Pentecostal: What’s That?

“Pentecostal.” What in the world does that word mean?

The general, street-level understanding of “Pentecostal” can mean anything from toothless Appalachian snake-handlers to traditional Evangelicals with energetic worship music in their Sunday services. Vipers to verve–that’s a broad spectrum.

One thing for sure, hardly anyone seems to know what the word means anymore–not even many who wear the label themselves.

I’m going to quickly pare down the range of possibilities by eliminating the non-Classical groups such as the snake-handlers (herpetological Pentecostals?) and other fringe groups; let’s focus on those with orthodox, Evangelical commitments at their core.

A common answer to this question is that a Pentecostal is an Evangelical who speaks in tongues. That Pentecostals believe in tongue speaking there is no doubt; but what else really distinguishes us from our Godly, Evangelical brothers? In fact is the distinction really necessary at all?

The possibility of the distinction being merely theological has rapidly diminished over the last decade as the number of functional cessationists begins to near extinction; even Dallas Seminary admits those who speak in tongues now–a tremendously gracious and brotherly move on their part. But is the difference really just tongues? If so, the popular Campolo book, “How to Be Pentecostal Without Speaking in Tongues” should be canonized or at least apocratized (made that word up myself).

I don’t believe that theology alone is the main factor that defines “Pentecostal.” I believe another factor is mostly to blame; the IMPLEMENTATION of our faith is the key difference–the practical, not the theoretical. How we “do” our faith is significantly different. Our desire to experience colors every practice of our Christianity because only knowing is not enough for us. We don’t want to be able to just talk with or about God; we want to dance with Him!

I am not to saying that our Evangelical brothers are less spiritual or less Christian or less anything; I do not believe that. I simply mean that we approach our faith with a different set of expectations, so therefore, our reference points are different.

Let’s look at a couple of areas of practical contrast. Our worship involves our mind, body and spirit. Even the starchiest Pentecostal denominational executive can’t help but to sway to the music of the Teen Challenge Choir–even if the sway is off-beat. Pentecostals don’t view physical responses to their faith as shameful or negative. In fact, to some, the more gymnastic the response the better!

How about our style of prayer? Corporate concerts of prayer consisting of believers of all levels of maturity raising their physical voices to their Father; not one qualified leader prayer while other listen, but the sound of many voices at once. Some stand, some sit, some kneel, some bury their faces in the carpet while others pace the floor and wave their hands; yet all unconcerned about the breaking of protocol. Everyone wants to get in on the action.

Even the idea of testimony follows this line. Again, experience and interraction are central to the Pentecostal worldview. How about the miraculous? That’s our favorite dish! We read biblical accounts of miracles and then step out and believe God for the same thing to happen today. We take very literally the promised of divine intervention and get alarmed when we haven’t experienced that intervention recently.

I once heard Dr. Gordon Anderson, president of North Central University in Minneapolis, say that Pentecostals believe in a “very present God;” that’s well said. We desire and expect Him to be active in our daily lives, but especially in our times of corporate worship.

This little post certainly cannot fully define what the word means–so I need your help.

What does “Pentecostal” mean to you?

I’d love to hear from you.

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