Who Are We?
What It Means to Be Pentecostal
El domingo por la tarde en la escuela.” That’s the one Spanish phrase 14-year-old H.C. Ball learned before hitting the streets of Ricardo, Texas. With a bell in hand, he would repeat this phrase, inviting Spanish-speaking listeners to the schoolhouse for a Sunday service.
It’s been 100 years since H.C. Ball became the first superintendent of the first Spanish Assemblies of God district. Today, Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of Assemblies of God adherents in the U.S.
Small acts of obedience by early Pentecostal leaders had profound and far-reaching impact. William J. Seymour brought the Pentecostal message to a small house on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles in what became the Azusa Street Revival. E.N. Bell worked in the back of a grocery store to send out an invitation in the Word and Witness for leaders to gather in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for what became the founding convention of the Assemblies of God.
It’s doubtful that Ball, Seymour or Bell could have fathomed what the Holy Spirit would do in the century to follow. It’s been nothing short of historic and miraculous. In fact, Christianity Today identified the Pentecostal/charismatic movement as “the fastest-growing movement in the history of world Christianity.” This relatively young movement now accounts for 1 in 4 Christians throughout the world — an estimated 669 million people.
The U.S. Assemblies of God continues to grow along with the Pentecostal movement. The AG has had 27 consecutive years of growth in adherents.
But apart from the numbers and statistics, who are we as Pentecostals? Great question! People often ask me what it’s like to be the leader of the largest Pentecostal organization in the world. I’m not sure the reality of that has totally sunk in, but I can tell you that my Pentecostal experience began in a small church in Adrian, Michigan.
When I was growing up, Spirit-filled elders at Bethany Assembly of God would lay hands on me at the altar and pray, “God, I know the plans you have for little Dougie Clay.” At some point, I bought into that prayer.
The Pentecostal environment in my home church shaped my leadership today. It all started through an experience with the Person of the Holy Spirit, and it has been developed over a lifetime of cultivating that relationship with the Holy Spirit. It started with people who believed the Holy Spirit in my life was for a lifetime, not just a time at the altar. To this day, I draw upon those experiences to lead.
The Holy Spirit is for all generations and all ethnicities, all across our nation and around the world. Yet we must continue to carve out space for Him in our lives and our services.
What Is the Holy Spirit Doing?
Another way to frame our identity as Pentecostals is to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of individual people. It’s never sufficient simply to describe the Holy Spirit. We must experience Him. We can read about the Spirit, debate about the Spirit or ponder the Spirit, but until we encounter Him ourselves, we will never understand how His power and presence change everything.
The Holy Spirit wants to be our advocate, not just our assistant. Jesus promised that the Spirit would help us, instruct us, remind us of God’s Word, testify of Jesus, guide us into all truth, glorify Christ and empower us to spread the gospel (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:13-14; Acts 1:8).
Jesus was clear in John 14 about why He was asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit — not to act as an impersonal force in the world but to come as a Person we can know. And when Jesus told His disciples, us included, that He would be with us always (Matthew 28:20), it’s understood that this takes place through a relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Three words best express this relationship with the Spirit: in, with and through. As we encounter the Spirit in these ways, God transforms us into people of the Spirit. What, exactly, does that mean?
The Spirit lives in us. When we become followers of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit resides in us (Romans 8:9). The moment you received Christ as your Savior, the Holy Spirit took up residence in your heart. Your body became the temple of the Holy Spirit. God infused your life with His presence.
The Holy Spirit residing in us makes our fellowship with Jesus possible. By saying we are people of the Spirit, we are affirming that the Spirit’s ministry affects every area of our lives in Christ.
Fellowship with the Holy Spirit involves sharing our lives in communion with Him. It’s opening the deepest parts of our personality to the movement of God’s Spirit. As we seek His counsel, His comfort and His direction, He influences our thoughts, motives, feelings, attitudes and decisions.
The power to follow Jesus and grow in relationship with Him comes directly from the Spirit living in us. It is so vitally important that we maintain the freedom we experienced at salvation throughout our lives — because that same power that drew us to Christ lives in us and can help us overcome the things and the mindsets that threaten to steal our freedom.
In addition, the Holy Spirit inhabits our lives in a powerful way. The moment you experience the baptism in the Holy Spirit, you willingly yield yourself to the Spirit’s control. And that is something Scripture encourages us to do regularly (Ephesians 5:18).
The Spirit walks with us. The word that John uses to describe the Holy Spirit is paraklētos or paraclete. That word means advocate, helper, intercessor, counselor — or one who comes alongside. I don’t think it’s a stretch to describe the Holy Spirit as a personal coach. He moves with us to direct our lives, bringing us closer to Jesus and making us more like Him.
One place that happens is in our time with Scripture. As you know, I’m deeply passionate about biblical literacy. However, without the Holy Spirit driving us to God’s Word and opening our eyes to its meaning, the Bible can seem like just another book. A mark of Spirit baptism is a hunger to read and know the Bible. Therefore, it’s my prayer that people of the Spirit are also people of the Word.
As a Pentecostal, I do not desire experience for experience’s sake. My interaction with the Holy Spirit must never be at the expense of God’s Word, as already revealed in Scripture. He is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). As He comes alongside us, He guides us into the truth of God’s Word (John 16:13).
Much like the risen Christ did on the way to Emmaus, the Spirit stirs our hearts and opens the Scriptures to us (Luke 24:32). And that’s my prayer: that the Holy Spirit will open the Scriptures to us and that our worldview will be primarily influenced by Scripture. The strongest Pentecostal believers I have known, and who have had the greatest influence on my life, are those who were deepest in the Word.
Everywhere the people of the Spirit go, they live in such a way that the power of Christ is visible.
I’ve also found that the Holy Spirit’s voice will always agree with Scripture. I know at times my own perspective can be distorted and mislead me, but the Spirit’s guidance will be clear and will always be in sync with God’s will.
It is a fact that Spirit-empowered living impacts not only individual lives but culture. In Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori write, “As much as 87 percent of international social relief is from the Pentecostal/charismatic community.”
When we listen to the Holy Spirit and act in obedience, we become more like Christ. That’s what the Holy Spirit coming alongside us and walking with us is all about. And that formation is essential for the Church’s transformative mission in the world. If Pentecostals are going to impact culture, we must have the Holy Spirit coming alongside us and walking with us. That’s how we transform the world.
The Spirit acts through us. People of the Spirit are people on mission. Since the first chapter of the Book of Acts, that mission has been front and center: to tell the world about Jesus, as the Spirit empowers us. Christ promised, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The baptism in the Holy Spirit is not just for personal blessing. The central purpose is for empowerment. I hope people will not seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit for experience’s sake. It’s always been the mission of the Holy Spirit to exalt Jesus (John 16:14). If our experience is anything shy of that mark, it can be self-serving rather than God-glorifying.
Long before words like “missional” became popular, the Holy Spirit empowered the Church to be just that. Everywhere the people of the Spirit go, they live in such a way that the power of Christ is visible. Loving like Jesus compels us to action.
Simply put, Pentecostals must be known for both word and deed, language and compassion, tongues and service. Consider the example of Peter to see how that plays out. Before he was full of the Spirit, Peter’s human nature was to get even, get mad, or run and hide. All of those things happened in the hours just before Jesus’ crucifixion.
But on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s empowerment gave Peter courage. He stood and proclaimed the truth of Jesus. He faced down prison and certain death time and again. It’s clear that becoming a person of the Spirit made the difference.
It’s not the strength of our convictions or the volume of our protests that will change hearts. It’s the message of Christ delivered by people full of Spirit-empowered courage. It is hard for me to think of a person or church that claims to be Pentecostal that isn’t missions-minded and involved in winning people to Christ. It’s my prayer that we define the Pentecostal experience as a lifestyle and not a worship style.
As you can see, the Holy Spirit working through us keeps us on mission. There is plenty of work to do. Jesus provided the imperative of the Great Commission, but it’s the Holy Spirit who delivers the desire and dynamic to fulfill it.
I love the diverse expression of worship within our Fellowship. As I look at Assemblies of God churches, I know there is a desire for more of the Spirit. I want our young people to have the experiences I described earlier. I pray that we will find the space in church life to allow those kinds of Pentecostal interchanges from one generation to the next.
My heart’s desire is to see that many in my generation who have experienced their Pentecost assist the next generation in experiencing their own Pentecost. Millennials and Generation Z need to have their Pentecost. Each subsequent generation must seek the Holy Spirit in fresh ways.
Our Pentecostal experiences impact our effectiveness and outcome. We need time around the altar where elders can pray over young people and speak into their lives. We need children and teens to encounter the Spirit’s power as I did back in Adrian, Michigan — and as those who came before me did. We must find and create opportune times for these Pentecostal experiences to happen.
Seeing believers baptized in the Holy Spirit should never become a rarity in our Fellowship. We must continue to help young people clearly hear their call to ministry. I carry a deep concern that we challenge our children and young people to give their lives to full-time Christian service, either in the church or in a missions assignment.
Whatever the mechanism, our kids need time in the Lord’s presence, and they need our participation to help them discern God’s will for their lives. When God called me to ministry, it solidified in me that God has gifts that are unique to me. These come through the Holy Spirit, who gives to all but also gives individually.
When our young people clearly see their unique gifts, they can respond to the call with courage. The prophet Joel said that both young and old will feel the outpouring of the Spirit in these last days.
The challenges we face as a nation and as a Church require us to equip the next generation. The reality is we live in a post-Christian society. Biblical literacy is on the decline while immorality is increasing. Young people have traded a sacred sexuality for gender confusion. These things matter. And as people of the Spirit, we are empowered and equipped to step up.
On April 19, 1906, an earthquake struck San Francisco. But 10 days earlier, in the Azusa Street Revival, another type of earth-moving experience took place.
Just as there are aftershocks to natural earthquakes, we still feel the aftershocks of Pentecost. The Spirit does not have to conform to the exact pattern of past movements, but I am hungry for another earth-shaking experience today.
Sometimes skeptics will dismiss the Pentecostal message because they fear the emphasis could be wrongly placed on the experience. However, experiences grounded in Scripture that lead to personal testimonies make all the difference.
When we fully realize what it means to be people of the Spirit, others will be compelled to follow Christ. They will recognize their need for power and receive it in the baptism in the Holy Spirit. They will feel their need for healing and find it in God’s mercy and grace to the hurting. And they will experience an urgency to change their world and find it in daily mission.
Who we are as Pentecostals is not a matter of a shared label, a common expression of worship or even an agreed-upon doctrine. It is found in the experience of a vital relationship with the Person of the Holy Spirit. The dynamic power that can shake the world will come only when we fully depend on Him daily.
My prayer is that we — being people the Spirit lives in, walks with and acts through — live a life that compels others to Christ.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Influence magazine. May 20 is Pentecost Sunday.