It’s Tough being Pentecostal!
By Garry E. Milley
I grew up among the Newfoundland Pentecostals. That tells you a lot about me! I was raised in a pastor’s home and cut my teeth on the back of a pew when it wasn’t popular to be a Pentecostal. Pentecostalism now numbers close to one half a billion world wide—half the size of Roman Catholicism in one tenth of the time! The bulk of the growth is in Asia, Africa and South America. I lived through the transition from persecution to popularity, poverty to prosperity. We are celebrating what the early Pentecostals could only dream about. However, we are our own worst enemies here in North America.
It seems that no one knows about us here until some TV evangelist gets his fingers caught in the cookie jar or we are publicly embarrassed by media exposé of secret goings-on inside Pentecostal institutions. I do not want to be defined by the worst among us but, as they say, we can select our friends but we are stuck with our relatives. For better or for worse I am a Pentecostal.
But, preachers who blow people down, promise miracles for money, or who encourage strange behavior as proof of God’s work, embarrass me. I tire of being tyrannized by every religious fad. I am sick of the thin theological gruel dished out by the religious media. I want to be loyal to my roots without being blind to past errors. I oscillate between recovering the original vision and transcending traditionalism. I want the revival to mature as an expression of historic Christianity and not fossilize as a monument to the past.
I want to be positive about what is going on in the broader Christian world without being gullible and I want to offer advice on questionable issues without being merely opinionated. I, too, am a pilgrim in search of a city. I don’t have all the answers. But I’m fearful of remaining silent when something needs to be said. It’s tough being a balanced, sympathetic but self-critical Pentecostal.
Modern Pentecostal Fads
Popular piety left unchecked often results in distortions of the faith, which become so ingrained they are accepted as orthodoxy. An entire generation of Pentecostals has been sold a popular distortion of the Christian faith. Distortions of the faith that have become the new orthodoxy in some quarters include the following ideas:
• You are a hurting individual, inherently good, and deserving of all you desire. Everything is yours and you can have it all. Financial adversity and suffering are never God’s will.
• The Bible is a book of secret health laws and success formulas made known only to certain select teachers. Get their tapes and books to discover the secrets.
• Your problems are the results of inherited demons from your ancestors. Your sins are not your fault.
• Tradition smashing and denomination bashing are signs of openness to the moving of the Spirit.
• Anti-intellectualism is a virtue. Accept all new things. They may be fresh manifestations of revival. If you ask questions you might miss God’s best.
In contrast to these recent distortions of the faith, early Pentecostals had much more in common with the broader Christian tradition. Early Pentecostals emphasized the following themes, which are deeply rooted in the historic Christian tradition:
• Sin reigns deep in the human heart and we stand in the need of God’s mercy that is graciously offered to the penitent in Jesus Christ. Be humble and grateful.
• Daily we are called to spiritual battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. We will lose some and win some but all our victories are Christ’s victories. Give God all the praise.
• As sinners saved by grace we are constantly dependent upon Christ. Be faithful in prayer and obedience.
• We are pilgrims on this earth. Live simply and don’t get too attached to this world.
• The Bible is a lamp and a light, a chart and a compass. Judge everything by the God’s Word and stay true to the faith.
Call to Maturity
These two positions – 1) modern Pentecostal theological fads, and 2) authentic, historic Christian beliefs – are not the same, nor are they equally acceptable. Theology may be a matter of emphasis but the truth lies closer to those beliefs held by early Pentecostals. I resist the ideology of pluralism that argues that all viewpoints are equally acceptable. This effectively leaves no room at all for dialogue or improvement. If we accept this ideology of pluralism and relativism, we can never question bad preaching, shallow worship, inadequate scholarship, misguided counseling or anything else. Growing up is often painful but necessary. We must not stay in theological adolescence when God calls us to maturity.
Originally published in Good Tidings, March-April 2009. Posted with permission.
Dr. Garry E. Milley is Senior Pastor of Park Avenue Pentecostal Church in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, and is a member of the General Executive Committee of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: email@example.com