Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A misunderstood lab rat

Written by: on October 27, 2015

I feel a bit like a subject this week, a research subject that is! While engaging with our reading this week, it’s like I’ve been poked, prodded, examined, questioned and generalized to the point of exhaustion.  It feels a bit strange to have someone study me, my group actually, and present findings based on observed group behaviors, even if those findings are generally positive…  As an individual positioned within the research subject group, I almost immediately begin to take umbrage at some of Miller and Yamamori’s assertions in their book Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement.  It seems to me that their research from the standpoint of the “outsider” misses out on some important details.  I am reflecting on how this kind of “misunderstood lab-rat” status feels as I am starting to really dig into my own research.  How careful should I be as I seek to make sense and draw inferences from others’ stories?  More on that later.

There are a couple of things that cause me to just hesitate a little when I read this book, things that an actual Pentecostal would know.  Perhaps if the authors had engaged a more ethnographic approach to their research, these would not have been overlooked.  For example, the rarely spoken of secret among classical Pentecostals is that the Assemblies of God was not simply the result of “some 300 preachers and laypersons gather[ing] for a ‘general council’.”1  That’s kind of the whitewashed version (pun intended).  The reality is that the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) was the earliest chartered Pentecostal church in America and it happened to be led by black ministers.  “[H]undreds of white Pentecostal preachers were ordained at (Charles Harrison) Mason’s hand and given credentials from the [COGIC].”2,3  But it seems that these white ministers only accepted this ordination to reap the benefits of the registered church ordination.

They largely ministered to whites and held separate, white conferences.  Then, as soon as they were able to generate enough momentum to form their own registered religious organization… well we know what happened.  They jumped ship’ leading to that aforementioned, glorious “General Council” in 1914 when the Assemblies of God was officially formed.  In my view, this was one of the most tragically racist occurrences in the history of modern Pentecostalism, effectively dismantling what could have been a colorless, classless Christian community in the mode of Azusa.

I don’t have time to delve into the mischaracterization of the “spontaneous outbreak of speaking in tongues”4 at St. Mark’s Episcopal.  But suffice it to say that the locals’  response to Bennett’s Holy Spirit baptism fell well short robust acceptance!  Bennett finished his career in Seattle after being tossed out of Van Nuys amid cries of “[t]hrow out the damned tongues-speakers, we are Episcopalians, not a bunch of wild-eyed hillbillies!”5

So why am I using up so many of my very limited blog words pointing these things out?  Because research is important and statistics only tell a portion of any culture’s story.  So, if the authors glossed over these (and other) parts of our story, I guess it’s easy to understand simplistic perceptions like “it is worship that makes Pentecostalism democratic, egalitarian, empowering, energizing, humbling, and communal.”6  Worship behaviors can be empirically observed from the outside, without living among us.  Outsider observations oftentimes result in these kinds of reductions, far too simplistic to be of much value.  Perhaps this is the result of trying to find a sociological answer to what are deeply spiritual questions without the benefit of ethnography.  Questions like “why in the heck are these Pentecostals blowing up all over the world?”  Or, “how can it possibly be that these people are on the increase while the rest of the Evangelical world is in a statistical nose dive?”  (See how quickly I devolved into the same kind of generalizations I was criticizing in the book?) can’t be answered by simple, empirical observation.  They can only be answered by living among us, understanding our view of God/man relationships and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

Which brings me full circle.  When acting as a researcher how careful must I be to not just watch statistical trend lines from 60,000 feet?  I mean if I’m interested in my research actually being helpful…  Do the things I am looking into actually matter to me personally?  Or am I just inquiring for the sake of inquiry?

  1.  Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: the New Face of Christian Social Engagement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 26.
  2. Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 104-106.
  3. NOTE, the COGIC peaked at approximately 15,000 congregations and presently has 12,000+.  This highlights another research oversight by Miller and Yamamori.
  4. Miller, 27.
  5. Synan, 153.
  6. Miller, 132.


About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

11 responses to “A misunderstood lab rat”

  1. Mary Pandiani says:

    As you mentioned in your response to my blog post, this idea of being an auto-ethnographer might be the next step that researchers must do before they begin researching. Unless we understand and know our own story, we can easily overlay it over another’s story. However, I must confess that I appreciated the researchers in this book for their willingness to listen, even outside what they thought they would hear. Perhaps what we need to look at is the difference of the parent who REALLY knows the child and the teacher who says, “wow, did you know this about your kid?” Both pieces of information are valuable to see the truth.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      I think the tendency exists among researchers to discount their own story in terms of the research, as if by including themselves in the mix they somehow invalidate the study. But, in reality, there is something that drives all of us to research a given topic and that something is likely woven into the story of our own lives. if we detach from the research in terms of our personal experiences, much of the passion is lost and empty, academic words may result.

      Now, the challenge for autoethnographers seems to be figuring out how to not just land on a bunch of personal anecdotes and call it “research.”


  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, “How careful should I be as I seek to make sense and draw inferences from others’ stories? More on that later.” This line made me think of a major theme from last year … epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we contrive what we think we know? I love your critical thinking capacity. I didn’t think one time during reading this text to really question the method. I was caught up in the stories and case studies but didn’t really evaluate the broad sweeping generalizations they may have been making. I thought Miller especially was bringing in some great insight and points of reference but I guess it is all what you are looking for. I will be interested to see how all this plays out in your research experience.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Thanks Phil. I think many who read this book who are not “Pentecostals” themselves may have the same reaction you had… This is some great data, a deepening of your understanding and, perhaps a new appreciation, even affirmation, of Pentecostalism but it’s still articulated from the standpoint of outsiders looking in. I think most research is done from that standpoint.

      Caroline is helping me fine tune an approach to research that balances data gathered from observation with autoethnography in the hopes that there result will be credible but authentic and heartfelt.


  3. Dave Young says:

    Jon, So shoot me if I’m over-generalizing but the deepest root of pentecostalism is the reliance upon and reflection of the Spirit. So if a episcopalian and an analytical asian both came away with a bunch of really good things to say about global pentecostalism – I’d say that was a God thing. On the other hand I could also agree with your thoughts that they did make lots of sweeping statements. It’s like they had thesis to prove and they looked at everything through those lens. Oh the tension between the Spirit and the flesh.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      I wouldn’t disagree with that statement. I’m sure that some of my reading of this work is tinted by the reality that, as a Pentecostal, I already live with a sort of a sense of inferiority and defensiveness. We always find ourselves being on the “others” end of the “us and them” continuum so we can be a bit defensive as a result. Then you add to that some glaring inaccuracies and it just feeds that defensiveness. Especially that business between the AG and the COGIC…

      So my overall take is “hey, if you’re going to examine us and make assertions, at least try to understand the nuances of the stories you are telling…” But, that brings me back to my main point and that is, without being at least a little bit embedded, that may be impossible.

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Jon, you correctly brought out the origin of the Church of God. I am a member of the Church of God in Christ. And when the Spirit was poured out white people and black people worshiped together and other races too in a racially segregated time. I dont know but i believe real and authentic worship should not be segregated like it is. We had something great back then yet God is in control of all things!

    • Jon Spellman says:

      The potential for leveling the racial playing field was never closer to being reality than during the Azusa era. It’s interesting to me that Seymour had to sit in the hall and listen through an open window at Parham’s school in Topeka yet when he opened his own mission, ALL colors were welcomed in.

      Another example of a person reacting in a way that is opposite of the oppression he had lived with. How often do we see that happening?

  5. Nick Martineau says:


    From the intro of this book I could tell they were making broad generalizations but I really appreciate you bringing your experience into the conversation and validate that thought for me. You said, “Worship behaviors can be empirically observed from the outside, without living among us.” That seems to be to be what many of us do when talking about tribes. We can only be experts in our own tribe but the outside view does give a perspective worth listening too. Thanks Jon.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      I think if nothing else, a sensitivity to the reality that if I am an “other” looking into “those people” I have to recognize that I can’t see it all from the outside. I must recognize my blind spots


  6. Brian Yost says:

    Great post, Jon. You bring up many good points. What stands out to me me is that many questions, “can only be answered by living among us”. This reiterates the need to build relationships and engage in honest dialogue across denominational/tribal lines.

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