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Growing But Controversial Pentecostal Movement Celebrates Centennial

Thousands of Pentecostals from around the world are expected April 25-29 in Los Angeles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a series of revival meetings that sparked what is now the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.

To an estimated at 600 million Pentecostals and charismatic Christians worldwide, this week’s Azusa Street Centennial commemorates the beginning of a movement that united people across denomination, race, class and gender around beliefs that the Holy Spirit still works miracles like those reported in the Bible.

For others, who view it as overly emotional and theologically suspect, the movement has been more controversial, dividing churches over doctrinal questions like whether believers experience a “second blessing” distinct from salvation and if spiritual gifts bestowed on the apostles served their purpose and are no longer valid for today. It is a backdrop for recent controversy over a policy change by the Southern Baptist Convention banning future appointment of missionaries who practice a “private prayer language.”

Historians date the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement with a 1906 California revival–the same year as the San Francisco earthquake–that started in a private home led by an African-American preacher named William Seymour. On April 9, 1906, the first person spoke in tongues, followed by others.

Soon the group had to find a larger meeting place, moving to a former African American Episcopal Church being used as a barn at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Within months the Azusa Street Mission was the city’s largest congregation, and the revival lasted three years.

“Signs and wonders”–like miraculous healings–were reported, and many were “slain in the spirit,” buckling to the floor in a trance-like state. The press described worshippers in unflattering terms like “holy rollers.”

Convinced the outpouring fulfilled prophecy signaling the Lord’s imminent return, however, Pentecostal evangelists and missionaries branched out preaching the message of “baptism of the Holy Spirit” manifested by speaking in tongues. Out of the movement emerged large Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God, with 2.8 million members, the Cleveland, Tenn.,-based Church of God and the 5.5 million-member Church of God in Christ, America’s fifth-largest denomination.

A half-century later some Pentecostals began to believe the Pentecostal experience ought to be available to others. With formation of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International in 1952, what became known as the Neo-Pentecostal or Charismatic Movement was off, with interest in supernatural gifts spilling into Baptist, mainstream Protestant and even Catholic churches during the 1960s and 1970s.

The mid-1980s brought about “The Third Wave,” of the Holy Spirit, a term coined by former Fuller Theological Seminary professor Peter Wagner. It was typified in the “Toronto Blessing” of 1994, which featured behavior like “holy laughter,” being “slain in the spirit” and speaking in tongues.

In their book Speaking in Tongues, Baptist theologians Fisher Humphreys and Malcolm Tolbert say Pentecostals believe tongues have not only a place in public worship, but in private prayer as well.

While many critics dismiss tongues as gibberish, Charismatics believe they are speaking a language, though not necessarily one used today. They think it could be an ancient language that is no longer used, a modern tongue unfamiliar to any of the listeners or even angelic language not known to men at all.

Tongues not only assure the Pentecostal of God’s presence. They also provide a way to praise God. While the person praying in tongues may not know what he or she is saying, God does and is honored by it.

One Pentecostal friend explained it to Humphreys and Tolbert: “When I know what to pray for, I pray in English. When I don’t know what to pray for, I pray in tongues.”

Worried about charismatic influences on churches started by missionaries overseas, the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board in November tightened its policy against missionaries speaking in tongues to also forbid use of a “prayer language” in private devotion. That is despite the fact that IMB President Jerry Rankin has acknowledged a prayer language has been part of his own devotional life for more than 30 years.

The IMB policy, as revised in November, says the New Testament speaks of a gift of “glossolalia,” or speaking in tongues, but that it is generally considered to have been a current language of some people group with a specific use and conditions for exercise in public worship.

“Prayer language,” as commonly expressed by practitioners today, “is not the same as the biblical use of glossolalia,” the policy says. Since the “majority of Southern Baptists do not accept what is referred to as ‘private prayer language,'” it continues, if private prayer language is “an ongoing part” of a missionary candidate’s “conviction and practice,” the individual “has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.”

One critic of the policy said that the Apostle Paul–who wrote in First Corinthians 14:18 “I thank God I speak in tongues more than all of you”–would not qualify as a Southern Baptist missionary today.

Humphreys and Tolbert say tongues can become a problem if a faction in a church tries to impose the practice on a whole community or view those who do not speak in tongues as spiritually deficient. But they are unwilling to discount the testimony of those who say they have experienced it and do not regard speaking in tongues per se as a sin.

“We are not ruling out speaking in tongues as a possible experience for the Christian,” they write. “Neither are we trying to imply that it is not a valid, meaningful experience to some people.”

“What we maintain is it that it is not an essential, central, indispensable part of the Christian life. Many, perhaps most, Christians have not felt the need or inclination to seek the gift of tongues. They need not feel insecure or defensive about this.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.