Renewing the Society for Pentecostal Studies

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Chances are you have not heard of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. For some, the idea of Pentecostals engaged in scholarship may even seem contradictory. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, much of the creative theological thinking today is taking place among Pentecostals. The Society, founded in 1970, has moved far along since its early days and hosts an annual conference with hundreds of scholars. This week, March 10-13, 2011, the conference meets in Memphis, Tennessee, with the theme “Receiving the Future: An Anointed Heritage.” Check out the Society’s website!

Moving towards the half-a-century hallmark, the Society is subject to to the powers of change. One of the most visible changes is the age and diversity of scholars at the meetings. This transition offers an opportunity to revisit the self-understanding of the Society. I have attended the annual meetings for the past 15 years, and it seems to me that there are two kinds of attitudes dominant among scholars. We can characterize them by a different construction of the title of the Society. When asked what “SPS” stands for, you will readily get two different answers: Society FOR Pentecostal Studies or Society OF Pentecostal Studies. Considering that  single iota has proven significant in the history of Christian doctrine, it seems to me that the difference of an entire preposition should not be overlooked. So which is it, friends and colleagues? It is time to settle the question!

The mission of the Society states its purpose as “to stimulate, encourage, recognize, and publicize the work of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars; to study the implications of Pentecostal theology in relation to other academic disciplines, seeking a Pentecostal world-and-life view; and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship” (Article 2, Constitution and Bylaws). Which of the popular titles reflects this statement? Is it the Society of or the Society for Pentecostal Studies? My guess it that both prepositions have their supporters, but you cannot have both in a formal title. Only one can properly represent the idea of the SPS.

I propose that the idea of a Society OF Pentecostal Studies is too restrictive. In some sense, it is simply the assembly of Pentecostal scholars who meet once a year to discuss papers. In a way, that is probably an accurate description of much of the history of the SPS. In fact, unless you actively seek interaction outside the annual meetings, there is little evidence that the Society stimulates, encourages, recognizes, and publicizes Pentecostal and charismatic scholarship. Even participation in the annual gatherings depends almost exclusively on your own initiative. What I mean is that the label “Society OF Pentecostal Studies” is accurate–but it is not desirable!

The label “Society FOR Pentecostal Studies” has a different connotation. In this image, the society serves Pentecostal scholarship. It indicates not only purpose but more importantly the object and recipient of the desires and activities of the Society. It is Pentecostal Studies that stands at the heart of this description–not the Society. In this sense, the Society seeks to be a true representative of Pentecostal Studies. The latter always supersedes the former. Here, I am not simply expecting a well-arranged meeting with colleagues, I expect to see friends and strangers, those whom I have come to trust along the way and those who challenge me to see new and different paths. When I go this week once again to the meeting, I intend to come away surprised by the diversity of tongues (pun intended) and confirmed by the familiarity of expression. As I look to the next decade, I see a Society that is still discovering what it means to stimulate, encourage, and recognize Pentecostal studies. There is much to do to make this mission a more tangible reality. And as we all know, the idea of an academic society is but an empty shell without the people. It is Pentecostal scholarship that is being renewed … and the Society for Pentecostal Studies is destined to reflect this transformation. Are you going?

Tags: ,

Wolfgang Vondey
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, March 8th, 2011 at 10:05 am and is filed under Education, Faith & Culture, Renewal Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

9 Responses to “Renewing the Society for Pentecostal Studies”

  1. Don Quijote says:

    At first I thought this article may be tongue-in-cheek. But i suppose its true that this blog post concerns the name difference of “of” and “for”, and that one is clearly superior.

    we need to get out more. we christians and our christian cliques need to go mistake windmills for giants, farmers for knights, and prostitutes for fair maidens; for at least then the isolating of ourselves to our own little world could teach others to see the world in a rosily quixotic hue.

    and if this comment gets removed, at least i know you read it.

    • I read your comment, Don Quijote. In following the image of your pen name, may I suggest you read Rene Girard’s brilliant literary analysis of Don Quixote called “Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.” It is a telling tale of misdirected desire that can easily be applied to the history of Pentecostal studies. See one of my earlier blogs on the academy: Playing Don Quixote. But I think that Pentecostal scholarship is shedding the romantic lens, and the Society for Pentecostal Studies will do well to reflect this coming of age of scholars that look past the windmills.

  2. Gregory Despain says:

    Great site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any forums that cover pentecostal studies? I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get feed-back from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks!

    • Gregory, the best “forum” for Pentecostal scholarship is the Society for Pentecostal Studies. I encourage you check it out (next year’s meeting is at Regent University). You will find a collegial atmosphere with a wide range of topics and discussions. As far as online forums are concerned, there are a number of personal forums or blogs by individual scholars from the pentecostal and charismatic community. To my knowledge, Renewal Dynamics is the only blog engaging pentecostal scholarship consistently and from a diverse range of disciplines.

  3. Tony says:

    Amen! Just as the church exists not only for itself, but also for the world (and for God’s glory), so the Pentecostal movement and its scholars exist not only for themselves but for others as well. Accordingly, the difference between “of” and “for” is not minute but major. The first tends to be introverted and the latter extroverted. However, perhaps of signficance is an observation to the effect that “of” may be included in “for”–although in an expansive sense. In other words, renewal of SPS involves not only others but also ourselves in reciprocation, potentially at least, leading to mutual transformation. And yet “of”, while perhaps ideally including “for”, may not necessarily do so. In fact, it most likely won’t include the other. Accordingly, I opt for THE SOCIETY FOR PENTECOSTAL STUDIES in prayerful anticipation that the renewing power of the Holy Spirit of God and of Christ will embrace and enlarge us all!

    • Thank you, Tony. I note your vote. Let’s see if the SPS notes it, too. That said, what we are dealing with are perhaps two different things: the people who make up the membership of the Society and the Society itself, which after 40 years of existence has become a bit of a bureaucracy in its own right. How can the Spirit renew our institutions?

  4. I have looked to becoming part of the SPS. My problem is that I came into the Jesus family in my mid twenties. The Pentecostals I read were in a constant polemic with those who “lacked faith” – usually these were the educated, the post-hole diggers (PhDs).

    Back then working for a Pentecostal church was a quick way into the poor house (I know, I was sowing into the Kingdom). Therefore, if I wanted to work with gang kids and make a living, I needed to turn to education not theology. So now all my degrees are in Special education (that put me in the big money).

    Years have passed, we have kids, and I have a passion for theology. I work for a church that loves Spirit and all that He does. I read voraciously and have found that biblical studies and theology only strengthen foundations when walking in the Spirit. In fact, theology is a fountain that opens the gates for Spirit to flood in with revelations. However, my degrees are not in theology or biblical studies.

    My understanding is that the SPS only allows those who are, “currently engaged in Christian education.” So what is a pastor to do? I have attended some of the SPS events at the SBL’s annual meeting. I do find my ignorance of original languages a bit of a distraction, but I follow what is being presented. The social gatherings of the SPS in Atlanta did not seem to help as I felt very much out of place in the midst of a fraternal gathering of old friends.

    Perhaps your suggestion that the SPS become a Society FOR Pentecostal Studies may challenge the society to allow pastors the blessing of fellowship (the exchanging of ideas) that we may encourage those God has given us to enter the academy with vigor and do so on the basis of relationship rather than reputation.

    blessings to you all

    • Hi Gary,

      I am sorry for your experience with exclusivist Pentecostal attitudes. Those attitudes exist on all sides of the denominational dilemma. Your comment that you felt a bit out of place among the gatherings of those who know each other well speaks volumes to the continuing need that the Society remains open to new voices. I share similar experiences with you when I joined the SPS, and it does take a while to become an “insider.” Even so, there are still many insider groups within the Society, and I attribute that to a misunderstanding of the Society’s purpose. In any case, I recommend that you attend the actual meetings of the SPS rather than the SPS events at other gatherings. The SPS tends to get overwhelmed by those larger Societies and has only recently found a foothold. You will find the meetings of the SPS more welcoming. And if nothing else, come and find me at the meeting! There are many pastors and lay persons who join our meetings; in fact, a large group attended the meeting in Memphis. The next meeting is at Regent University, and we anticipate a diverse crowd of scholars, church leaders, and pastors. The Society certainly does not renew itself. It is we who need to start making it a place that meets the full intentions of its name.