the shape of leadership

Spirit-Filled Trailblazers

An interview with Dean Merrill

George P Wood on March 23, 2021


Dean Merrill is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 30 books. His newest is 50 Pentecostal and Charismatic Leaders Every Christian Should Know (Chosen Books), forthcoming in March. Merrill recently talked with Influence Executive Editor George P. Wood about the lessons learned from these Spirit-filled trailblazers.

GEORGE P. WOOD: Why should pastors read biographies?
Don’t think only of big, thick, 350-page biographies. For many people in my book, those full-scale treatments haven’t been written yet, and may never be. But I did a page count of how much of the Book that God wrote (the Bible) is narrative/biographical, and it came to 41%. God apparently thought such material was worthwhile to teach us about courage, priorities, sin, the value of wise counsel, what prayer actually accomplishes, and other topics.

“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The same can be said about our more recent spiritual trailblazers.

The past year was difficult. What do your sketches teach about suffering and hope?
Read about John G. Lake’s wife collapsing (probably of malnutrition) within 10 months of arriving on the mission field; Dennis Bennett getting railroaded out of his elite Episcopal church soon after he told of his Spirit baptism; Jack Hayford wishing he could leave his tiny, struggling Foursquare congregation in Van Nuys, California, but hearing the Spirit say, “Stay”; and Reinhard Bonnke having to shut down a campaign in northern Nigeria when hostile Muslims started burning Christian churches. The point: Spirit-commissioned work has never been a cakewalk.

Racial justice is an important topic. What light does Pentecostal history shed on this?
We got off to a terrific start at the Azusa Street Mission, notwithstanding the Jim Crow laws of that era. At the mission, all races sought the Spirit’s empowerment shoulder to shoulder. Visitors from the South and elsewhere were amazed. To quote eyewitness Frank Bartleman’s famous line, “The color line was washed away in the Blood.”

Spirit-commissioned work has never been
a cakewalk.”
— Dean Merrill

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. By the 1920s, the heirs of Azusa Street were gradually segregating into separate fellowships. Some tried to excuse this on doctrinal grounds, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. The chasm persisted all the way until the “Memphis Miracle” of 1994, which spawned the new multiracial Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America. That’s a great story in my book, too.

What role have women played in Pentecostalism? What challenges did they face?
My very first profile is on Maria Woodworth-Etter. God used her mightily in healing campaigns. She was present at the historic 1914 organizing council (Hot Springs, Arkansas) of the Assemblies of God — although she wrote that some of the men in charge were careful not to give her “too much authority.” Nevertheless, a later AG historian (Carl Brumback) honored [Etter] by writing, “She looked just like your grandmother, but ... exercised tremendous spiritual authority over sin, disease, and demons.”

My book of 50 profiles highlights 13 women — some for their solo ministries (Aimee Semple McPherson, Agnes Sanford, Kathryn Kuhlman), and others for what they did — or are still doing — alongside their husbands (Freda Lindsay, Judith MacNutt, Julie Ma, etc.).

Some say Pentecostalism came from “the wrong side of the tracks.” How has that shaped Pentecostalism?
It’s true. First Corinthians 1 says not many converts in Corinth were influential, not many of noble birth. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (verse 27).

I remember as a teenager growing up in an AG church how on Sunday nights we’d sometimes add a verse to the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” grinning as we belted out, “Though they call me a ‘holy roller,’ I won’t turn back, I won’t turn back.”

But in these more recent years, many of us have gotten more upscale, more polished, more “respectable.” The danger now for us Pentecostals is sacrificing our distinctives in order to keep membership in what I call “the evangelical club.”

How should we assess the flaws of our spiritual heroes?
Jamie Buckingham had a great line on this. (His moral failure early in his pastoral ministry just about torpedoed him, leading only later to his “second career” in Christian writing.) He wrote in a 1980 book, “Perfection still eludes me. I am still vulnerable. But most important, I am no longer satisfied with my imperfection. Nor, thank God, am I intimidated by it. I have reached the point of recognizing that God uses imperfect, immoral, dishonest people. In fact, that’s all there are these days. All the holy men seem to have gone off and died. There’s no one left but us sinners to carry on the ministry.”

This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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