Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Being Pentecostal in the 21st Century

November 7, 2001 Articles

I write as a son of a Canadian prairie, Pentecostal pastor. I graduated from Central Pentecostal College in 1963 and was ordained by the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC)—the sister denomination of the Assemblies of God—in 1968.

That forms part of my pentecostal pedigree. Today I serve as president of a major Canadian transdenominational, evangelical school, offering both university and seminary training.

My Pentecostal teeth were cut not only on many pews of prairie churches and camp meetings. And on the splinters of the Latter Rain Movement, a religious debate split—especially in Western Canada—from which many wondered if we would survive.

Let me be clear: I consider the breaking out of the pentecostal message to by the major Spirit innovation of the past hundred years. I’m grateful for the Lord birthing me into a family and community of this understanding.

In my growing up time, the Christian community was deeply divided between liberals and conservatives. Pentecost was an anomaly: part of the evangelical world, and yet not quite. In today’s parlance, we were post modern, a term that in the late twentieth century came to mean, a view of experience and learning that believed truth came not only by rational thinking but experience and intuition as well.

Today, as I see the wider horizon of church life in North America, I wonder if we know our primary calling. It is to that I write.

To get at the issue, reflect on Abraham’s call, especially Hebrews 11 reference. Abraham was called out, called to leave the “silicon valley” of his day and find a land he knew little or nothing about. When he arrived he drove down his roots and made the land his.

Yet he lived with tension. The writer puts it this way:

Augustine—he led the church in Rome in the 400s—described the tension Abraham had, on one hand living and taking ownership of the land, and yet living in tents. Augustine in describing how Abraham handled that tension used an engaging word, peringrini, translated as “resident aliens.” He took ownership of the land, yet he lived with a reserve, with an eye on the wider horizon.

As I look back on my heritage I wonder, why did my father, Carl Stiller and his brother August leave the Swedish Mission Covenant in the mid 1930s? To form another denomination? No. To empower the people of God. To respond to the latent heart cry of God’s people to a fuller understanding of the Spirit of God.

Today, around the world, the pentecostal message, especially with its more charismatic leaning, is exploding. Yet here in Canada we seem stuck. In fact stats show we are in decline. Growing churches in many of our cities are those with various expressions of evangelical theology and contemporary worship, some with charismatic styles or phenomena and some with none at all. What does not usually characterize many of our churches is what we would remember as being particularly pentecostal in the mid twentieth century: no longer prayer rooms or tarrying meetings; few ecstatic utterances in public gatherings. This is not a critique, simply an observation. (I have no interest in fueling the less than helpful reaction of some of our internal cranks.) The Spirit works in different ways in different times and places.

Abraham was called out so that “all people of earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:)

Was his primary goal to establish a race, or was it to be a base from which God would redeem his entire creation? I think the latter. Did he obey God’s call so he could decorate the race with its many characteristics? Does it matter that the Hebrew race would be seen as another ethnic reality? The race was called into being to cradle the coming King. Its DNA called it to be the source of blessing to the many nations. Herein is the central message to Pentecostals in this century.

Of the many things we might say of our movement, we would agree that know the Spirit is for purposes of world evangelization. It was not about miracles for its sake. In the beginning it was not about tongues. It was about being empowered to tell and demonstrate to the world the universal and eternal rule of Jesus of Nazareth, Lord, Son of God and coming king.

Today while we have many pentecostal denominations, we are still among many. As much as we are afraid to admit, movements become machines and are always in danger of becoming mausoleums. We have followed the predictable pattern of religious and specifically Christian movements over the past two millennia. That does not make us less significant, it does tell us that the realities of human organization are ours as much as they are of others.

Could it be that we are so busy creating a “race”—A.K.A. “a denomination,”—that we forget that first and foremost, we are about blessing the world.

Let’s put our life and this moment into context. We are part of what God has been doing in and through countless others of the past 2000 years in the life of the church. He used this pentecostal movement to show the world a greater understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We were used, and we are glad. He took a frail and modest group and opened to them insights needed for the church.

Today we are not the sole possessors of this message. It has leapt the barriers. As a midwife of Spirit knowledge, let us celebrate the child and its offspring. We need not claim this movement of God as if we have some proprietary right. Aren’t we are in danger of being sidetracked when we use the phrase, “our pentecostal distinctive,” unless of course, that distinctive is the love of Jesus.

Let’s ask, what did we add to God’s agenda? Was it not an understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit in carrying out the agenda and strategies of the King? In our pentecostal schools we offer courses in pneumatology. Are we in danger of spending too much time reacting to other pneumatologies and not enough in building and writing that which can contribute from our own history, hermeneutic and collective experiences? We will build churches, send missionaries, and serve our communities in many ways. But with the rich history of our fore parents and the collective understanding of the Spirit, could it be that we have just begun to scratch the surface of knowing this Third Person of the Trinity? Is out calling to be at the forefront of helping other communities to know His ways.

I sense we’re caught in a malaise of a leadership and fuzzy focus. To be only a “resident” without being aware of what it is to be an “alien” is dangerous.

Let me touch on a sensitive issue. “Residents” are prone to be stuck on formulas of identity. So when tongues becomes the defining characteristic, we end up describing ourselves by how we, as “race”—a group—is different from others. We come to believe we really have it. This gift—for which we are so grateful in the many ways we are led and lifted—is but a gift. It is important but not the end-all of our encounters. This gift—and let’s not forget it’s the Spirit’s gift—is part of the empowerment process so we as a people will not be caught up in being a “race,” concerned about ourselves but as a conduit of his grace and power to all people.

Some say that its time we designed ministry to look more like other evangelicals. I disagree. I’m not asking pentecostals to become like the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Mennonite or Baptists. I praise God for their witness and the wonderful work they do. I also know that each of these traditions add to us, so that by knowing them we are enriched. By the same argument, we add to their collective witness when we bring to the table a growing knowledge of the Holy Spirit of God.

Here is my prayer: that somewhere in the mix of our coming generations there will be those who by discipline and study will help the entire church grow in understanding the life of the Spirit and lead us into further places of God-centred living. But do we have the people with the right tools to reflect on our theology and experience meaningfully? We are in need of those who can relate our theology, in this age, to biblical experience.

Ask yourself, when we stand around the throne of our King and Saviour, will it occur to us that the strength and prestige of our denomination matters one twit? As a writer suggests we ask, “What will what I do today look like in value and significance to those who stand around my coffin on the day of my funeral?” That too can be asked of our priorities as members of our Pentecostal denominations: what will be our best and most significant contribution be to the Kingdom of our Lord?

Let’s recognize
• We are no longer of the blue collar and poor or working class. Now as part of the affluent, we have difficulty in ministering to the marginalized.
• No longer are we exclusive holders of this understanding of the empowering Spirit.
• The wave that carried us into growth from 1960 to 2000 was not just because of our message of Spirit empowerment. It was also because of a shift in our world towards openness to matters of spirituality and religious experience, everything from eastern mysticism to the “Toronto Blessing.”
• Our wider pentecostal/charismatic community seems to spawn some of the most outrages, bizarre ministries offensive in their extravagance and self-promotion.
• We have never been enthusiastic about creating and funding centres of training people to serve, pastor and teach. Our inherent anti-intellectualism eventually becomes counter-productive.
• While the pentecostal message is at the heart of the explosion of Christian ministry in the southern hemisphere, it is hard for us to claim that for ourselves, apart from the contributions made from our mission endeavors from North America.

Could we not learn from Jesus in his description of how His kingdom shapes influences and infects? His metaphors are salt, light and yeast. What do each of these do? Salt works its way into the food, permeating the structure of the food so that taste springs to the buds of the eater. Food comes alive. Light is that when present takes away the shroud of darkness. What could not be seen, now can be. Dangers are seen for what they are. Light doesn’t own anything, it simply enables us to see. Yeast like salt is most modest in relation to what it influences. All you need is a little. And when the baker presents the mouth savoring offering, it isn’t with, “Have a bite of this delicious yeast.”

Could it be that being pentecostal—as the Lord tarries—will not be primarily about running churches and missions and displaying denominational signs, but rather infecting our Christian communities with a substantive understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit so that their lives and witness bring to the fore the Lord Jesus? Could we think what salt or yeast might lead to strategically? Could we reflect on what light might do in a world of changing values and upside-down priorities? If so we could then take more seriously Paul’s challenge to world-centred fallacy of the early church of not being seduced by various faction and saying, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas?”

Let me ask, would the Lord raise up a movement, building on this Spirit-led community, allowing us to become a catalyst within our larger community of faith, helping them to know the fullness of Spirit life and Spirit power? If we worked at being more aware of the Lord’s message to our world and seeking to break this out into the churches, ministries and programs of others, we might better exercise our calling and gifting, working with the power of multiplication instead of addition.

I celebrate our one hundred years of life and witness. I will thank the Lord for allowing me to be born and raised in this heritage. I thank the many who gave of their resources and lives to build and sustain this centre of training.

Yes we are grateful for the past and for its impact on the present. But colleagues, let us encourage and pray for those who will, like our ancestors, discover ways of the Spirit so that their world too would find joy in our risen Lord.

Being pentecostal isn’t about style or form; it’s about substance: it’s the Holy Spirit of God who explodes Christ’s kingdom out into our world. In the end we are followers of Jesus. While we treasure the heritage and richness of this world movement, we stand with Peter, bold in faith, empowered by the Spirit proclaiming to the world that Jesus of Nazareth has risen. With that we can be pentecostal in any world: pre modern, modern, post modern or pagan, not fixated by structures or systems but empowered by His Spirit to take the message of Christ to our age and world.
The purpose of Abraham being called out wasn’t in the end to build a race but to bless the world with a Saviour. Could it be that as 21st Century pentecostals our calling is not about “race” building but as tent dwellers to be a conduit of understanding of the person and ways of God’s Spirit so the church is blessed with an understanding of empowerment, to the end that the world bows a knee to confess that Jesus is Lord?

Brian C Stiller
President, Tyndale University & Seminary
Toronto Ontario.
2001