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Pentecostalism is the eighth largest Christian denomination in the United States and has 279 million adherents worldwide. In addition to its already large size, Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing denominations in the world. This makes it very likely that many Christians have a neighbor, friend or coworker who is a Pentecostal Christian. Despite this, Pentecostalism is not always well understood. Part of the reason for this is that Pentecostal churches tend to be more varied than many other Christian denominations. A Catholic Mass, for example, will look more or less the same at any Catholic church in the country. A Pentecostal service, however, can range from an orderly congregation standing neatly in pews to the infamous snake handling traditions that were born in the rural South. 

Although Pentecostal services can be very different in different areas, there are a handful of beliefs that tie the denomination together. All Pentecostal traditions adhere to all of the basic beliefs of Christianity–Jesus was God’s Son, He died and rose again, baptism for the forgiveness of sins, etc.—with the exception of Oneness Pentecostals.  This movement does not accept the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. So-called “mainstream” Pentecostals, however, do not subtract from traditional Christian beliefs as much as add to them. This has been true for much of the history of Pentecostalism. For most of that time, Christians looked askance at Pentecostals, but the denomination has only continued to grow.
As such, here are five important things for Christians to know about Pentecostalism.

Born in Late 19th Century From Holiness Movement

The Holiness movement began in the late 19th century when traditional religion was decreasing. This movement arose from Protestant churches that wished to return to the heart of religion rather than the increasingly constrained versions of most worship services. The Holiness movement came to be characterized by a focus on profound post conversion experiences. This doctrine is alive and well in Pentecostalism in the form of the Pentecostal belief in the second baptism.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Pentecostals place a great deal of importance on the second baptism, also called the baptism of the Holy Spirit. To Pentecostals, this second baptism is the sign that a person has truly been saved. The person receiving this second baptism must already have been converted to Christianity. During this incredible event, a person gives up control of themselves to the Holy Spirit and are granted the power to witness and grow spiritually after being totally immersed in the Holy Spirit like the disciples were on the first Pentecost. It is from this moment that Pentecostalism derives its name.

Divine Gifts

The second baptism Pentecostals experience brings with it clear signs of salvation. These signs are what are most commonly associated with Pentecostal Christians by non-Pentecostals. Among the Divine gifts that Pentecostals believe come with the baptism of the Holy Spirit are healing, prophecy and, in some Pentecostal churches, the ability to handle venomous snakes without harm.
The most famous divine gift, however, is speaking in tongues. Pentecostals who speak in tongues practice both glossolalia and xenoglossy. Glossolalia is when a person speaks in an unknown language. This is probably the version of speaking in tongues that comes to mind for most people. Xenoglossy is when a person speaks in a known language but not one they speak normally. An example of xenoglossy would be a person who normally can speak English and Spanish suddenly speaking Pashto.

Literal Biblical Interpretation

Pentecostalism is a denomination that is considered to take the Bible literally. The central doctrine of a second baptism is an example of this literal interpretation. The Bible states that the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.” Speaking in tongues is the mark of a Pentecostal church and one of the most distinctive characteristics of the denomination.

No Childhood Baptisms

Many denominations baptize children and even infants. Pentecostals, however, reserve baptism for adults. The first baptism, or water baptism, is only given to those who are old enough and mature enough to truly understand the importance and symbolism of the event. Children who are too young are instead dedicated to God and blessed. This is seen as most closely echoing how Jesus blessed the children during His lifetime. When water baptism takes place, the person is immersed in the water. Some churches feel that children as young as seven are able to understand and consent to baptism, although others believe that a person needs to be older. 

Emphasis on Emotion and Experience

Pentecostals place a great deal of emphasis on emotion and experience. Worship can be spontaneous and include people shouting, praying out loud, clapping and even dancing in the middle of services. Sermons are often answered with applause and shouts of “amen” or “hallelujah.” This emotional religious fervor has led many Pentecostals to feel that their services are influenced by the Holy Spirit. 

Emphasis on emotion and experience can lead some Pentecostals to struggle with the Scripture. Textual analysis tends to be less common than anecdotes or stories in sermons, and the focus on “knowing by experience” can lead some Pentecostals to feel that their own experiences trump what is written in Scriptures. This in turn can cause friction within the congregation, wider denomination or with Christians who feel that the Bible is the final authority on matters.

Pentecostalism is one of the largest denominations in Christianity, but it is also one of the least understood. Pentecostalism is a relatively young denomination of Christianity, but it has gained wild popularity in its short life. It has also become known for its fervent adherents and spontaneous worship services. From speaking in tongues to snake handling, Pentecostals are often associated with the most extreme forms of the denomination. Still, most Pentecostals would be proud to state that they have spoken in tongues or handled snakes without fear. After all, while such miracles may be scoffed at by some, to Pentecostals such “strangeties” in this life prove that they will be with Christ in the next.
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