What it’s all about:
Pentecostalism was born out of a nine-year movement in Los Angeles called the Azusa Street Revival in which people, led by a preacher named William J. Seymour, experienced dramatic inter-racial worship services that included speaking in tongues, and spiritual experiences involving miracles. (source) Just about every Pentecostal church traces its roots back to this Revival, however, some left the movement with different ideas about the doctrine of the Trinity, leaving the Pentecostal Church largely divided between Trinitarian and non-Trinitarians. Each church is self-governed, however, many are affiliated with the Pentecostal World Fellowship. The latest research (conducted by the a Pew Forum in 2011) “found that there were an estimated 279 million classical Pentecostals, making 4 percent of the total world population and 12.8 percent of the world’s Christian population Pentecostal” making it “the largest Protestant denominational family.” 44% of all Pentecostals are found in Sub-Saharan Africa while 37% are found in the Americas and 16% are in Asia and the Pacific. (source)
The Pentecostal faith, like most Christian faiths, centers completely around the Bible and its inerrancy. The core of their beliefs lie in the Gospels in that through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, all sins can be forgiven. It is a requirement that all Pentecostals be born again through Christ in order to be “adopted into the family of God.” (source) A part of the born again process starts with a baptism, however, the Pentecostals practice three distinct types of baptism. One is the baptism into the body of Christ which turns a believer into a part of Christ’s body through the Holy Spirit — the Holy Spirit is the agent, Christ is the medium. The second one is called a water baptism and is the most recognizable by other Christian faiths. The water baptism is representative of dying to the world and being reborn in Christ. The third method of baptism is called baptism with the Holy Spirit. This method is similar to baptism into the body of Christ except that it is the reversal of methods — Christ now becomes the agent and the Holy Spirit is the medium.
While baptism as viewed by most Christian denominations as being vital to one’s closeness to god and their ability to be “saved”, most Pentecostals do not view baptism as being essential for salvation. Pentecostals also view other things, like the sacraments, much differently than most Christian denominations as well. They refer to the sacraments as ordinances instead as they do not believe that these rituals instituted by Christ are meant to impart grace, but rather to keep a closeness with god. For example, communion is a ritual completed because it is a command given by Christ in order to remember him. An interesting fact about Pentecostal communion is that they reject the use of wine as the blood of Christ and will use grape juice instead. Sorry, kids! No under-age sipping allowed for you!
Two other distinctive beliefs are that of divine healing and divine gifts. Divine healing occurs when a person either prays for himself or another person to be healed. When praying for another person to be healed, the common practice is for the preacher and others to put their hands on that person to represent the healing Jesus imparted while healing others. Another common practice is anointing the sick with olive oil.
Divine gifts can be given to anyone at any time but are most commonly received after one’s baptism. Gifts include the ability to speak in tongues — a gibberish language meant to be a direct line to or from god.
“According to Pentecostal theology, the language spoken (1) may be an unlearned human language, such as the Bible claims happened on the Day of Pentecost, or (2) it might be of heavenly (angelic) origin. In the first case, tongues could work as a sign by which witness is given to the unsaved. In the second case, tongues are used for praise and prayer when the mind is superseded and “the speaker in tongues speaks to God, speaks mysteries, and … no one understands him”. (source)
A divine gift that can sometimes go along with the gift of tongues is the gift of interpretation by either the speaker or someone else to be able to understand what was just said. This can be important because most Pentecostals believe that sometimes people who speak tongues do so because they have been given the gift of prophecy. While Pentecostals do believe that anyone is capable of receiving a legitimate prophecy, those spoken by people are not regarded as always being the truth; in other words, they realize that those prophecies are susceptible to error. These prophecies are rarely, if ever, predictions of future events but merely spontaneously spoken words meant to give guidance and comfort.
Another gift is the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge. When the gift of the word of wisdom is given, the receiver has a “revelation of the Holy Spirit that applies scriptural wisdom to a specific situation that a Christian community faces.” (source) The gift of the word of knowledge entails the ability of the receiver to know god’s intentions in the life of another person.
Why it’s harmful to society:
While practicing the gift of healing, many preachers will put their hands on someone and violently push them back causing them to fall backwards. Sometimes this is exaggerated by the person being healed so as to imitate “being slain in the spirit” and other times, the preacher literally pushes so hard that they fall. I think this is bad for two reasons: One — people get so wrapped up in this ritual that they make themselves fall backwards (risking injury), convulse on the ground and speak in tongues. All of these are not natural or supernatural occurences but merely the actions of a desperate person acting out what they have seen others do. It’s all fake which makes watching it all the more disturbing. And, imagine being a child and seeing this happen to your parent! How scary that would be! Reason two — these people actually hurt themselves doing this (or allowing it to be done to them)! Sometimes people actually faint and lose consciousness! I think watching this strange practice would be both interesting and disturbing.
A lot of the practices found in the Pentecostal church have made their way into other Christian denominations. Things like lifting your hands in praise to the heavens during prayer and song, speaking in tongues and spontaneously shouting words of praise during sermons. One of my most vivid memories as a young child was being very ill at my grandmother’s house (a self-identified, practicing non-denominational Christian) and having her put her hands on my head and pray over me in tongues. I was so scared because I had never seen my grandmother act so strangely before and I was very confused as to what was going on. It made me very uncomfortable and I have never forgotten that moment. I think experiences like that can be very harmful and scary to children and should either be abstained from around them or explained thoroughly.
Some Pentecostal churches in the southeastern region of the United States practice snake handling during their worship services as a literal interpretation of these verses in the Bible:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)
“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” (Luke 10:19)
Numerous preachers have been severely injured by the poisonous bites and others have even died from them. While this practice is not very common, it is gaining ground and growing rapidly, forcing states to legislate laws concerning the un-guarded presence of venomous animals in public spaces for their own protection.
Why it’s not as bad as the others:
Pentecostals believe that baptism is not vital to achieve spiritual salvation which compliments their practice of a “Believer’s Baptism”. This type of baptism is done only to the willing after a profession of faith in Jesus has been made. I think this is good because it gives people the choice to enter into the religion. I have never agreed with infant baptisms (I was baptized as an infant) because I feel that they are presumptuous and selfish. Infant baptisms are for the benefit of the practicing parents, not the child, whereas adult baptisms are for the individual as a profession of and commitment to what they believe in.
Another great aspect of Pentecostalism is the lively church service. Spontaneity is highly regarded in worship which leads to (in my view) hilarious outbursts and interruptions in the middle of sermons and songs. Also, lots of members are “moved by the Holy Spirit” to dance because they are so enraptured with god’s presence. This leads to lots of movement in the aisles with everyone going pretty much bat-shit crazy over the Lord.
Diversity and inter-racial worship is a highly regarded attribute to the Pentecostal church. They believe that no matter race, gender, ethnicity, social class or religious background one is, they are all welcome to worship together and should be treated as one in the same. The downside to this is that they do not include sexual orientation in that list of anti-discriminatory practices and they hold a very strong position in the defense of traditional marriage between a man and a woman.