism" or "Spirit-quenching."  This anti-denominational sentiment would ebb and flow within Pentecostal history, one of its peaks being the 1940s and 50s. After nearly four decades of organization and consolidation, Pentecostal denominations had begun to institutionalize to the point where leaders such as William Branham and A.A. Allen, both figures in the Latter Rain movement, began in response to denounce the very idea of denominations as demonic-inspired activity meant to shut down the move of the Spirit.  
The first large break-away movements thus began in the 1950s, and when those movements began to move again toward what some saw as stultifying routine in the late 1960s and 70s, the Jesus People Movement sought to reshape the idea of polity and organization in Pentecostalism. Another significant factor in the continued fracturing of Pentecostal organizations and structures was the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s, which took place in both Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations.  This movement created space in previously non-charismatic churches for Pentecostal-style worship while they maintained their own commitments to their theological roots.  This is important, since when classical Pentecostal churches lost the mantle of being the only churches that practiced speaking in tongues, praying for healing, and raising hands in worship, it became harder and harder to define what a Pentecostal was and how to tell one church from another.

 
     
     
     
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