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Pentecost in the Secular Experience
I am convinced that the way forward for pentecostals in secular culture starts by fully embracing (1) a theology of encounter, (2) the sent-ness of our spirituality and (3) an understanding of Jesus’ (and therefore our) ministry as bringing mercy to the fringes.
By Chris Green Posted in secular peoples on 2020-02-19 15 min read
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The question that we pentecostals are faced with these days is this: what does it mean to engage in ministry to secular peoples specifically as pentecostals? Maybe it helps to frame the question in this way. If the Azusa Street outpouring happened not in Los Angeles in 1906 but in 2019 in Barcelona or Berlin, London or Lisbon, or wherever you live and serve, what would that look like? My hope is that by attempting to answer that question together, the Spirit Himself will reveal to us what He is doing at this very moment.

Before we go any further, I want to ask you to complete this sentence on a piece of paper by yourself: To be pentecostal is to …

My family’s experience with Pentecost traces back to sawdust trails and revival altar calls 4 generations ago on both sides of my family. Pentecostalism is the only form of Christianity with which my family has been acquainted and as such is embedded deep into our family culture. It is vocational, Pentecostal ministry to which both sets of my grandparents committed their lives and, in turn, all my aunts and uncles, as well as my own parents. The stories I heard around the dinner table as a child were those of miracles, sermons, crazy church ladies, cranky deacons and “what the Lord did at church today”. I could be wrong but I do believe that every house in both the Green and Jordan families had an upright piano and every time the extended family came together someone sat behind those well worn ivories, grabbed the “Hymns of Glorious Praise” book and flipped inevitably to number 263 (He Set Me Free, for the uninitiated) and to Peace in the Valley (whatever number that one was). And we would sing! Three, four part harmonies would fill those living rooms after dinner. We were serious about the Spirit and the Word and worship but we were quite humorous and sarcastic about everything else, including ourselves and each other. We liked to call it “being real”.

I always loved my family and Jesus. However, my experience with “church people” specifically and more generally, pentecostal culture, left me with more questions than answers. Never doubting my family’s sincerity, I grew rather biased against the pentecostal movement, their seeming lack of intellectual depth, their proclivity for emotionalism, their spiritual elitism that made me feel spiritually lesser, and what appeared to me to be their glaring theological inconsistencies and weak argumentation. At an emotional level, some of the most tragic things that have happened to my family came by the hands of those who waved them in “amen” and “hallelujah” and by the mouths of those who spoke in tongues. As you can imagine, I fiercely resisted the call to step into what had become to me “the family business” – pentecostal ministry. That hurt and bias didn’t leave me all at once either. Jesus has been truly “long suffering” with me in my search for the truth at the bottom.

Why am I sharing all this with you? Because I want you to know that I’ve come at this as one who has known, has doubted, has been burned and yet somehow now very much believes. I might be one of the most unlikely persons to be speaking to this particular body about this particular subject. My 20-year-old self would find this hilarious.

Essentially, I’ve had to rebuild my pentecostalism from the ground up and I’ve had to do that in the context of ministry in the Netherlands. Funny enough, in reflecting on my experience in preparation for this talk, I realized that I have become not less but more pentecostal since moving to the Netherlands.

What I hope to do with you tonight is to boil our pentecostalism down to its most potent elements and then to provide a paradigm through which we can expose those elements to the contexts within which we live and minister. We’re going to do this in three movements.

  1. The possibility of pentecost
  2. The problems of pentecost
  3. The promise of a rebirth of pentecost

The possibility of pentecost

It’s important to remind ourselves that we didn’t discover the Holy Spirit. There wasn’t nothing between Acts and Azusa Street. And Pentecostals are currently not the only group that are experiencing healings and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For example, liberal protestant churches in the Netherlands are experiencing a renewal of supernatural healings and other gifts. One leader in the Dutch Assemblies of God said of them, “they’re starting to exceed us in operating in the power of the Spirit.”

Though in the early years our identity was forged by our uncommon experiences with the Spirit of God, those experiences are not so “uncommon” today. To say it another way, we do not hold the corner on the Holy Spirit market.

So if our identity is no longer in our uncommon experiences, what does pentecostalism have to offer to secular peoples today?

A brief survey

Taylor brings three sources of worry to light that are inherent in secular culture.

  1. The long term effects of individualism
  2. utilitarian approach to people / commoditization of people as consumers
  3. feared loss of freedoms due to political/social things out of my control

In his “Fire From Heaven”, Cox offers an account for why the pentecostal movement grew and what it offers today. In doing so, though not explicitly, he also offers an argument for the relevance of pentecost in secularism’s triad of worries.

According to Cox, pentecostalism offers a “primal spirituality” to lonely, commoditized, fearful, self-centered secular peoples (page 81).

  1. primal speech (tongues, praying in the Spirit)
  2. primal piety (personal experience of the divine through visions, healings, etc.)
  3. primal hope (internalized eschatology – things are going to get better very soon)

So it seems, if we take these non-Pentecostals at their word, that Pentecostal spirituality is indeed relevant for our secular context.

Problems of pentecost

Now I’d like to address to problems as I see them, that our particular brand of pentecostalism faces on two extremes. Let me say that I see these as problems because I have recognized them in myself and have found my own thoughts echoed in the words and actions of others.

Problem 1: Worry that we will be considered a cult.

I’m not sure where the phrase “middle of the road pentecostalism” came from but to me it has come to represent a brand of pentecostalism that attempts to temper its pentecostal-ness so as to be more generally appealing. Though I do not doubt that this brand of pentecostalism often has holy motives (to reach more people), I am afraid that it is in danger of losing the very thing (Cox’s “primal spirituality, for example) that gives it its potency. We will lose our edge if we try to round off all our sharp corners.

At its roots, pentecostalism is not a movement of the masses. It is a movement of mercy to the fringes of society (see below). Though many made claim to it at Chicago’s extravagant and bourgeois “Parliament of World Religions” in 1893, pentecost didn’t descend upon those decadent gatherings but upon the social outcasts that gathered in an old livery stable in Los Angeles in 1906.

We do well to remember our roots, for, in doing so, we will also remember that we have always been perceived as a “cult” by some outsiders. Our ways and our people were not very “mainstream” in the beginning. What isn’t mainstream is often subject to scrutiny and criticism. I wonder how much energy and resources we waste in trying to be “mainstream” for fear of being misunderstood and rejected.

The fact is, as long as our message is “the foolishness of the cross” carried by “earthen vessels” in the power and expectancy of the Holy Spirit, we most likely will be considered a cult by some in the mainstream. We might even experience rejection from our own brothers and sisters. I do not think it can be avoided, nor do I think trying to avoid it is a wise use of our time and resources.

Problem 2: Misidentification of our spirituality with the forms it has taken over the last 100 years

This is the second problem as I see it and it too has roots in our history.

From the beginning, ours was a gathered pentecostalism that, because it saw the power of God in the gathering, chose as its strategy the recreation of those same circumstances in which the outpouring happened. In doing so, the expression of our spirituality became event-centered. Jesus’ call to “come and see” morphed from an invitation to join on the journey to an advertisement to “come to our next meeting.” The gifts of the Holy Spirit found their primary expression in the gathering and if you wanted to experience that power, that’s where you needed to be

And people came!

So what’s the problem? They aren’t coming anymore. Those forms, successful in their day in producing great numbers of changed lives, are today increasingly ineffective in producing the same results among secular peoples. Our problem is not with our spirituality, however, but our dependency on the forms through which we have expressed it.

If, for the purposes of discovery, we can divorce ourselves from those forms, what are the things that are core to our pentecostal spirituality – our identity as pentecostals? In other words, what are the core values of the pentecostal movement.

A few that come immediately to my mind are:

  • the inbreaking kingdom of God
  • the reality of spiritual warfare
  • expectancy that God can break through at any moment
  • the indiscriminate outpouring of the Spirit
  • a utilitarian mindset concerning resources (have we lost some of that?)
  • the power of proclamation in tension with communal participation in the gathering (see Suurmond’s “Word and Spirit at Play”)

The promise of a rebirth of pentecost

A theology of encounter

Pentecostals have always been people to emphasize an “encounter with God”. At Azusa Street, our experience caught up with what our bibles and our hearts told us to be true: (1) that God wants to be known and experienced intimately and (2) that we were never meant to walk in this Way, and teach others to do the same, without the presence and power of the promised Holy Spirit.

Charles Kraft has articulated three types of encounters which marked Jesus’ ministry and that of his disciples. I want to mention them here briefly (though they deserve a session in and of themselves) because I believe they help clarify a theology of encounter that will help us in our secular context. It is important to note, as he does himself, that Kraft’s “encounter triad” presupposes an understanding of the clashing kingdoms and the followers of Jesus confronting Satan. (See also Gordon Ladd’s “The Gospel of the Kingdom”)

Kraft identifies the following three types of encounters in the ministry of Jesus.

  1. Power encounter – where Jesus and his followers demonstrate the power of God to be greater than the power of other deities (demons) or nature
  2. Truth encounter – where Jesus and his followers speak the truth and a person is cut to the heart. In our lingo we might call this a “revelation”
  3. Allegiance encounter – where Jesus and his followers appeal to people to dethrone themselves or any other god they have espoused and to commit their lives to Christ

A sent spirituality

A three-fold theology of encounter is wonderful and effective when practiced but if we only make room for encounter in our gathered environments, how will secular peoples ever experience them? We can all attest to the fact that the average Westerner is simply not interested in our gatherings, yet we have not yet embraced the consequences of that statement. For us, the glory is still hidden behind the veil of our worship services, requiring entrance to “the temple” (our church buildings) before there can be encounter.

We have been sent out to combat the hold of hell on the people around us. An encounter with God (whether that be via power, truth or allegiance encounter) is the only way to do that. They will not come to us, therefore, we must bring the encounter to them. We must reconceive our Pentecostal spirituality not as primarily a gathered but a sent spirituality. Imagine if we intentionally relocated our expected places of power, truth and allegiance encounters to places outside of our gatherings. Not that our gatherings are useless (unless by “useless” we mean what Suurmond meant), but what if we stopped trying to reach the world by church services? What if coffee shops and bus stops became the platforms upon which we expected the love, truth and power of God to be demonstrated? What will it take for us to rediscover the sent-ness of our spirituality? I believe that a “mercy paradigm” will help us along that path.

A mercy paradigm

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

‭‭Luke‬ ‭4:18-19‬ ‭NIV‬‬

This was Jesus’ “launch day” sermon, the inaugural sermon of his earthly ministry. There’s much for us to uncover here that would’ve been immediately apparent to his audience that day. “The year of the Lord’s favor” was clearly a reference to the prophetic “Year of Jubilee”, a year in which all debts were forgiven and all slaves were set free. On this day, Jesus announced the in-breaking eschatological Jubilee and cast the ministry that would follow in the light of that day.

The Spirit-sent and appointed proclamation of good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and release of the oppressed were all signs of Jubilee breaking in now, right “in your hearing” (Luke 4:20).

And to prove his point, look at what he did immediately after his launch day sermon. Jesus went out and set about a ministry of seeking out those in need of mercy (the poor, the bound, the blind, the captive). And he gave it to them by way of healings, demon expulsion, and teaching. He demonstrated an authority that caused many to marvel and a powerful few to distrust his credentials and his authenticity. His was not a ministry aimed at the masses that sometimes included the fringes. His was a ministry to the fringes which resulted in awareness among the masses.

We will find our ministry in that same Way. I am convinced that the way forward for pentecostals in secular culture starts by fully embracing (1) a theology of encounter, (2) the sent-ness of our spirituality and (3) an understanding of Jesus’ (and therefore our) ministry as bringing mercy to the fringes. Ours is truly a compassion ministry, made manifest in supernatural works of mercy. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to show us where and to whom we must go to confront Satan. We must allow the compassion that moved Christ to move us for the people around us. We must step out from behind our familiar, comfortable forms to do so. And when we do that, we must step out, not as “pastor” or “missionary” but as ourselves and lead others in doing the same.

For further reading:

Fire from Heaven, Harvey Cox

Encounters in Christian Witness, Charles Kraft (online article)

Power Evangelism, John Wimber

Israel’s Divine Healer, Michael Brown (see especially Chapter 5.2.2 – “Healing and the Eschatological Jubilee”)

The Malaise of Modernity, Charles Taylor

The Gospel of the Kingdom, Gordon Ladd

Word and Spirit at Play, Jean-Jacques Suurmond

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