In the early days of my adult Christian life (as opposed to the faith of my childhood, which was abandoned at age 13 if not earlier) I was taken aback by the sheer foreignness of Pentecostal worship and doctrine. I was raised in the Catholic Church where Mass never took more than an hour and a few minutes from the time we walked through the door and dipped our fingers in holy water to the time when exited and shook the parish priest’s hand and thanked him for the homily. I was used to order, structure, set Bible readings, and a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, which I was taught to believe was really the body and blood of Christ.
Then I ran away from God; as far and fast as I could. It would take some years before he’d call me back but when he did it wasn’t in the Catholic Church of my youth; it was in a small black independent Pentecostal church. Walking through those doors for the first time was the strangest thing I’d ever experienced up to that point in my life. I was greeted with hugs and ushered to the front of the church. I saw people dancing and shouting in a language that I couldn’t understand and had rarely heard beforehand (I knew a little about tongues from my now pastor; then barber & friend). There were women dressed in white outfits with doilies on their heads. People calling out during the sermon. In short; it was unlike anything I was used to, and trust me, it took some getting used to!
But once I began to embrace the strange it didn’t seem so strange. I was like the foreigner that Torah speaks of; the one living among the Israelites as an Israelite. I learned how to dance to black Pentecostal praise music; I learned to not expect select readings from the Bible or to be able to follow along in a missal, but rather to expect detailed sermons where I was expected to take notes and write directly in my Bible of all things (!); I learned when it was appropriate to call out during a sermon (always an “amen,” a “praise God,” or a “you can say that again”); I learned to deal with 4-5 hour services as opposed to the hour-long Mass of my youth. In short, I learned a lot of behavior. But more importantly than learning all the proper behavior and all the things to expect; I learned to hear the voice of God.
I also learned to love and respect the Scriptures. Those early days saw me reading entire books of the Bible in a single sitting. There was a time when the whole of my library consisted of an NIV and a KJV. I used to fast, and pray, and read, and listen. I experienced God in real and tangible ways both inside and outside of congregational gatherings. I learned to love God, to trust God, and to depend on God for all of my needs. It wasn’t an easy process but no one ever promised me that life in Christ would be easy. But I also learned from reading and studying the Scriptures that some of the behavior I learned was more akin to things that Paul rebuked in certain churches than the things he extolled.
And so I began an internal critique of Pentecostalism as I knew it. I discerned what was wrong and why it was wrong. There’s plenty that needs fixing, and it would be easy to just jump ship and worship in another context, but then nothing gets fixed. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur–it’s not like I think that I’ll be some great Pentecostal reformer–but I know what’s happened in my church through much prayer, study, and discussion with the pastors. I know that my present church doesn’t have all the problems today that it did when we first started out. Sure, we still have our share of problems, but everything in time. Even with Paul’s harsh rebuke to the Corinthians, he still begins his letter by calling them sanctified. For all that was wrong with them they were still set apart. So I take solace in that. I’m hopeful because of that.
For all I find frustrating about Pentecostalism or the Charismatic Movement more broadly, I find that every time I consider doing something else, God will show up in a real, tangible, and unmistakable way. I find that for me there’s really no worship like Pentecostal/Charismatic worship. I love the order and reverence I experience in the liturgy of “high” church worship, but there’s something that just can’t substitute for that experience that non-Charismatics love to denigrate so much. Does it govern everything I believe and do? No. But I’d be lying to say that it doesn’t factor in; and so would anyone else who claimed that there experiences had no influence on what they say, believe, and do.
So the reason why I’m still a Pentecostal (after toying with the idea of not being one more than a time or two) is that it is here, in my present context, that God meets me. It’s here that I’ve been called and if ever God calls me somewhere else then it is there that I shall go. But for every one thing I find to loathe about Pentecostalism, I find two or three to love. That’s why I’m still a Pentecostal… in case you were wondering.