Wikipedia defines Pentecostalism as “a renewal movement within Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” This is most notably manifested in speaking in tongues, prophesying, and in some cases, the seeing of visions. It is generally associated with lively and upbeat worship services, where hands are lifted up, and dancing often occurs, and emotions are expressed without reservations.
I cannot simply discount the ways in which this movement has impacted the Church for the better. It has brought new life to many churches, particularly in Latin America, in which the only viable alternative is oft-violent liberation theology branch of Roman Catholicism. It has similarly brought life to the Church in Africa. And in my experience, its adherents have a zeal for advancing the Gospel that I find hard to rival.
Unfortunately, it seems that the movement has also had a bit of a negative trickle-down effect. Walk into your average nondenominational church (with the exception of the fundamentalist-leaning ones) and you will see what I call Pentecostalism Lite. Hands are lifted up, emotions run wild, instruments are unabated, it’s like a Pentecostal service…..except there are no tongues, prophecies, etc.
This is something I find all too common, particularly in the oft-shallow “megachurches” where personal experience reigns supreme, but there is still skepticism towards those who take the mentality to its logical conclusion. Those who claim to have had a vision from God are viewed skeptically, whilst those whom God “laid it on their heart” are thought of as spiritual giants. Yet the former actually occurs in the Bible, the latter does not. Even in churches in which solid biblical teaching prevails, I have often experienced what I see as a bias towards those best able to vividly describe their personal experiences in their spiritual lives. I constantly felt (implicitly) looked down upon because I rarely produced experiences from my devotional life. Every small group, when it was customary to go around the room and discuss our spiritual lives, I invariably stumbled over what to say, and felt humiliated by it each time. Those who prayed the best prayers were usually, I felt those who were looked to as the “really good Christians”, in however subtle a manner.
The problem with this “Pentecostalism Lite” is that it draws from Pentecostalism’s emphasis on personal experience, while failing to recognize the intent of this theology. The purpose of the gifts of Pentecost in Acts was to serve as a miraculous sign to those around them, and while I tend towards the belief that this was largely meant for the early Church, I do see where they are coming from. They want to serve as an example to the ungodly world around us, but have added a mystical element to it, and it appears that the mystical element has trickled into evangelicalism at large, while the historical reason has not. Conversely, mainstream evangelicals, to me, come across as wanting the validation of their faith through personal experience, but rejecting the main points of Pentecostalism so as not to appear as supernaturalist kooks to the world around them. That is, have their cake and eat it too.
But in the Bible I read, I do not see a God who constantly “lays it on the heart” of someone to do something. He tells them directly, or else remains silent. My father once said, “90% of Abraham’s life simply consisted of cleaning up camel droppings, believing in what God had promised him.” The problem of depending on experience is that one consistently requires a new “high.” People forget that highs do not last. Elijah had the highest of spiritual experiences seeing God do his work on Mt. Carmel. However, that was followed by a low point of being on Jezebel’s blacklist. While experience can have its place, we as Christians need to remember that God gave us His Word, and that is how He speaks to us. The Bible tells us that “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” It is comforting to know that I can be assured that I am saved by the atonement on the Cross whether I “feel” it or not. The tomb is empty. Praise God.