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