Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Pentecostals; A Continuing Wave or Dying Ripple

April 30, 1989 Articles

For close to a century, the Pentecostal wave has washed against the beaches of North America and indeed, the world. Will that continue? Or has the force of this storm been spent? Has the power of this movement been absorbed by the surrounding currents? Has the Pentecostal church already has served its usefulness by introducing a fresh and deepened understanding of the Holy Spirit?

As a Pentecostal I resist the notion that this movement will now lapse now only to
maintain a tradition or appear only in history texts. However, if the Pentecostal message is to continue impacting the church and the world, we will need to moth ball our religious nostalgia, replace our fading memories and dying dreams with a vigorous analysis of what Pentecostal theology and ministry is and develop a vigorous strategy.

A child of the 20th century
No other movement within the Christian church symbolizes the twentieth century as does the Pentecostal wave. Bursting on the scene this religious phenomenon has worked its way into the very fabric of the western culture. In fact it built from ideas, controversies and spiritual interests common to the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

The North American Pentecostal church grew in a culture which affirmed Judeo-Christianity. It was the foundation on which our culture was managed. This view allowed the various sectors of society to work in relative harmony without the clash of social discord we now experience in this age of secularism and pluralism.

In the early years of this century mainline Protestantism was caught by the debate of whether the Bible was the Word of God or Jesus was the Son of God. During this modernist/fundamentalist debate Pentecostals, in preaching the Bible as true and Jesus as the Christ attracted many who were discomfited with the increased liberalism in their churches.

Growing interest in the work and person Holy Spirit flowed out of the 19th century and provided the context in which the Pentecostal movement was born. Books were written, conferences held and world-renowned preachers–including Dwight L. Moody–pressed Christians with the need to “walk in the Spirit.” Thus, as Pentecostal preachers gave insight and practical evidence of the power of the Spirit, hungry believers responded, and the Pentecostal wave rose.

The Banks Overflowed
In the early 1960s, Anglican minister, Father Bennett helped to trigger the charismatic movement. The banks of Pentecostalism overflowed as the message of the Spirit’s fullness worked its way into the streams of mainline protestants and Catholics. The popularity of Pentecostal worship and theology provided an acceptance of the Pentecostal distinctive which up to that point was regarded by many as being aberrant, if not heretical. For the last twenty-five years mainline Pentecostal groups have both sustained and been sustained by the popularity of the charismatic movement.

Today that scene is changing. The issues are different. Will Pentecostals identify the real
enemies of the Gospel and engage in the battle? Or will we stay with the old analysis, refusing to accept the battle of this generation? If we are committed to honest evaluation and prepared to fight the battles of this generation, it requires that we first identify the enemy.

Secularism
Secularism is that enemy. In short, secularism is a denial of the role of the transcendent in all of life. While a large majority of North Americans continue to believe in a personal God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, our government, educational systems, to name only two, operate on the basis that while people may continue to practice their faith, the idea of God is a private idea with no right to help shape our laws or culture.

This shift away from acknowledging that life flows from God and is to be lived under obedience to God became obvious in the 1960s. It was a complete reversal from the historic understanding that Judeo-Christian ideals were foundational to our social norms and legal assumptions.

Traditionally, Pentecostals have seen their prime foe to be liberal Protestantism and
Catholicism. Today, while we continue to oppose liberal Protestantism, it is less of an issue as evangelicals are more confident with their biblical views. The “battle for the Bible,” has been waged and won. As well there is evidence that liberal Protestantism is failing to meet core spiritual needs or to attract the emerging generation.

Relations with the catholic church are less antagonistic. In facing secularism, we see what
we have in common with them, belief in a personal God, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Bible as the Word of God. While we will continue to strongly disagree with their notion of grace and forgiveness and issues like the role of the mother of Jesus, we increasingly find ourselves in the same corner battling issues like abortion, prayer in the schools and pornography. As well, in contrast to other evangelicals, Pentecostals have a closer tie with those Catholics who have come into their “Pentecostal experience.”

Thus the old battles with mainline protestants and Catholics no longer dominate. What is at stake for Pentecostals is the battle for biblical faith in our culture in the face of secularism. While we will continue to press for vibrant, Bible believing faith over against protestant liberalism and assert the nature of God’s grace as the only means of salvation over against traditional catholic dogma, the real enemy is dominant secularism which attempts to stamp out biblical faith by isolating it from shaping our culture or having a voice.

However, while we see secularism as the dominant force pressing from without, there are
internal factors from within which call for our response. These can easily diminish the force of the Pentecostal wave. While others which could be identified, here I will note seven.

The Middle Class
Pentecostals have climbed the social and economic rungs into the middle class. Pentecostalism, traditionally, found a broad acceptance among those on the lower level of the social/economic ladder. Thus, it was convenient to preach on the evil of wealth, worldliness, and affluence when only a few in the church got more than an hourly wage. Today, it is more difficult to preach about the worldliness of wealth. All one needs to do is examine the parking lots of our churches during the Sunday morning service!

While wealth and worldliness need not necessarily be linked our view of wealth is cause for concern. Some say it`s evidence of God’s blessing. That may be true. That however can lead to the next line: “since our wealth is evidence of God’s blessing, money is God’s means of demonstrating His approval and therefore what we are doing must also be met with His approval. And poverty is evidence of His disapproval”

This feeds the building of empires. The downside is that those with newly earned wealth quickly forget their roots. And the poor will be reluctant to walk into our churches and few will receive invitations to Sunday lunch.

Preserving the status quo
The danger of success is the straight jacket of the status quo; a belief that the surest way to retain blessings is to resist change. I recall when the very name, “Pentecostal,” conjured up scenes of crazies rolling on the floor and hanging from the chandeliers. (I always wanted to see the latter, but somehow missed any display of such acrobatic skill!)

Today with larger numbers, increased leadership roles in mainstream evangelical circles, respectable church facilities, successful use of the electronic media we are now considered part of the religious establishment. The danger is when we attempt to preserve the newly found status. It traps us into guarding old positions, shelving creative ideas and forcing younger leaders to accept the old ways. And if younger leaders aspire higher levels of leadership, they are forced to pay the high price of conventionality and mediocrity. Risk taking is out. The old ways in.

There is a second aspect to the status quo and that is a reaction to losing a position as the sole proprietor of the historic Pentecostal message. When a doctrine, like speaking in tongues, is modified by charismatics, the reaction by the historic Pentecostal groups may be to withdraw into sectarianism. The same has been true with those who have emphasized “kingdom” theology. In recent years some, within our denominations, have preached increasingly on Christ’s kingdom in ways which cut across the grain of some od our traditional views. Instead of examining both the people and our traditional views for what they are worth, we reaction

Tongues as the Test
I am grateful for the biblical teaching on the nature and place of tongues in worship and life. My concern is not whether or not speaking in tongues is biblical. I believe it is. Instead, it is this. Will we make this the prime litmus test of whether or not one is truly “Pentecostal.” Central to the historic Pentecostal movement has been an understanding of the nature of going anywhere for Christ. We must encourage people to open to the Holy Spirit and biblical manifestations. Yet to make tongues the prime feature of what it means to be Pentecostal is, in my view, to limit the message of God’s power in life. And that would be to affirm those who led this movement.

Trapped by the Surrounding Culture
Reinhold Niebuhr in the classic Christ and Culture identifies one role of religion in culture and that is to call it to obedience. This Pentecostals have done but today we are in deep danger of simply becoming a mirror of our surrounding culture reflecting it instead of a being a candle, providing guidance. Our values, style, buildings, and programs are too often reworked versions of what has already been done in “the world.” That doesn’t make it wrong, but it can lead us to the unconscious conclusion that to be successful it must fit a certain pattern.

This can be seen by the interest in influencing our government. I believe that such activity
is biblical and necessary. However, I sense that one dominant reason that many of our people want to influence government is because other interest groups are becoming so strident in pressing their views. As we witness their activities and successes we ask for the same influence.

Dependency on the Charismatic Wave
As the charismatic wave surged through the seventies, the Pentecostal church grew as people were attracted to the theology, worship and freedom attributed to the Holy Spirit. Although the Pentecostal movement had spawned the charismatic wave, the wider interest in a more experience-oriented religion made the Pentecostal church more attractive. In this sense the traditional Pentecostal churches rode the new wave.

Today that wave is cresting. And like all movements, it will diminish in size and intensity.
This will in turn affect Pentecostal denominations. The choice is to ignore the surrounding cultural realities and continue, entrenched in our ways or to do careful analysis of the situation and who we are and then be creative in developing strategies for growth and ministries and design effective forms of worship and witness.

Definition of worldliness
With our roots in the holiness movements of the 19th century, early Pentecostalism was clearly against certain forms of entertainment and behavior. The typical issues were smoking, alcoholic beverages, movies, and dancing. As well, involvement in such activities as politics were seen as “worldly” and therefore unacceptable for a believer. Today we are having difficulty in defining “worldliness.” Traditionally we saw it as doing certain things, now we realize it is anything one does outside of the reign of Jesus Christ, including what is done for and within the church. For sure our church buildings look like and our entertainment sounds like what we see and hear in the world. So what do we do? Walk away from defining worldliness because we are becoming so much like the world? Or do we fall back into the trap of legalism when worldliness was more a reflection of sectarianism than it was of biblical exegesis? I pray not. But we do need a biblical definition of worldliness.

Avoidance of Social Issues
As the Social Gospel emerged in the early 1900s many evangelicals and certainly early
Pentecostals were soured on becoming involved in social issues. The reason being was that most Social Gospel advocates were rooted in theological liberalism. This convinced Pentecostals that they should therefore have nothing to do with social issues. The opposite was advanced. Save souls for eternity, that’s all that really matters.

Thus both our ability to analyze and respond to social issues was retarded. Now that we
are concerned about social issues–usually confined to moral/ethical issues like abortion and pornography–we struggle to make sense of what is going on and what should be done. Thus when we do get involved it may be done with a lack of sensitivity and skill. If it is done in the full glare of the media eye, it is highly magnified and often distorted.

What do we have to offer? As a Pentecostal, I look with hope to this new decade, as the
Lord delays His coming. I have noted the primary foe of this age, secularism and those issues which can neutralize our spiritual effectiveness. I do so with a conviction that there is no need for the wave to become a ripple. What will it require?

Affirm the Transcendent
The rationalism of the 19th century was snuffing out the life of the church. The most fundamental aspect of the Pentecostal message was that God is alive, engaging His people by His Spirit in life. Speaking in tongues was important as an expression of that power. At the core, however, of the Pentecostal message was God’s faithful witness in power in meeting needs and empowering His people.

While we have been accepted within the broader evangelical church stream there is a danger that we could be trapped into being like others for increased acceptance. That will not serve the church. Each denomination has and is used of God to bless His church. But if Pentecostals attempt to reformat their ministry for reasons other than biblical outreach the essence of spiritual power will erode.

Affirm Joy in Worship
A dominant symbol of Holy Spirit worship is joy. I admit that too often our services have lacked thought and order. But they were characterized by praise. The challenge is to design creative Pentecostal worship which is authentic and not just a reworking of the past. Included is an acceptance of new forms of music, a instituting of older forms and the inclusion of Bible texts in music and recitation. But that takes thoughtful planning.

There are times I feel that as the pastor and I walk to the platform, he is scrambling in his
mind to decide what songs to sing and how to order the service. We must be careful not to think that because our worship often has the appearance of informality that sloppiness is therefore acceptable. Some Pentecostal churches have not varied their form of worship for decades. And yet the needs of our people have changed.

Affirming Lostness
We all have been influenced by the sciences of psychology and sociology. While they have greatly assisted us in understanding the human condition, central to our theology is an understanding of the nature of sin and salvation. Much of our ministry time is taken up in dealing with the sins of our people. And since the majority of ministry is pastoral, our focus is on the immediate needs and feelings of those we shepherd. What is forgotten is the nature of eternity and thus the eternal consequence of a life outside of Christ. Sin is not just sinning. Sin is to be cut off from God. Eternal lostness can be camouflaged as we are reluctant to be characterized as the hell fire and brimstone preachers. As we are surrounded by immediate, pressing needs, we may fail to remind our people of the reality of a eternity apart from Christ.

In short, humans are lost now and forever apart from the grace of our risen Lord. As we
build our churches and serve the needs of our families, members and those of the surrounding community, the deep consciousness of this reality, lostness, is pushed to the side. While we attempt to bring justice to the unborn and curb the evils of pornography along with other pressing social evils, do we allot sufficient time, human resources and budget to reach our community, whose members are forever lost unless they know The Christ.

To do battle against secularism and to avoid the neutralizing forces within the church, it
will require an biblical examination of the essence of the Pentecostal message.

Religious observers may predict that this Pentecostal, twentieth century wave has peaked
and conclude it will soon become a ripple. While we understand that God works within the context of culture and time, His ways are eternal and His will ongoing. Storms will come and go. Tides will rise and fall. Waves will wash back and forth on the beaches, but the sea will continue to do its work. God’s will to empower His people has not changed. May we ride the wave of His workings in this generation. Let the waves roll on.

Published in the Eastern Pentecostal Bible College QUARTERLY/89

Brian C Stiller
1989