Lately I’ve been with Pentecostals–listening to and interacting with a well-known Pentecostal theologian among Pentecostal students and professors at a major Pentecostal institution of higher learning. These are all very well educated, thoughtful people who do not fit most people’s stereotypes of Pentecostalism.
I grew up in the “thick” of the classical (trinitarian) Pentecostal movement; my father was a Pentecostal minister for over 50 years and my uncle was president of a Pentecostal denomination for 25 years. Many of my aunts and uncles were Pentecostal missionaries and pastors. I wrote my first research paper (in high school) on Pentecostalism and have kept up a lively interest in the movement ever since. I have read all the major books on it and done some writing about it myself.
But I reluctantly left Pentecostalism immediately after graduating from seminary. Way back then–in the 1970s–many Pentecostals were not open to their young people seeking higher education. When I pursued a Ph.D. in religious studies at a major research university my denomination, which was like my extended family, shunned me. My interests in theology and pursuit of scholarship was deemed a waste of time and certain to destroy my faith. So, I did the only thing I knew to do–join a Baptist church. (My seminary degree was from a Baptist seminary.)
Way back then there were some rumblings in some major Pentecostal denominations–rumblings of discontent about traditional habits and doctrines such as anti-intellectualism and speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” I began to question that doctrine, distinctive to Pentecostalism, while still a Pentecostal. During my seminary education I finally concluded it is not biblical–as a test of fellowship. To me, this doctrine should be considered an opinion rather than a doctrine. I agree with Clark Pinnock who said that speaking in tongues is normal but not the norm.
The Pentecostals I’ve been with lately are not the Pentecostals of my youth. Well, at least not all of them. They still adhere to classical Pentecostal doctrines and practices, but it seems to me these have become largely what I earlier called “shelf doctrines.” They are not very different from their more mainline or traditional evangelical counterparts. Yet, I applaud their determination to somehow or other hold onto their distinctive witness about the Holy Spirit. I suspect that IF “this Pentecostalism” had been around when I was in my twenties I could have remained Pentecostal.
These Pentecostals are widely read in biblical and theological studies, immersed in the latest trends in missiology, even leading the way in some areas of theological reflection such as the Holy Spirit and world religions. I am impressed by Amos Yong, perhaps THE leading Pentecostal theologian today.
What does this tell all of us? A lesson I continue to learn is not to rely on religious stereotypes; people rarely live up (or down) to them. Perhaps we should swear off speaking about religious groups and movements until and unless we have spent some quality time among them–what my students call “face time.” It’s one thing to read ABOUT the “other.” It’s another thing to actually READ the “other.” It’s still another thing to actually TALK WITH (not at) the “other.