Chris 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.
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.”