Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Conviction Versus Tradition or "Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?"

The Azusa Street mission, birthplace of modern Pentecostalism

What do we do when our convictions stand in opposition to our tradition, or are at least sidelined by it?

Do we cut and run? Or do we stay, and speak truth to the power of that tradition, in hopes that we might work towards its redemption?


I come from the tradition of Pentecostalism. If you didn't know this about me, and perhaps especially if this blog is the only interaction you've ever had with me, this might have come as somewhat of a surprise. You could say that I am somewhat atypical in the wide world of Pentecostals. I'll be honest, I've struggled greatly with what it means to be a part of this tradition, but there are some voices out there (Like Jonathan Martin, the pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlottes, who penned this post about being an ecumenical pentecostal last week that was like salve on an open wound) that give me a glimmer of hope.

Now, lots of people are downright freaked out by Pentecostalism, or perhaps more accurately, of Pentecostals.

I get that.

We can be weird.

But don't let that scare you away. I promise I'm astonishingly ordinary (and honestly so are most Pentecostals), so stick with me here.


The sorts of expressions of Divine experience that those outside of Pentecostalism probably see as somewhat unorthodox were the mainstays of my religious upbringing. Tremors, "falling out" under the power of the Spirit, holy laughter (probably my personal favorite), and of course, the mother of all of them, that which we are perhaps most (in?)famous for: speaking in tongues.

For many Pentecostals, speaking in tongues, or "receiving your prayer language" as some called it, is billed as the culmination of all religious experience. In my denomination specifically, our doctrinal beliefs clearly stated that if you did not speak in tongues, you were not filled with the Holy Spirit. (This would be the sticking point that led me to walk away from the ordination process in the denomination, but that's another story for another time.) You can imagine how setting up being filled with the Holy Spirit as the quintessential religious experience, and how using a particular manifestation of that experience as a discriminator could create some undue pressure on Pentecostals to seek out that particular manifestation.

So we had revival and renewal services. We had prayer meetings where the sole purpose was seeking this particular gift. For some reason though, even as a kid, something about the whole dynamic didn't feel right. I'm not even really sure what my thought process was, but it just wasn't something that I ever sought out. I suppose I thought that if I was going to have some experience of the Holy Spirit, I wanted it to be on terms that She and I dictated, rather than some weird church peer pressure.


A friend of mine used to joke that history in the US started with WWII, and that everything that came before was some kind of hazy, mythical pre-history period. The lessons in church history that I got from the denomination about our church's history were no different. All of the history lessons began with Pentecostalism already having been subsumed into the great grey haze of homogenization that was post-war Evangelicalism.

But wouldn't you know it, that wasn't the whole story.

It turns out Pentecostalism, perhaps like many other religious movements, was fairly radical at the outset and cooled over time. Early Pentecostals were inclusive, they flagrantly disregarded racial and gender boundaries, rejected hierarchy and spoke out against economic inequality in their communities. They were proponents of nonviolence. Considering the context (the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries) within which the movement emerged, these folks were revolutionaries.

See, bad eschatology and unorthodox expressions of Divine experience aside, Pentecostalism, then and now, can be reduced to a fairly simple proposition: the Holy Spirit, the immanent presence of the Creator here on earth, is the key to Christian unity. Now that simple proposition may seem to have gotten lost is a sea of self-seeking emotionalism in today's Pentecostalism, but those early radicals knew that justice was the natural extension of this unity. The institution of modern Pentecostalism has lost sight of it, but justice is in our blood.

I can't help but feel like there's something worth holding on to there.


Now don't get me wrong, there have been many times where I've just been ready to walk away, to drop it all, and to forget it. For some reason, I've never been able to go all the way, though. Maybe that makes me a coward, or an intellectual lightweight, or whatever but always, as I'm ready to throw in the towel, the same thought finds its way to the forefront of my mind:

But Jesus...
But justice...

See, I may see a lot of things differently from the way many Pentecostals do. Hell, I see things differently that probably most Christians do, but I still believe that the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost, is the gift of presence that was meant to unite the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, and that work continues in the world today.  I still believe that the sort of blind justice, solidarity and shared life that those early Pentecostals displayed is exactly the sort of eschatological unity Jesus had in mind when he talked about the Kingdom of God. And while I've never had the kind of quintessential experience of Pentecost that would make me an official card-carrying member of the club, I feel like I have been given a prayer language, and it is the language of justice, of comfort for those who mourn, of good news for the poor and of freedom for the oppressed.

Maybe that makes me "just" a "small p" pentecostal. Maybe it makes me an odd anachronism in a tradition that has moved on.  But there is a tradition worth redeeming here, that much I know. So I'll stay, as long as they'll have me. I'll sing the songs of justice of those early radicals and hope that maybe just a few might join the chorus.

What about you? Do you now find yourself or have you in the past sat in the tension that comes from your convictions being at odds with your tradition? Do you think that some traditions are beyond saving, or that they all can turn around? Practically speaking, how do you think we can speak out from within our own traditions to lovingly prod them back toward those first principles? Let me know what you think in the comments.


  1. This - >

    "You can imagine how setting up being filled with the Holy Spirit as the quintessential religious experience, and how using a particular manifestation of that experience as a discriminator could create some undue pressure on Pentecostals to seek out that particular manifestation."

    I get that. My background is largely Baptist but as a kid (10 or 11) I attended a Pentacostalish church for a bit and that's where I actually first "accepted Jesus into my heart". They had a great children's ministry and a children's pastor and worship service outside of the big sanctuary. I clearly remember, even as a 10 year old without Baptist indoctrination yet, noticing that a lot of those kids were flat-out faking it when they spoke in tongues. And I sort of wanted to fake it too, but I was too chicken.

    Then I became a Baptist where the Evangelists told us supposedly first-hand accounts of casting demons out of Pentecostal preachers and their power of "prayer languages" vanishing with it.

    I have no idea where the truth is between these two extremes at this point.

    As far as speaking out from within our own traditions to lovingly prod them back toward those first principles? No advice. Went down terribly when we attempted it from within the Baptist denomination.

    1. "Pentecostalish" I know just the type. :) They're the churches that are Pentecostal, but only on Sunday nights, and they don't advertise it on the sign because they don't want to scare anybody away.

      Yeah, I'm not sure where that hostility between Baptists and Pentecostals comes from, but I've heard the same sorts of stories, like Baptist preachers saying that someone spoke in tongues, and it was actually a language and the person was really saying, "Hail Satan!" or something like that. I mean, come on, bro. You want me to believe that the HS doesn't inspire people to speak in tongues, but apparently Satan does? I'm catching some mixed signals here. :D

  2. i soooooo love your honestly and willingness to share your POV! having come from a similar background i know first hand the 'tension' that comes from exploration of other thoughts / ideas / theologies etc.

    please keep sharing!
    and BTW - if you haven't read it yet, i think you'd LOVE michael gungors new book... he explores this very topic beautifully as well!

    thanks again!

    1. I'm actually in the middle of his book right now (along with like 8's a problem), and I am LOVING IT!! Thanks for stopping by! :)

  3. Luke, I feel like I live betwixt and between traditions. but love the stamp they've put on mr during various seasons of my life. I spent 10+ years in the Vineyard movement, so charismatic. It shaped me in ways that will stay with me, even as that is not where I feel most at home these days. Now I've traveled back into the arms of my mother church, the Catholic church. This is where I was baptized, took first communion and, oddly enough, met the Spirit (with tongues, too). While I don't embrace all the theology, I feel welcomed in the big tent. I feel bathed in the sacraments. I feel rejuvenated in the stillness of the church, kneeling before the altar. I am tethered to this tradition, but not strangled by it. When I hear you speak of your tradition, I think of my own, and I know a bit of how you feel. As long as I'm welcome at The Table, I'll keep coming and I'll keep passing the peace.

    1. To be honest, a lot of my theology, while renewalist in it's expression, is informed by the long tradition of Catholic mysticism. They always just seemed to be a perfect fit. And I've known Catholics that were more charismatic than any Pentecostal I've ever met. :)

      One of the things that discourages me most about Pentecostalism (and Protestantism writ large) is the sort of baby/bathwater mentality where we throw out a couple thousand years of tradition and try to start from scratch. It often leaves me yearning for a connection to that rich history. As a family, we try to connect through prayer books and the calendar, but it's not the same as living it community, you know? The Pentecostal treatment of the sacraments leaves...a little something to be desired. :/

    2. I've spent time with some charismatic Catholics in the last five years and I've gotta tell you, for this Methodist/Presbyterian/Covenant woman, it has been rich, wonderful and a little bit wild. I LOVE worshipping with people who sing in the Spirit. I do not have a 'prayer language,' even though I've asked for one and been prayed over about it. But that doesn't stop me from joining in that heavenly singing - in English. Works for me.

  4. I matured in the faith in a Pentecostal tradition, the Assemblies of God denomination. I had a much more positive experience with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as I was never pressured to do it and experienced it well before I fully understood that it was so integral to punching your Pentecostal card. For that experience, I am thankful.

    The emotionalism of the Pentecostal tradition and/or culture, breath without word did create a tension in me later on in my spiritual walk. The issue however, that I have the most tension with in my tradition is, creatively monikered, "the inevitable backslide," the idea that unless you have an emotional alter call experience or get saved regularly, then your salvation will wear off like a temporary tattoo.

    I'm so glad that God lead me to a Baptist University where I learned a different view of God's grace, eternal and immutable. Bapti-costal? Maybe. When the denomination question arose after college, I would tell people that I was "somewhat Baptist" reserving the caveat of "somewhat" as an umbrella for the Holy Spirit things that didn't quite fit neatly under my Baptist awning.
    The emotionalism of the Pentecostal tradition and/or culture, breath without word

    1. Should have previewed. The above comment should have ended with "awning."

    2. Ah yes, I think I got saved or "recommitted" my life to Jesus at least quarterly. Sometimes monthly. :)

    3. One experience my senior year in high school put an end to that. A guest preacher was pushing really hard during an altar call to get people to have an emotional experience. He said something like, "If you don't respond to what the Holy Spirit is doing, you might not be saved." I sat in the pew, and in my mind asked, "Am I really saved?" The moment I asked that question, the Holy Spirit answered loud and clear, "Yes, you are saved! Who is this man that he manipulated you to even ask that question?"

      And my heart hardened, not toward the Holy Spirit, but to that individual preacher. I did NOT answer that altar call. My salvation was assured and I haven't questioned it since.

      I don't want to sleight genuine altar encounters with God, but the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, and in this instance, the voice was not that of the sheperd.

  5. i get this. it's like that quote about the Church, "She's a whore, but she's my mother." there is no perfect tradition, and i suspect that the search for one reinforces our own consumerist tendencies more than a desire for faithfulness.

    some have to leave, for healing and other reasons, but i'll always admire the ones who stay to wrestle and love, prophesy and refine. it's a good work.

    1. Oh, you are so right on with our consumerist tendencies. We call it "church shopping" for a reason, no? At some point, we've got to acknowledge that all of these traditions are rooted in human (and ultimately fallible) interpretations of scripture and none of them has it all right. That should lead us (organizationally and individually, I think) to a place of theological humility.

      I totally get what you're saying about some having to leave, and I totally agree. I don't want it AT ALL to sound like I'm advocating someone stay in a tradition that is abusive or harmful. Sometimes leaving is unquestionagly the best possible outcome, for sure.


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