Life began for me on the Canadian prairies in a Pentecostal parsonage (manse). Along with four siblings I knew I was loved. Only as I began school did I feel the snub of peers: our church was seen as different. Often called “Holy Rollers” being Pentecostal in the 1940s and 50s meant you were on the wrong side of the cultural fence.
I lived comforted by the strength of family and friends and made bold by understanding that Christ, by his Spirit was in us. In it all I was made wiser and stronger.
These thoughts wound their way through moments of reflection during the World Pentecostal Conference in Kuala Lumpur this August.
My point of view is mixed: this continues to be my church home in which I was ordained for the ministry in 1968. However my vocational life has been spent within three non-denominational communities, which makes me both an insider and outsider. With that duality, here is my Dispatch.
It’s a curious and rowdy bunch. Starting off in 1905, led by a black preacher William J Seymour, at a converted stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, today the aggregate numbers of Pentecostals in their various denominational and charismatic stripes number around a quarter of a billion.
Growing slowly through the early 20th century, in the later quarter this movement exploded beyond denominational boundaries. For years the fastest growing Christian community, today its presence in towns, cities, countries and regions cannot be ignored. Attending this world event pressed me to reflect on the reasons for this growth and its value to the church.
In the twentieth century the scientific method ruled. Evangelical theology reacting to liberalism, itself was caught in a kind of scientific exactitude, driven by the ever-increasing need of defining lines of truth and non-truth, crafting doctrines so we could say who was right or who was wrong. Yet within the human heart, the cry for relationship and honest religious feeling continued to beat. The Pentecostal message (my thesis is that Pentecostals were in their beginning post-modern) provided truth derived not only from biblical revelation but experience and intuition.
This experience-driven theology of course triggered some heresies, derivatives of core truth but in the end distortions.
Unapologetically its message was, “You can be changed.” To be saved meant to be freed from the compulsions and depravities of life. And to be lifted from the seeming fate of poverty and ignorance built on the promise that God would supply. Being changed meant I too could become productive, healthy in mind and body, caring for family and business, able to successfully raise a family. God did not intend me to be poor. His promise wasn’t to survive but to prosper, not defined by current jingles of commercially defined prosperity but by the biblical affirmation which we believed to be true. Our church in Saskatoon was made up of the poor and those generally uneducated. But by God’s help we sure never intended to stay that way.
Growth of this rag-tag group was accelerated by a profound motivation and a deliberate strategy of giving. Giving as part of God’s cycle of creation was instinctive to our services, weekly home budget and personal pocket money. Ten percent was base line. Poverty was no excuse not to give. “90% will go further with God than 100% will alone,” was a line drummed into us.
From that giving ethos, missions became the natural extension. Indeed the major Pentecostal denomination in Canada was formed as a means by which monies could be sent overseas. The highlight of the year was Missions Sunday.
However the wave that caught the church by surprise – including and especially Pentecostals – was the charismatic movement of the 1960s. An Episcopal priest (Anglican) Father Bennett opened the doors and the Spirit rushed in. Up to then Pentecostals believed one was only filled with the Holy Spirit once one spoke in tongues (glossolalia). This linkage kept many from seeking a Pentecostal emphasis and was the main criticism that our New Testament exegesis was flawed.
Under Bennett this linkage was uncoupled. No longer did those caught up in the charismatic renewal teach that speaking in tongues was by necessity the “initial evidence.” Renewal fires broke out in Roman Catholic parishes, in Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist and Reformed churches. Seminaries, long the smirking brethren, opened courses for those interested in understanding the person and ways of the Spirit. While this uncoupling discomfited many classic Pentecostals, it triggered a long needed revolution in the church. Today while glossolalia continues to be more of a personal factor it is considered by Pentecostals to be an important spiritual discipline.
The Twentieth Century chapter of Christ’s church was written by this Pentecostal outpouring, a revival movement of global proportion. No longer the brunt of jokes, it is now a church in which one can say “Pentecostal theologian” without a snicker. An integral part of the catholic (world-wide) church its pastors and mission leaders are giving leadership, and breaking new ground in the never ending story of going into the world.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance