Social and Theological Resources of the Pentecostal Tradition
Although most other Pentecostal denominations grew out of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, the Church of God began in the Appalachian Mountains in the last years of the 19th century. Embedded among the marginal, early Pcntecostalism in this region was a religion of and for the poor. Although some historians have argued that the view of early Pentecostals has been sentimentalized, there is evidence, and living memory, of a time when congregations were highly communal (Cox, 1995; Wacker, 2001). Serving others was the daily event of sharing vegetables from the garden, passing used clothing around the young people of the church, sharing meals, and making sure no one in the congregation was hungry or without shelter. Although early Pentecostals’ service to the larger community was limited by Pentecostals’ general marginalization, there was a strong connection to other marginal people who were not part of the Pentecostal congregation. The local alcoholic, the homeless person, and the prostitute were always a focus of the church because of the very prominent belief that salvation through Christ was a quick and sure remedy to any social ill. In summary, the community engagement of early Pentecostals was on the level of benevolent action. They were aware of systemic injustice and were often its victims. However, because early Pentecostals placed primary importance on the immediate second coming of Christ, they did not believe that it was either important or possible to address systemic injustice in this world; rather, they focused entirely on the salvation of individuals and the world to come. This sense of living so close to the end of time made earthly injustice seem too temporary to be of concern.
In the United States, Pcntecostalism as it was practiced in congregations which were predominantly White transitioned from a sect to a denomination over the century following its founding. Predominantly Black congregations took a different developmental route as did Pentecostal congregations in cultures outside of the United States. As the Pentecostal experience among White Americans became more acceptable, church
Community Engagement 95 members moved increasingly into the middle class, and rising social status significantly affected the inner workings of Pentecostal congregations. Most members no longer relied on each other to provide the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, and some of those who were new to the middle class were less willing to risk their tenuous social status by reaching out to the marginal in their midst. With the exception of world missions, the Church of God denomination and Pcntecostalism in general paid decreasing attention over time to the needs of those outside their congregations.
Pcntecostalism grew out of the holiness movement within the Methodist Church, so it follows that Pentecostals arc broadly Wesleyan in their theology. Three key beliefs are essential to the Pentecostal movement: First, like other evangelicals, they believe that individuals must confess, repent of their sins, and commit their lives to Christ in a specific conversion experience. This experience leads to eternal reward, but without it, an individual is condemned to eternal punishment. Second, Pentecostals also generally believe in sanctification, a “second work of grace” (Church of God, 2018) that empowers believers to live without sin. This concept was introduced into Methodism by John Wesley and expounded on in some branches of the Pentecostal movement. The third and most distinguishing characteristic of Pcntecostalism is the belief in “the baptism with the Holy Ghost subsequent to a clean heart with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues” (Church of God, 2018).
In addition to these three key beliefs, Pentecostals also believe in the “verbal inspiration” of the Bible and, therefore, take biblical texts literally (Church of God, 2018), fitting into the group often referred to as “fundamentalists.” Another characteristic of Pentecostals, not rising to the level of theology, is a propensity to value and validate the emotions. Beliefs such as divine healing, prophecy, and personal messages from God delivered through tongues and interpretation (Church of God, 2018) appeal more directly to the emotions. Highly emotional worship characterized by praise and tears is also commonplace in Pentecostal worship. These beliefs are central to the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Pentecostal denomination that established Lee University.