Last Sunday was “Pentecost Sunday” (8th June), a significant day on the Christian annual calendar, yet one that tends to receive little attention, compared to Christmas and Easter. Pentecost Sunday occurs 50 days after Easter and is a celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church of Jesus Christ. Just like your personal story is much bigger than the time between your birth and death, in that you have roots and heritage reaching further back in time and hopefully a future legacy lasting beyond your lifetime, so our story as a church reaches back to our beginnings and into the future beyond our time as each generation continues to carry out the purposes of God. It is important to remember our faith tradition not merely with a sense of nostalgia about the ‘glory days’ but rather as a foundation for the dreams and visions God desires to give us for today.
The word “Pentecostal” is not used much in our contemporary culture and due to people’s various backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, there can be many stereotypes and caricatures about Pentecostals. For instance, one recent visitor to one of our church services told me they didn't find CityLife very Pentecostal. Initially, I thought maybe they didn't sense enough of the activity of the Holy Spirit but I discovered that what they meant was that they didn't find the service “emotionally manipulative”. As you can imagine, I was glad!
The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word pentekostos, which literally means ‘fifty’. Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage festivals or feasts celebrated by the nation of Israel in the time of Moses and it was celebrated 50 days after Passover (Lev.23:16). It was also known as the ‘festival of weeks’ (in Judaism it is called ‘shavuot’ which means ‘weeks’). It was primarily a harvest festival and a time of great joy. It is first mentioned in the New Testament on the occasion of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples, which was 7 weeks after the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:1-4). It became an important day for the church, marking its birth.
Modern Day Pentecostalism emerged in the early 20th century fuelled in part by a revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles that began in 1906. It was primarily a renewal movement within Christianity with a special emphasis on personal experience of God, including the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Unlike many Evangelicals (some of whom are referred to as ‘Cessasionists’), Pentecostals believe that all of God’s work as recorded in the book of Acts is for today, including speaking in tongues (other languages), healing, and prophecy. Today there are over 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics (evangelical denominations or believers who have embraced the work of the Spirit since the 1960s) around the world.
10 Characteristics of Pentecostal Churches
Here are some general characteristics of Pentecostal churches. It should be noted that some of these aspects are not limited to or the exclusive domain of Pentecostals.
1. An Emphasis on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings the church into existence and gives it life (Acts 2:1-4). The Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, is really the Acts of the Holy Spirit done through the followers of Jesus in the first century. The entire Christian life (as well as church life) is meant to be done with and through the Holy Spirit. All people (men and women, young and old) can receive and minister the gifts or abilities that the Spirit gives for the benefit of others. This requires continual awareness (look) and attentiveness (listen), hence the importance of a prayerful life. Both the Spirit and the Word, as contained in the Scriptures, are vital to spiritual life.
2. A Passion for World Evangelisation. The Holy Spirit came upon those early believers to empower them to be witnesses for Jesus, not just to give them a personal experience (Acts 1:8). The Spirit enabled them to carry out the great commission (Matt.28:18-20) of taking good news of Jesus to the world, whether through personal evangelism church planting, social action or foreign mission work. Unfortunately, those first believers were slow to embrace this priority of outreach. It actually took persecution to get them out of Jerusalem and to other places (Acts 8:1-3). Eventually, they took the gospel to the then known world, with churches at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3) and Ephesus (Acts 19:26) leading the way.
3. A Heart for Compassion Ministry. In the first church, there were no needy ones among them, as people reached out in practical acts of compassion (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). Helping the poor and needy was a high priority (Gal.2:10). Modern day Pentecostalism began among the lower socio-economic strata of society with many uneducated and marginalised people being filled with the Spirit. Over the decades, it has spread to more middle and upper class groups of people. Thankfully, there has been a shift recently, with a growing heart for the poor and needy emerging in Pentecostal churches. The Gospel is to be shared both in word and deed. Jesus himself went about “doing good” (Acts 10:38).
4. Expressive Praise and Worship. The first believers praised God with joy (Acts 2:46-47) and singing was a regular part of their church services as an expression of the life of the Spirit (Eph.5:18-20). Modern day Pentecostalism has been characterised by joyful praise and intimate worship, with voices raised, hands lifted up, and with a sense of celebration and vibrancy in the singing, which is less formal, liturgical or sombre than some church traditions. God is with us and we can experience him through the Spirit.
5. Cultural Relevance. From the very moment of the Spirit’s arrival, believers were empowered to speak the good news of Jesus in languages that the listeners understood (Acts 2:5-13). The core Gospel message doesn't change but our language, as well as the methods and means of communication we use, need to adapt to each audience. The apostle Paul even quoted local Greek poets as a means of connecting with philosophers and pagans in Athens in order to build as bridge to share the Gospel with them (Acts 17:16-34). Each new generation has different ways of communicating, including language, musical style, church facilities, and use of technology. Pentecostal churches have often been on the forefront of communicating the Gospel in culturally relevant ways.
6. Visionary Church Leadership. Although the Spirit filled all the first believers, he also used leaders such as Peter, James and Paul, along with elders, to provide leadership and direction to the churches. Pentecostal churches are often led by individuals with strong vision, as well as the ability to motivate people, rather than by bureaucratic structures. They are willing to take risks to advance the cause of Christ and tend to embrace a pioneering mode (“let’s create the future”) rather than a maintenance mode (“let’s preserve the past”). Of course, accountability and proper governance is vital. Isolated authoritarian leaders cause dysfunction, often leading to abuse and hurt and disillusioned people. Jesus calls us to a servant leadership style that empowers others and understands the wisdom that comes from many counselors. Character (fruit) is the vital foundation of Charisma (spiritual gifts).
7. Generous Giving. The feast of Pentecost included the bringing of a voluntary offering to God in proportion to the recent harvest. In the same way, the first church was characterised by generosity, something that pleases God (2Cor.9:7). Many Pentecostal churches have taught and modelled generosity. Or course, our motive is not to ‘give to get’ but one that sees blessing as a ‘by-product’ of generosity.
8. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals believe that the baptism of the Spirit is available for all followers of Christ and is an experience that can occur at or subsequent to conversion. In the narrative of the book of Acts we read that the primary evidence of this infilling was the ability to “speak in tongues” or other languages. This personal prayer gift is for the benefit of personal prayer and building oneself up (1Cor.14:1-4. Jude 20), as well as boldness to witness (Acts 1:8). This experience is not necessary for salvation, it is not a mark of spiritual maturity (1Cor.13), and is not for use in public church services when outside guests are present (1Cor.14:22-25). All Christians have the person of the Holy Spirit living within them but the baptism of the Spirit adds another powerful dimension to the believer’s life and ministry. The apostle Paul spoke in tongues frequently, showing its benefit (1Cor.14:18).
9. Prophecy. Another indicator of the Spirit’s infilling is the ability to prophesy, which is a speaking out of the heart and mind of God, as prompted by the Spirit. This was a normal part of the life of the first church (Acts 2:17; 19:1-7) and of Pentecostalism around the world today. To prophesy literally means to ‘bubble up’, indicating the movement of the Holy Spirit on our spirit, either in the form of a whisper, a prompting, an impression, a vision or picture, or a word. God still speaks today – to individuals and to churches. Prophecy today is not authoritative on the level of inspired Scripture, but must be taken seriously by both testing and responding to it accordingly (1Thess.5:19-22). Generally speaking, prophecy is for personal encouragement, strengthening and comfort (1Cor.14:1-4), not direction or rebuke.
10. Prayer for Healing and Miracles. The first church was born in an environment where God healed and did supernatural things (Acts 2:43; 3:1-10, etc). Pentecostals believe that God still heals and does miracles today. He sets people free from the work of the enemy (deliverance from demonic strongholds). God intervenes in human situations, bringing about change. Not everyone was healed in New Testament times (1Tim.5:23. 2Tim.4:20) nor is everyone healed today. This is not necessarily an indicator of a lack of faith or sin in a person’s life. We live between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom. Already (‘now’) Jesus has conquered Satan, sin, sickness and death but ‘not yet’ do we see the full enactment of that victory, which will occur at the return of Christ, when there will be no more crying, pain or death (Rev.21:4). Pentecostals need a theology of suffering to allow for those ‘if not …’ moments (Dan.3:17-18), while believing that God’s grace and comfort are always more than enough for whatever we may go through. Our job is to pray and believe; God’s job is to heal and to move by his power.
Pentecostalism is part of my story and it is important to remember our roots and our faith tradition. Embrace that unapologetically, while walking with humility, understanding that none of us has all the truth. We all see and know in part (1Cor.13:9-12). I love the entire church – ALL of Christ’s body, including anyone who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ (1Cor.12:3), be they Baptist, Anglicans, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists or Presbyterians. We are not in competition with each other! Thankfully, we are living in a time when ‘labels’ are less important and relationships (with Jesus and each other) are becoming more important.
King David was anointed with oil three times – as a shepherd boy, as king over Judah, and eventually as king over all Israel. Each anointing involved a further empowering of the Holy Spirit in his life. The author of Psalm 92 (possibly David) said, “I have been anointed with fresh (or fine) oil” (Ps.92:10). Sometimes we need an oil change. We need a fresh touch of the Spirit on our lives. The apostle Paul would later write to the church at Ephesus, “Be filled with the Spirit …” (Eph.5:18). The present continuous tense of the Greek phrase “be filled” literally means “be continually filled …” Position yourself to continually receive the ongoing infilling of the Holy Spirit in your life and ministry. After all, it is impossible to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is really the life that Jesus lived back then lived now by His Spirit through me. May each of us experience a fresh Pentecost in our lives at this time!
1. When did you first hear the word “Pentecostal”? What did it mean to you?
2. What has been your experience of Pentecostal Christians or churches? Think about both positive and negative experiences, if there have been any.
3. It’s been said that if we have “the Word without the Spirit we will dry up, the Spirit without the Word we will blow up, while with the Spirit and Word we can grow up.” Reflect on the importance balance between the Spirit and the Word.
4. The natural tendency of every church is to become inward focused. How can we continue to fuel a passion for evangelism and outreach in our personal lives?
5. There is a lot of “end times” hysteria around today in some circles, with a focus on the immanent return of Christ. How can we live ever ready for Christ’s return yet with the wisdom and foresight that he may not return in our generation (and therefore being busy with the work of the kingdom, which includes creation care and social justice)?
6. Reflect on your experience with different forms of church services, including various styles of singing.
7. Consider the concept of “cultural relevance”. How can irrelevant cultural packaging hinder the reception of the Gospel by the listeners?
8. Much has been made about the “prosperity gospel” – the belief that God wants everyone to be rich and that if people would give generously God will make that a reality for everyone. How can we develop greater faith to be generous givers while not degenerating into a giving that is only motivated by personal gain?
9. What has been your experience with church leadership over the years? Reflect on the different approaches that different cultures have in the way they relate to leaders. Take time to pray for the leaders of your church, that God will watch over them and their families, as well as give them wisdom, courage and faith to lead the church forward in God’s way.
10. What has been your experience of the baptism in the Spirit?
11. What has been your experience with prophecy (either giving a prophecy or receiving one)?
12. Read 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. How should this affect our attitudes with Christians from other churches and denominations?
13. In what ways can your small group live out and express all of these aspects of Pentecostalism?
14. Which characteristic are you personally most passionate about?
15. Take time to pray for a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit in your own life.
The Century of the Holy Spirt by Vinson Synan
The Beauty of Spiritual Language by Jack Hayford
Pentecostal Theology: A Theology of Encounter by Keith Warrington
Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom by Steven J. Land
Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction by William K. Kay