Community Organization

Members of the Pentecostal church praising the Lord. Chicago, Illinois.
Members of the Pentecostal church praising the Lord. Chicago, Illinois.
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.


Leadership in the Pentecostal church used to be very simple:  those who exhibited a "call" to the ministry and were led by the Holy Spirit were declared fit for leadership.  As such, early Pentecostalism tended to exhibit more democratic notions of leadership in which women were regularly called to the ministry. Often, they were also the ones who took Pentecostalism overseas as missionaries.  Pentecostal clergy, especially in the formative years (1906-1930s), were not especially well-educated, and it would be rare for any of them to have been seminary-educated. Formalized leadership and the professionalization of the clergy would not come to the movement until the 1960s, when the idea of seminary education began to be seen as a benefit and not as a hindrance to the ministry.

Sociologists have noted the changing role of female clergy in the Pentecostal context, calling it a move from the prophetic to the priestly.  However, as a more routine regimented set of community relationships developed, there were reactions against what have been called the movement's "prophesying daughters."  This story is not new; "disorderly women," or prophetesses, were viewed by some within the early American church as too potent to control, and were therefore relegated to the periphery of colonial church life.  

Pentecostals accomplished much the same thing by suggesting that biblical mandates forbade women to have authority over men; therefore, women had particular roles to play, but could never been seen as exercising power over men.   Where once women were free to function in any ministry, now some were unable to fulfill their call, while others paid a great price to remain true to their call. Leaders such as Aimee Semple McPherson, perhaps the most significant female leader in American Pentecostal history and founder of the Foursquare Church (emphasizing Jesus as Savior, Healer, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and Coming King), went through severe personal hardship, broken marriages, and bouts of depression.  In all probability McPherson self-destructed toward the end of her life because of the rigors of being a woman in what was considered a man's domain.  

Female clergy have made some progress, if one counts the ability to be ordained progress.  But in terms of leading churches, denominations, and seminaries, women have not seen much development.  In fact, in two of the largest representative denominations of the movement-the Church of God in Christ, and the United Pentecostal Church (a Oneness body)-women are not ordained. Where women have made significant strides is in terms of independent ministries, where women like Kathryn Kuhlman (1907-1976) and Joyce Meyer (1943-), and others have sought to bridge the "authority" question by receiving the right to be female leaders largely due to their own spiritual gifts.  However, some women operate as ministers under the cover of their husband's approval.  In Kuhlman's case, the healing evangelist, by some accounts, divorced her husband in order to dedicate herself totally to her ministry, as did at other significant female leaders.  

The other development in Pentecostal leadership is the professionalization of the clergy.  In the first half of the 20th century, the majority of clergy in Pentecostal churches had little or no formal seminary education.  When they did seek some form of theological education, most chose Bible colleges rather than seminaries. This stems from the concern of Pentecostals to train ministers for practical ministry and to get them into the churches quickly.  Seminaries typically require two or three years of study after college.  Professionalization occurred as second- and third-generation Pentecostals began obtaining seminary education outside of the Pentecostal tradition.  Pentecostal ministers, concerned with broadening their education, studied at evangelical seminaries such as Fuller Theological Seminary, and even ventured out of the evangelical world to places like Princeton, Harvard, and universities in Europe.

Why professionalization occurred is a complex question; one basic explanation is the phenomenon by which every generation tends to try to re-work their parents' religious heritage.  From a sociological perspective, the second and third generations of most faiths find some fault in them, thereby demanding reforms and revolts against established norms.  These second- and third-generation Pentecostal clergy, many of whom viewed the Bible college as too elementary for their desire for deeper theological training, found their schooling outside the Pentecostal community to be an eye-opening experience; for many, their faith was scrutinized for the first time. These second- and third-generation pastors sought formal higher education and training because of the need to reform what they often viewed as the rigidity of a very formalized Pentecostal church by the time they attended school in the late 1960 and 70s.  If there is a typical Pentecostal leader today, they most probably are better educated than their predecessor, they may or may not see themselves as clergy, and they have typically broadened the definition of ministry to include education.

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

One area where Pentecostals share much ground with their evangelical colleagues is the emphasis both put on piety.  For Pentecostals, the principle of moral thought with the most theological weight is that which focuses solely on piety or holiness.  What defines moral thought for Pentecostals emanates from the Bible, specifically the work of the apostle Paul-Pentecostals are very Pauline in their outlook on what is moral.  The focus on the role of the Holy Spirit's immediate inspiration is also key to Pentecostal ethics.  Pentecostals tend to believe that a Spirit-filled person will have the Holy Spirit as his or her internal moral compass for making sound moral and ethical decisions.  This has been one reason for the numerous ethical scandals that have plagued Pentecostalism.

Early histories of most Pentecostal denominations show sympathy to pacifist causes.  Frank Bartleman (1871-1935), a promoter of the Azusa Street revival, was a pacifist and fierce critic of capitalist excess, viewing the exploitation of workers and excessive materialism as a sin awaiting the wrath of God.  Bartleman never developed a moral theology to accommodate his politics; he is, in this regard, emblematic of many early Pentecostal ministers whose quasi-populist sentiments found no theological home in early Pentecostalism.  Without theological support for political positions, both the theology and the political positions have changed to suit the circumstances.

Early leaders of the Assemblies of God were deeply conflicted over whether to remain pacifist during World War II, though the denomination was officially pacifist during World War I and many remained pacifist until the Korean War.  As the Assemblies began to move toward a deeper eschatological view of current events, some believed that events such as the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Dust Bowl (1930s) signaled the end of the world.  The Assemblies of God magazine, the Pentecostal Evangel, began running a column around 1916 called the "Passing and the Permanent" that addressed the events of the time within the schema of biblical prophecy.  This reading of history as a spiritual gauge of proximity to the second coming of Jesus did more to alter Pentecostal principles of moral thought and action that any theological instruction.

The piety that has always guided Pentecostal moral theology has not changed over time.  Early Pentecostals remained very closely allied with their Holiness counterparts in being suspicious of anything that smacked of worldliness.  Looking again at the Pentecostal Evangel, it seems that Pentecostals were very much like many of their Protestant kin who abhorred the wide availability of alcohol during Prohibition, and seemed generally troubled by what they saw as the U.S. capitulating to "worldly" temptations.  Throughout the magazine's early run, from 1914-1940, there are countless testimonials of people being healed from drinking and from drug abuse (morphine and other opiates), and generally being delivered from morally vacuous behavior such as too much worldly dancing and other amusements.  

Principles of moral thought and action for Pentecostals have broadened out beyond those that offend their sense of piety, though piety is still the moral agent with the most value.  While some Pentecostals and other evangelicals saw the slow steady accommodation their churches made to popular culture as scandalous (allowing their people to attend movies, sporting events, watching TV, dancing, listening to non-Christian music), nearly all denominations accepted that accommodation as the price of "doing business" with an American culture enthralled with entertainment.

Broadening the idea of moral thought or theology beyond piety has been a difficult thing to accomplish.  Unless there is a specific biblical example demonstrating that the action is acceptable, such as helping widows and orphans, Pentecostals for the most part have not seen the need to expand their moral universe beyond the internal world of people's thoughts and their socially inappropriate behavior.  Of course there are examples of Pentecostal churches that undertake acts of community service, and there are numerous churches that work with parachurch organizations like Habitat for Humanity, raise funds for AIDS awareness, and have thriving outreach works to dispossessed peoples in their communities. These examples, though, often are individually driven, and have not been a part of the larger denomination's vision of moral theology.  Because this has been the case, Pentecostalism, at least in the American context, has not found wide acceptance for stretching morality beyond the borders of perceived sinful behavior.

One of the most significant shifts in Pentecostalism's character since its inception has been its attitude toward money and possessions.  For much of the 20th  century Pentecostals considered "conspicuous consumption" a sin.  Sometime in the 1970s things changed.  Now most Pentecostals think of financial prosperity as God's blessing.  Along with that has come a definite dampening of revival fires among Pentecostals and especially singing and preaching about heaven.

Vision for Society

One of the best summaries of what Pentecostals want for society is quite simply that they want everyone to become Pentecostal, or at least Christian, though they recognize that the pluralism that surrounds them is not likely to go away. What Pentecostals want is to "win the world for Jesus," as it were, "one person at a time." This has been called the "personal influence strategy," where Pentecostals believe they will slowly re-make the world and bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth by incrementally adding to the number of people who become Christians, change their lives, live like Christ, and revolutionalize society.   For Pentecostals, the global growth of the movement is itself validation that their strategy is working.  

For other Pentecostals, who have decided to incorporate other visions, their method for transforming society is not overt evangelism, but rather working outside the confines of many of their denominations.  These Pentecostals tend to be of a more progressive political bent, with greater interest in things such as pacifism, social justice, and other progressive causes, and they have often had to move beyond their denominations.  For groups such as the Latino Leadership Circle (LLC) and the Pentecostals/Charismatics for Peace and Justice (PCPJ), their very young histories (both were founded less than ten years ago) says much about how strong the personal influence strategy remains within Pentecostalism.  One might ask why this is:  Why is this vision for society so individualistic?  Or is it?  One might also ask of these two progressive Pentecostal parachurch ministries how close they are to broadening that vision?

Pentecostal visions of society are rooted in particular theological views, and the dominant stream among most Pentecostals, historically and today, has been the views that favor evangelism.  Since Pentecostalism was born as an eschatological movement, the remnants of that theology tend to lead one to try to bring about a vision for society focused on salvation rather than social engagement. Alternative Pentecostal visions of society, such as the social justice and education emphasis of the LLC, operate best outside the confines of denominations, since the goal of most churches in those denominations is evangelism, not social justice; these groups coalesce around mutually agreed upon goals, share a sense of Pentecostal heritage and a reformist impulse.

Former and current Pentecostals, upset over the lack of a focused social justice agenda in Pentecostalism, formed the LLC in 2004. Viewing itself as a political as well as spiritual organization, the LLC is unique because it is one of very few Latino/a Pentecostal organizations that exist outside the confines of a denomination.  Not bound by a particular set of beliefs, the LLC operates as an advocacy group for issues important to the Latino/a community.  Because the desire of the organization is to value both its faith tradition and the ethnicity of its membership, the LLC is one of very few entities, other than the historic black Pentecostal churches, that emphasize racial/ethnic identity as something that requires acknowledgment.  

Historically and today, Pentecostals have desired to erase the idea of racial and ethnic identity as being important in the life of a believer, using the oft-quoted Pauline dictum of being "neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:38) to dissuade people from making their identity divisive issue in church life.  The irony here is that racial and ethnic divisions are what often drive groups like the LLC to form outside of the denominations, whereas many mainstream Pentecostals do not see a rationale for such groups to exist in church settings unless they are explicitly for the purpose of bridging language barriers and preaching the Gospel more effectively.  LLC exists so that the other issues beyond evangelism can be addressed; it, and other organizations like it, helps fill that vacuum that exists in Pentecostalism regarding a broad vision for a (multicultural) society.

The PCPJ formed in 2001 as a response to the lack of effective advocacy of progressive political agendas emanating from most Pentecostal and charismatic denominations.  The relative newness of this organization is not an indication that these pacifist and social justice elements have absent from Pentecostalism since its inception; these elements have  been present, but there have not been sustained articulations of this agenda in an organized way outside of particular denominations' own commitments to not serving in wartime.  

For example, a small Oneness denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ, has a statement squarely in line with the PCPJ's position on bearing arms (for the most part they are against this). The Pentecostal Assemblies, though, does not adopt the anti-militaristic strains of the PCPJ.  The Pentecostal Assemblies does not believe that conscientious objectors who have contempt for the laws by protesting or being "disloyal" are following the right course. Their articles of faith state: "The church has no more place for cowards than has the nations."  Also, the Pentecostal Assemblies has something that the PCPJ does not have-a strong sense of its Holiness mandate that it still maintains in its articles of faith.  The PCPJ's mission and purpose statement do not have anything to say about personal holiness issues, but rather view that sense of piety as playing out externally in terms of ethical behavior toward others, especially in matters of social justice.  It may be the case that if the PCPJ were a denomination, or a church, it would inevitably have to codify its sense of piety in terms that would be more traditional and possibly more acceptable to the broader Pentecostal community.  

The distinction here is crucial in how Pentecostals form their vision of society, for there is no such thing as a single vision, but multiple visions that are influenced by one's social and cultural stations in life.  Like the LLC, the PCPJ has had to go outside of its established church and denominational settings to create a different vision of society because the Pentecostal establishment still adheres largely to the "personal influence strategy" where evangelism, conversion, and The Christian life seem to be the vision for a society free of conflict and hatred, and where proclaiming reconciliation and forgiveness is the summation of Christian virtues. 

Gender and Sexuality

Pentecostals, like most other conservative Christians, have very traditional views on both gender and sexuality, taking their cues from particular views of certain biblical passages.  Regarding gender, Pentecostals try to mirror what they view as traditional family values.  As such, women's roles in Pentecostalism are tightly conscripted to the home and church.  Nontraditional roles for women, in the professions or as entrepreneurs, are not discouraged, but they are secondary to a woman's primary role as helpmates to men.  Of course this view has its dissenters; women have leadership roles, for example as superintendents in the Foursquare church, and there are prominent women educators in Pentecostal colleges, seminaries, and universities.  Male gender roles are also tightly conscripted; men are viewed as leaders, providers, and spiritual heads of the household.

Pentecostal men and women generally have certain assumptions about their respective roles in the home; both understand what is expected of them, and as such, things once considered taboo, such as divorce, are still discouraged. Marriage then is extremely important for shoring up these gender roles.  Taking much of their ethos about marriage, and the church's role in securing good marriages, Pentecostals regularly offer counseling, invite speakers, and hold conferences around the subject of marriage.  Not only is marriage viewed as the most desired outcome of any courtship between men and women, but children are an expectation of any union.  

Intertwined in this thinking about gender, and particularly gender roles, is the idea that gender is a physical attribute that is God-given.  Sexuality is a gift from God to be enjoyed within the confines of marriage, chiefly for the purpose of procreation.  Though such strictures may appear quaint in the contemporary world, great care has been taken to ensure that these same theologically inspired notions do not, like many other traditional mores, become lost in the relativism many Pentecostals believe rules the day.

Pentecostal women have a number of conflicting issues to navigate.  Traditionalists view their roles as helpmates-typically as housewives-as a standard that is biblical.  They also have much at stake in maintaining their position as complementing men.  As such, when traditionalist women, such as noted televangelist Joyce Meyer, decides to become an evangelist and overshadows the ministerial work of her husband, it is Meyer that has to explain this break with tradition. Meyer explains that her husband has blessed her work and allows her to do her ministry work despite the fact that it keeps her away from the traditional role within the household.  Without the explicit approval of her husband, Meyer's validity as a Christian role model for women would not be as strong.  As such, Meyer has spoken about many incidents in her life that authenticate her ability to speak to women; she has spoken about her abusive past and her difficulties with men stemming from that abuse.  Other Pentecostal women have not had husbands who supported their work, and they have had to take the serious step of divorce to continue their ministries.

Probably the most well-known woman in Pentecostal history is Aimee Semple McPherson.  She was widowed once and twice divorced (both divorces, in 1921 and 1931,were at times when divorce was not generally accepted in the general population, and certainly not accepted in the Pentecostal church).  What made McPherson different and in many ways a role model for women in ministry today was her non-traditional gender role buried deeply within a very traditional theological outlook.  McPherson's personal issues with men (divorcing two of them because they would not support her ministry), and her purported affair with a Foursquare employee, made for messy tabloid fare, but significantly these "scandals"  did not affect her pursuit of ministry.  This may be because McPherson did not take her personal difficulties with her into the pulpit; she did not, for instance, make a case that divorce was acceptable, but instead she supported very popular causes such as being against evolution and speaking out against communism.  Added to the mix is the fact that McPherson was an exceptional popularizer of Pentecostalism, with a gift for healing that overcame whatever misgivings her congregation at Angelus Temple may have had about her personal life.  Such an example illustrates the way that scandal can be overcome if the participant in it remains steadfast to popular political stances, particularly if the church community believes that the Holy Spirit had not abandoned the person despite perceived transgressions.

Sexuality and Pentecostalism, particularly homosexuality, has proved to be an intractable issue that has divided churches and families, and has been the underlying cause of some of the more pronounced splits in Pentecostalism.  As in many segments of society, in Pentecostal circles homosexuality is not discussed unless it needs to be.  Pentecostalism, though, has had its share of "scandals" stemming from this issue. The most notable from the formative years of the movement was the suggestion that Charles F. Parham had been "detained" on morals charges in 1907 in Texas.  While this is event is sketchy, the story had some resonance beyond 1907, with further explanation that this was probably a case of homosexual behavior.  For this and other reasons Parham's influence waned in the Pentecostal movement.  That Pentecostals today still do not agree on this historical event, and many historians feel constrained in even mentioning that the charge was most probably sodomy, says much about the difficult climate homosexuals have in Pentecostal circles.
Because of the strong condemnation of homosexuality within most Pentecostal circles, gay and lesbian leaders within the movement have nearly always had to hide their sexual orientation. Such is the case of one of the better-known figures of the Jesus Movement. Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie evangelist with the Jesus Movement during the 1960s, was one of the most effective in the new movement's attempts to reach into the 60s counterculture.  Frisbee was an evangelist on staff at Calvary Chapel (a Jesus Movement church founded by Chuck Smith in 1965), and eventually left to join the Vineyard movement in the 1970s.  He traveled with Vineyard founder John Wimber around the world, and experiences of healing, Spirit baptism, and other supernatural occurrences were trumpeted as part of Frisbee's unique mix of evangelical preaching and Pentecostal experience.  Frisbee was fired from Wimber's staff when he admitted his homosexuality and eventually left the church entirely. He was eulogized by Chuck Smith as a "Samson" like figure who unfortunately gave in to too many temptations in his life. Not only did these comments not help matters, they signaled to many that the only way Frisbee would ever be allowed to be a minister was to hide his sexuality.