Searching for God, for truth, and for faith is often a long and arduous process in a person's life. For some it takes a lifetime to find their truth, others were raised in the tradition in which they find the truth, and still, others come to it at a crucial point in their lives and literally feel as if they have been born again, into a truth where they can place their faith. Pentecostal believers regard themselves as born again when they accept Jesus Christ into their lives as their Lord and Savior. It is after they are born again that they can receive the gifts of the Spirit. For Pentecostals it is not only a matter of coming to God, it is also a matter of God coming to them. God makes his presence known to believers in a way unique to the Pentecostal tradition. The heart of the belief is the total experience of the Spirit moving people to action through faith healings, exorcism, and, most frequently, speaking in tongues.
With this paper, I will be illustrating the Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit as demonstrated at the Light of Life World Outreach Center in Asheville, NC, and as discussed in an interview with the pastor of the center, Rebecca Polis. I will also address the challenges faced and the contributions made to American religious life in light of the Pentecostal experience. My hope is to share what I have learned from this fascinating tradition and provide some insight into the belief using research as well as my personal response to my experience with Pentecostalism.
The Pentecostal Articles of Faith state their belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that God is a Trinity, that man was created in the image of God but that when Adam fell sin came into the world, that they are saved through Jesus Christ, that Jesus is the head of the church, that men and women are called to the ministry, that water baptism is a direct commandment by the Lord for all believers, that Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a gift from God and is available to all believers, and that believers are born again when they accept Jesus into their lives.
The early days of the Pentecostal movement, which has its origins in a Holiness gathering in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas, and is based on Charles Parham's interpretation of Acts 2:4, were extremely lively and out of the ordinary for traditional church services (Addison). People who had been moved by the Spirit would yell and sing, dance and shout, exorcise demons, do a laying on of the hands, and speak in tongues (Eliade 229). "Speaking in tongues means speaking miraculously in a language unknown to the speaker, as the Spirit gives utterance" (upci.org). Pentecostals believe that the ability to speak in tongues is available to every born-again believer and that every believer should speak in tongues because it is evidence of the Spirit's indwelling presence, a stimulator of faith in concordance with God's will, and good for spiritual edification. The origin of speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, is found in chapters one and two of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible.
"The central doctrine of Pentecostalism, according to one of the movement's best-known leaders, is "the abiding possibility and importance of the supernatural element… particularly as contained in the manifestation of the Spirit" (Harrell 11). Pentecostals believe that their connection to God is through the Holy Ghost living inside the believer and that it is their duty to understand God's message to his people and to share it. Speaking in tongues is external evidence of the manifestation of the Spirit, and it is uniform evidence meaning anyone can possess the gift regardless of race, culture, or language. Also, the tongue is the instrument with which the human spirit is expressed and if God takes control of that it demonstrates an expression of the spiritual and is evidence of God's complete control of the believer (upci.org).
People anointed with the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have a responsibility to build faith in others (Harrell 9). God puts gifts in people before they are born and, if people do not develop the gifts they have been given, they will not be rewarded in Heaven, according to Pentecostal beliefs. The gifts are given in order for them to be used to find fulfillment in life and to help others understand what they were created for and help them become fulfilled as well. Pastor Rebecca Polis, the pastor of the Light of Life Outreach Center in Asheville, North Carolina, says, "it is a lifestyle of service." (Interview) Pentecostals put a large emphasis on service and education and have set up missions and schools throughout America and all over the world in order to spread the Word of God and help others understand their purposes in life (Polis Interview).
In the dedication to education and spreading the Word, the Pentecostal movement has taken to the media. Their message is spread on television waves, radio waves, and billboards across America and in other countries. Many of the evangelists on television and radio these days preach the "full gospel," (beliefs in the verbal inspiration of scripture and the virgin birth of Jesus, baptizing, and the physical resurrection of Christ) and believe in the gifts of the Spirit and thereby can be classified as Pentecostal (Harrell ix-4). This activity in the media has been instrumental in not only spreading the Word of God but also in helping the Pentecostal movement to continue to grow. Some of the largest churches in the world today are Pentecostal churches (Polis Interview).
Historically in America, Pentecostalism has appealed to poor and working-class people, but in recent times it is attracting more educated, middle-class people (Addison). It has also attracted people of all races, including a large involvement of Hispanic believers, starting with the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles where the movement got its first national recognition and spread through the southwest (Blumhoffer 1). Pentecostalism is, "an audience conscious popular expression of Christianity". The tradition's promises of joy, peace, and wholeness reach the masses, and the way the message is presented bends to the popular culture's emphasis on form versus content.
Simply because the presentation of the Pentecostal message has the capability of reaching the masses does not mean the tradition has had an easy time of being accepted in America. Believers have been run out of their towns, have had rotten vegetables thrown at them, and have faced some rather vicious opposition to their beliefs. The fact that speaking in tongues is a large part of the Pentecostal experience has made many people angry and afraid of the tradition. The largest argument they face against their beliefs is that speaking in tongues must be of the devil. But Pastor Rebecca Polis's response to that concern is that she believes she was of the devil before she was born again and she never once spoke in tongues. It is only since she has accepted Jesus into her life that the Holy Ghost has been able to work through her and she has been able to speak in tongues. She also believes the people who so strongly oppose the tradition do not understand the beliefs because the gifts of the Spirit cannot be understood on an academic level and that God gave humans intellect with which to worship Him (Polis Interview).
After visiting the Light of Life World Outreach Center in Asheville, North Carolina, I was better able to understand the extremity of faith and worship of which Pentecostals are a part. The energy in the service was incredible, the congregation of about one hundred people was on its feet through a good portion of the service and they sang and danced to numerous songs. The music being played sounded like contemporary rock and had a beat that was very instrumental in getting people involved in the music. There was a definite sense of celebration of the Lord. When the pastor got up to preach the sermon was also involving of the congregation. Every one of the pastor's statements required an "Amen" or a "praise the Lord" from the congregation. During the music I noticed members of the congregation being emotionally moved, praying effusively to themselves, and, during the sermon, I noticed several women begin to cry. After the pastor was finished preaching, she invited people to come forward and get healed if they so wished. Several people did, and the pastor and elders laid their hands on the members and talked to them for a while, and then they would return to their seats. I also noticed a great number of the people in the congregation had brought their own Bibles and were taking extensive notes on the sermon.
From the visit, I was able to see the level of involvement and dedication the believers had for their religion. I must admit I do not know if anyone spoke in tongues, if they did, I did not hear it, but during the healing session after the sermon, one woman who had gone to the altar to be healed had to be laid down because she was so overcome by the Spirit. It was very obvious during the service that people felt the presence of the Spirit.
I also learned a great deal about the intensity of the believers' faith from an interview with the pastor a few days after I went to their Sunday services. I talked with Pastor Rebecca Polis about what she believes, why she believes what she does, and how she attempts to live what she believes. She spoke of spreading the Word of God, about her belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and that the Bible has the answer to every problem if you are only willing to look. Before she became a born-again believer she was involved in drugs and alcohol, she was what she called, "of the devil." But after she came to Christ she left her old ways behind her, and though she says she knows she still sins sometimes, Jesus is there to help her out, and the Spirit and the Bible can show her the right path. When I asked her about any opposition or persecution she has faced here in Asheville she told me the biggest thing she has faced is people being wary of her being a woman preacher. She said she felt many people thought women did not have the right to be preaching, but she tells them to listen to the message and not to judge by her gender. She told me the Bible promises the restoration of all gifts and of all genders and that man and woman were created in God's image, that the "other deal where man rules over woman didn't come along until after man fell" (Interview) As for other persecution, she has not had much trouble with it, but recently she did a funeral for a born again believer who was married to a Jewish individual, and when she offered a prayer for salvation, the Jews present took offense. She sincerely apologized for offending them, but she also said she felt she was doing what God had told her to do.
I was impressed by her honesty about her faith and the fact that she does not think her tradition had all the answers, but that she did believe she was going to Heaven, and that her beliefs were in line with the Word of God. She believed she had an apostolic calling in life and that she had a duty to attract the unsaved to Christ through a lifestyle of evangelism. And the impression I got was that she genuinely cared about the people in her congregation and those who had not yet come to Christ.
My personal reaction to Pentecostalism is one of amazement. The depth of faith and commitment required of believers is impressive. In my own life, I have done a lot of searching for something I see as true and that I can put my faith in. I had a friend in high school who had recently become involved in a Pentecostal church and she loved it and was grateful for the difference it had made in her life. I remember admiring her greatly for believing so strongly in something at what seemed to be a very young age. I was interested in the tradition because it seemed like a fundamental belief that had some rather extreme practices. Pastor Rebecca Polis told me what distinguished them from the typical fundamental church is the belief that the Holy Spirit dwells within you. My high school friend did not speak in tongues at the time, but I was fascinated by the very idea of it. Then I did not understand it to be the Holy Spirit physically manifesting Himself in a person to give evidence of His presence.
From the life stories I got from both my high school friend and Pastor Polis about the trouble they had in their lives before they became born again, it would be easy for me to jump to conclusions about people being down and out in life being attracted to the religion because they believe the Bible has the answers to help a person out of any situation. However, for Pentecostals the faith is not just in the outside source of the Bible, it is also from within. The Spirit dwells within the believers, manifesting Himself through certain gifts, and giving them strength in their lives and the power to inspire faith in others. I do not find the indwelling presence of the Spirit in believers to be unique, there are other traditions that adhere to similar beliefs, but the way in which the Spirit is evidenced and how proof is received for their beliefs is incredible. Receiving the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues is a way to assist believers in the worshipping of God (Hagin 15).
I have learned a great deal about a belief that was very foreign to me previously, and I still have one major question about the aspect of Pentecostalism I find most fascinating. If speaking in tongues is speaking in a language unknown to the speaker, I wonder how the believers can distinguish between true speaking in tongues and plain gibberish. None of the books I have read or people with whom I have talked seem to question that, but they claim to know it when they hear it. The Holy Spirit claims to provide proof of His presence through the gifts of the Spirit, but I have not seen a believer question what is true evidence of the Spirit and what is not.
I have greatly enjoyed learning about Pentecostalism. It has helped me personally in my search for truth and faith because now I have to wonder whether I require physical evidence of the presence of God in order to believe in God and if I believe the Spirit of God dwells within me.
The interview itself was a unique experience for me because I spent an hour asking questions of the leader of a church, which holds views to which I can never see myself truly committing. Some of the answers Pastor Polis gave to my questions left me wondering how people can develop such differing belief systems from each other, especially having been raised in the same basic culture, in the same country. I recognize that, although it went unsaid, both Pastor Polis and I understood we were coming from two very different places, and we both made a large effort to be very respectful of each others' differences.
At the end of the interview, Pastor Polis asked if I was born again. I had to answer "No." Then she asked me if I would like to pray and accept Jesus and to be born again. It was a thought I entertained for a moment, but I told her I would have to do more research; and though I know that probably was not the most tactful answer I could have given, it is true. I do not foresee myself with a level of commitment Pentecostalism requires anytime soon. I can see where it would be appealing and where for some it would be a helpful thing in which to place their faith. To experience the Spirit as completely as they do in Pentecostalism is truly awe-inspiring to me. For the heart of one's belief system to be the total experience of the God they worship must be an incredible thing.
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