It’s not exactly a secret: Many Pentecostals have responded to the current pandemic in ways that are both bizarre and troubling. These responses have overshadowed the sanity and generosity of many faithful, Spirit-filled Christians and reinforced the idea that Pentecostal theology is cheap and silly.
This is unfortunate because Pentecostalism has many gifts to give. At its best, it is mystical and prophetic and teaches us to live deeply prayerful lives. Pentecostal theology teaches us that ministry must begin and end in prayer. It teaches us we must hold high expectations for God to work in the world, along with a deep sense of personal and communal responsibility. It teaches us not to fear the new or idolize the familiar, and that the divine power of Pentecost is the love revealed in the Cross. These are all truths the church needs in this current crisis.
Pray like jazz
If you know anything about Pentecostalism, you know about the prayer. Harvard theologian Harvey Cox compared it to jazz because of its playful extemporization and collaborative enthusiasm. Pentecostals believe this improvisation is a way of keeping rhythm with the Holy Spirit. This is why our prayers often have the spirit of an old-time revival tent—open on all sides and thrown up anywhere, anytime, as God leads. Pentecostal prayer, at its heart, is about radical openness to God, and it is marked by a readiness to be surprised and to be changed.
This openness in prayer leads Pentecostals to be improvisational in other ministries as well. When we are faithful to our calling, we are ready to abandon familiar ways of doing ministry and make ourselves at home in the company of those we are called to serve.
We consider the church neither a means to an end nor an end in itself. Therefore, we are ready to forget familiar ways of speaking and to learn new languages, both literally and figuratively, because we expect to hear God speak in ways we never could have anticipated. This is what it really means to “speak in tongues.”
It is always hard to know what to say in times of pain and loss. But when we are faithful to the wisdom we have received, we know that what we say to others must be shaped first of all by what we say to God on others’ behalf. Faithful ministry, in other words, always begins and ends in intercessory prayer.
Even as we try to give good answers to the many difficult theological questions arising at this time, we should never forget that if those answers are to be helpful, they must be rooted in prayer. This is not polite, self-assured prayer, but raw, unsparing prayer, prayer that laments and protests, demands and interrogates, begs and invokes—prayer that is radically and confidently open to God in front of others and to others in front of God.
I believe the church needs this kind of openness in the midst of this crisis. We need a “holy boldness,” one that has nothing to do with living as if we are protected from harm, claiming secret knowledge about God’s will or asserting power over disasters and sicknesses, but has everything to do with following the Spirit into the darkness, coming alongside those who are suffering, and being Christ to them.
Love like God
Pentecostalism, at its best, is deeply communal and missional. It knows that love for God cannot be separated from love for neighbor and that prayer cannot be separated from action. As theologian Lucy Peppiatt recently observed, Pentecostals not only believe strongly in God’s involvement in every aspect of life but also believe—just as strongly—in the call for God’s people to participate in what God is doing in the world.
In spite of what some might think, this is a constant theme in Pentecostal theology. Daniel Castelo, professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University, argues, for example, that Pentecostal spirituality is a form of mysticism. This is not a mysticism of withdrawal, but of mediation and intermediation. In her recent book, The Spirit and the Common Good, Daniela Augustine, professor of theology at the University of Birmingham, makes the same point: “The Spirit uplifts the Christified human life as the visible means of invisible grace. … Indeed, the healing of the entire cosmos starts from within hallowed, Spirit-saturated humanity.”
All that to say, Pentecostal ministries are moved by this twofold desire: to commune deeply with God and to see everyone and everything else drawn into the same communion. This mysticism is a source of renewal for the church.
Dale Coulter, professor of historical theology at Regent University, has shown how something like that has happened before, in the aftermath of the black death in the Middle Ages. He argues that in this pandemic, once again, “pastors and priests need to become spiritual directors, guiding their flocks as they turn within and find the crucified God.”
Pentecostal theology teaches us to long for the age when all God’s people will be prophets. But we do not think of prophecy as a form of magic. We believe true prophecy is not so much about predicting the future as it is about seeing how God helps us to care for our neighbors in ways they most desperately need.
True prophecy gives us insight into what has happened and is happening, what is truly right and truly wrong in the world, and thus enables us to see into and call forth a better, more faithful future.
Coming into communion with Christ’s passion in prayer, we will find ourselves moved with compassion for others into action. The same Spirit who leads us to turn within, mystically, toward the crucified Christ, will lead us to turn out, prophetically, toward those for whom Christ offered and offers himself. Following the Spirit, we will enter the darkness instead of denying it, trusting that the light of God is already breaking forth from its depths. This is what it means to be prophetic, speaking life into dry bones.
Bless the poor
As a Pentecostal, and a Pentecostal theologian, I feel the need to be honest about our failures, past and present. I know there are hard questions to ask about the integrity and effects of our teachings and practices. And I know this is not a time for nostalgia or idealism.
But I am convinced that it is a time to return to the faithful ways that led to the rise of Pentecostal spirituality and theology in the first place. We need to retune ourselves to the God who tell us it is a commandment—not a compromise—to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially when those neighbors are not like us.
Sadly, many Pentecostals have forgotten the wisdom of their own tradition. In its beginnings, Pentecostalism was a movement of the poor and for the poor. The poor always suffer worst in crises like the one facing us now, so Pentecostals found themselves at the center of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. A century later, Pentecostalism remains a movement of the poor in most parts of the world.
But in the US, much has changed. Many of us now work at a remove from the poor, both geographically and spiritually, and we are largely out of touch with the material and spiritual needs of those we are called to serve first. Now is the time to make that right. And that begins with a return to the deepest, truest convictions of our mothers and fathers in the faith.
At the revival on Azusa Street, at the very beginning of the Pentecostal movement, pastor William Seymour put it this way: “The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more love, it is simply a counterfeit. … Pentecost makes us love Jesus more and love our brothers more. It brings us all into one common family.”
I know there are more than a few counterfeits available today. I know there is much that Pentecostals have said that is ridiculous and much that they should have said but haven’t. But there is another Pentecostalism, a mystical and prophetic Pentecostalism, which is a gift of the Spirit. And like many of the Spirit’s gifts, it is offered just as we need it and in ways we never could have imagined. That is precisely the Pentecostalism this crisis calls for.
Chris E. W. Green is a professor of theology at Southeastern University and a pastor at Sanctuary Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His most recent book is Surprised by God.