Amy is joyful, full of laughter and love, and always ready to tackle difficult discussions on religion, society, politics, literature or whatever the topic may be. She reads widely, stays informed, and enjoys intellectual repartee. She also listens with understanding and speaks warmly rather than argues religious ideas and principles that may differ from others. Amy is from Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson, who advocated reason as the path to truth. How then can Amy follow a Pentecostal minister and church in Natchitoches, Louisiana? I went to find out.
First a little history. Many churches today, both Protestant and Catholic, have a charismatic arm, a segment that believes in a more demonstrative form of worship as opposed to the traditional ceremonies with which many Christians are familiar.
These charismatic folks can be seen shouting, clapping, swaying, and speaking aloud, in ways that would be deemed crude or impolite in other circles, but to them are the ways of feeling their faith and immersing in the joy of it. These are people who take their faith seriously and show their joyfulness openly. Indeed they aren’t afraid to “make a joyful noise.” They speak of miracles, both physical and spiritual, of healing, of hearing and seeing visions and of the ability to literally cure the body of its ills. Some argue that these charismatics are too “extra-Biblical” in that they go beyond the words to the individual reception and expression of the Holy Spirit. Others see them as an energizing force in facilitating a spiritual Renaissance. But whatever they are, they are growing and making a difference in their various congregations.
The Pentecostals are the “original” or “classic” charismatics in belief and behavior; and their historical development could be viewed as the foundation for the practices in the mainstream groups. According to most authorities the “classical Pentecostalism” started in the early 20th century. The movement emphasized the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The evidence of this baptism was the speaking of tongues showing that spiritual gifts had been received. This belief, and practice, caused the removal of the Pentecostals from mainstream churches. They consequently founded their own churches which became known as the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Assemblies of God, the United Pentecostal Church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and the Church of God in Christ. Famous people like Aimee Semple McPherson and Sarah Palin have been part of this religious group.
According to Reverend Whitehead of Natchitoches’ Fountain of Life Church, the Pentecostal movement of the early 20th century was a renewal of what had been recorded in the Book of Acts and what had been early Christian belief and behavior. Speaking in tongues as witness to the infusion of the Holy Spirit was part of the worship response across the centuries of Christian practice and simply became particularly pronounced, and recorded, in the early 1900’s. Pentecostals believe in prayer, fasting and abstinence, but unlike some mainstream groups don’t set aside a special time such as Lent for these practices. They emphasize modesty of dress and behavior so that women don’t wear pants as men don’t wear dresses, according to Reverend Whitehead. No one, however, has to take vows of poverty and give everything to the church. Pentecostals believe that people should prosper, be accountable in all things, and live the life of the gospel. They also believe in baptism by full immersion, which is like a death and therefore representing the rebirth of the Spirit.
Reverend Whitehead and I discussed the present controversies about religion and politics. He told me that he encourages his church members to vote but doesn’t tell them how to vote. Although he doesn’t find a Biblical admonition against preachers running for political office, he believes that it is very difficult for a preacher to be a politician because of the duties and responsibilities that are unique to each. He sees the ministry as a calling as opposed to a profession but observes that it is important to know and understand the Bible well Reverend Whitehead is well-spoken and reads widely, in opposition to some stereotypes about Pentecostal ministers and their flock. He has had three years of Bible School education in Texas but talked about his continuing to learn through life experiences and being a pastor 40 years.
The Pentecostals are Christ-centered, believe in reading the Bible and according to Reverend Whitehead his most important message would be: “Jesus is God, and you are not saved by just being sincere, even though that is the prevalent belief in the world. It is important to challenge on the basis of scriptures and recognize that sincerity is not the method of salvation.”
So this is the sum of the Pentecostals: a style of worship that some might see as different but coherent and consistent in its presentation and belief and worthy of consideration and respect. The style of worship may seem dramatic and different to some, but step inside a Catholic church if you’ve been raised Mormon, and you’ll find that different. A lot depends upon the culture and set of beliefs we come with when we look at someone else’s religion. Some people who come from religions that make others believe they are fools are fools themselves for not allowing for individual differences and not understanding that these people may be sincere, thoughtful and intelligent people. Like Amy—and her minister.