A Movement Like No Other
What churches can learn from Pentecostals
Pentecostalism is the longest, most sustained and consecutive growth of a movement in the history of global Christianity. The Assemblies of God USA has experienced 25 years of consecutive growth, and a year-by-year comparison between 1990 and 2015 shows a 47 percent difference (2.1 million to 3.1 million). By comparison, the relative growth of the U.S. population grew only 29 percent!
Pentecostals are statistically growing faster than the U.S. population, and there are things the U.S. church as a whole can learn from this sustained growth.
Pentecostalism and the charismatic expression is a continualist movement that believes the gifts of the Holy Spirit have continued or reemerged after the Azusa Street Mission revival in the early 1900s, several years after Charles Parham laid the foundation for the Pentecostal Holiness movement in Topeka, Kansas, during the late 1800s.
After the Azusa Street Mission brought this relatively small Pentecostal movement into worldwide acclaim, many Christian leaders across broad denominational spectrums began to see the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a unique and special gift. This carried on separately from mainline evangelicalism until the second wave of Spirit-filled work in the 1960s.
As people like Dennis Bennett, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California, started to experience revival in their churches, the charismatic movement, related but distinct from Pentecostalism, became more broadly accepted. (For context, I came to Christ in the charismatic movement of the Episcopal Church.)
This continued until John Wimber and the Jesus Movement (among others) started to see much response in the mid-1980s, and launched what we now call the Third Wave of this continualist movement — with a specific focus on the sign gifts (healings, miracles, etc.) among all members, not just pastors or leaders. (In case you’re interested in more specifics, I wrote a broader and more detailed breakdown of the history of the continualist movement here.)
The continualist movement, and these three expressions of it, have been on an astonishing and undeniable upward trajectory. It is currently the fastest growth we have been able to track statistically for the past 2,000 years, even faster than the Early Church or any other area of revival when broken out year over year.
Faith that takes the Word at face value — and believes the Word at face value — changes people.
So the question is, why? I see three things we can learn from the sustained and undeniable growth of the Pentecostal church, especially the Assemblies of God.
First, the movement is driven by a deeply held supernatural conviction. Pentecostals truly believe in the supernatural and believe it impacts the day-to-day lives of Christians. Reliance on the Holy Spirit, trusting the Lord for powerful things, and confident faith that God will show up define the daily life of a Pentecostal.
This type of faith that is alive and expectant is powerful, and one of the reasons I believe God has uniquely blessed the charismatic movement. Faith that takes the Word at face value — and believes the Word at face value — changes people.
Second, it is hard to be a nominal Pentecostal. If you grew up Presbyterian or Baptist, statistics show you have a higher chance of going through the motions without your beliefs impacting your day-to-day life. Not so much for those in the Pentecostal movement, and when you look at the experiences of a continualist, it makes sense.
If you have experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit, if you speak in tongues, believe in the supernatural, and have personally experienced the supernatural in such a way that it has changed your life, it is undeniably a big deal, and you want to tell others about it. Pentecostals who have experienced these things don’t need more evangelism training; they simply share their story, and it becomes evident to those around them who they follow and what they believe.
Third, the Pentecostal mission is rooted at the core of their theology. The Pentecostal theology is centered around a better way of life, faith and trust in God. Pentecostals think they have found a better way, and those with that belief want to tell everybody they can about that better way.
It is a better way than secularism, because it offers freedom from besetting sin and brokenness in the person of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a better way than legalism because it roots its sanctification in and on the Holy Spirit, offering clear grace for those who fail and a clear experiential theology that looks to expressions of the Spirit for evidence of faith.
I’m not a traditional Pentecostal today, though much of my early discipleship was connected to the charismatic movement (in my Episcopal Church) and at Calvary Assembly of God in Winter Park, Florida. I learned that faith is real, the Spirit is at work, and I can believe God to be at work in my life and the world. I wish many of my evangelical friends would learn this as well.
These are just the beginning of the many good things we can learn from our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. We might not always agree on expression or the nuances of theology, but we need to see where God is undeniably moving and humbly submit to learn something from it about how we can move forward to advance the gospel.
As the longest, most sustained and consecutive growth in Christianity’s recorded history, Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement deserve our attention, analysis and celebration — and perhaps, for non-Pentecostals, our willingness to learn a thing or two.