It is interesting to me that Pentecostal churches today are hard to differentiate from many others in the broader Evangelical tradition. Of course, salvation through Christ is our unifying cornerstone belief, but what position is actually held today regarding the role of the Holy Spirit? Many leaders I speak to revel more than ever before in His empowering and refreshing work in their churches, but remain uncommitted to the bedrock practice of Spirit baptism and evidential tongues that once more clearly demarcated Pentecostals. Some recent findings bear this out.
An unpublished survey of a hundred Pentecostal ministers from traditional Pentecostal churches in Australia saw ninety respond to the question of whether being Pentecostal required Spirit baptism with the evidence of speaking in tongues. Almost every pastor with more than fifteen years’ credentialed experience agreed that it did. The figure was nine out of ten for those with less than fifteen years’ experience. When questioned as to whether a Pentecostal minister believed that being Pentecostal was essential for effective ministry, four out of five of the experienced pastors agreed. This figure then dropped to just two in three for those with fewer than fifteen years of credentialed experience.
It was when pressing the convictions for strong agreement that the trends became more interesting. Strong agreement in Pentecostals identifying with a Spirit baptism accompanied by speaking in tongues was found in only two in three ministers with more than fifteen years of credentialed experience, a figure that plummeted to little more than a third for those pastors with less. Although only two thirds of more experienced ministers strongly agreed that being a Pentecostal is necessary for effective ministry, this was true for fewer than one third of those holding a credential for under fifteen years.
Does this not highlight an identity crisis?!
There appears today to be a clear shift away from the convictions that not only saw Pentecostalism evolve as a unique Protestant tradition a little more than a century ago, but one that only recently finally began shaping the character of much of Protestantism in its move toward a middle-ground of belief and practice. So, do Pentecostals now simply value their heritage, celebrate their greater acceptance, and just move on?
Many would believe that such change in belief is self-evident, even necessary, that there is nothing to be recaptured. Many also identify experientially with Pentecostal spirituality, despite remaining happy to have a non-committal or alternative theology in regard to its foundational elements.
The ‘third wave’ tradition that has emerged in Vineyard, Bethel and other movements has linked Spirit Baptism to the moment of salvation, thus denying the subsequent crisis experience emphasised by classical movements, those ‘first wavers’ who emerged in the early twentieth century.
Some have readily embraced this as an ecumenically-helpful approach that avoids distracting doctrinal conflicts and the seeming awkwardness or elitism of tongues and other gifts of the Spirit. Certainly a move toward greater inter-denominational unity is positive, but it is also often more relational than theological. Maturity may well allow charitable approaches to difference, but do enough people engage in protracted healthy debate to test and strengthen the fabric of that unity? I sadly think not.
Do Pentecostals, then, re-affirm or re-express? I believe the answer comes down to what we really believe and whether we are really interested in wrestling for precision as opposed to shoring up a predetermined or preferred position. Pentecostalism in Australia is at the crossroads if numerous congregations are no longer prioritising the very practices that brought them into existence.
The real question for Pentecostal movements today is how much this issue matters to them and what they will do about it. This predicament is surely a crucial one for denominations interested in synergising their missional efforts. Very few, though, find it easy or necessary to specifically and regularly transmit their doctrinal beliefs; culture is often shaped at a local church level within community-based experiences.
Until this problem is addressed, one that is at the very heart of a shared commitment to an interdependent building of kingdom momentum, pragmatism will (rightly or wrongly) continue to win the day in directing the enterprises and relationships of churches and individuals.