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Surprising Advice To Pentecostal Churches

by Robert Crosby

In recent years, many predominantly white Pentecostal churches in North America have de-emphasized the dynamic gifts of the Holy Spirit. The most prominent among the gifts neglected may be speaking in other tongues, especially the use of this gift within the context of corporate worship.

“You don’t need to change any of your Pentecostal practices.” Such was the advice from a leading evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, to a recent gathering of Assemblies of God (AG) pastors in Phoenix, Arizona, at their biennial council. Urging the ministers not to abandon their use of spiritual gifts, he said, “What you do need to do [instead] is explain them. Do not compromise what God has called you to do; simply make it explainable.”

While reminding AG leaders that healthy churches focus on five purposes (worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism), he suggested that Pentecostal church “health” also involves a sixth focus: “to be Pentecostal.” He used the analogy of a person’s first visit to the opera to explain the importance of helping newcomers to Pentecostal charismata understand what is going on: “[You wouldn’t] ask the vocalists [in an opera] to sing in English or to change their tune; [you] simply want a little help in understanding what’s going on and what it means.”
One website currently offers these words of advice to those new to the opera: “Operas are beautiful expressions of the Italian spirit … a tricky world for the novice. Understanding this glorious art requires patience and a willingness to learn. Opera … can bring the viewer to great heights of understanding and self-awareness.” Warren offers a clever and considerate analogy to the world of Pentecostalism.

But has today’s Pentecostal “tune” changed? And just what has warranted such words from Warren?

In recent years, many predominantly white Pentecostal churches in North America have de-emphasized the dynamic gifts of the Holy Spirit. The most prominent among the gifts neglected may be speaking in other tongues, especially the use of this gift within the context of corporate worship.

Speaking in tongues has arguably been the most emphasized charism of the modern Pentecostal movement. Although the leading Pentecostal denominations in the world all emphasize this gift doctrinally, some do so more than others. In fact, the largest Pentecostal organization in the world, the AG, considers tongues “the initial, physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” The “distinctive doctrine” of the AG is that this charism is the primary tangible evidence that a Christ follower has experienced a “second work of grace” called the baptism in the Holy Spirit—which believers, according to doctrinal statements, are supposed to “ardently expect” and “earnestly seek.”

Oddly enough, however, it seems that this hallmark phenomenon over the past decade has on many fronts been de-emphasized, displaced and, in some cases, even placed on hold within churches that still would consider themselves “Pentecostal.”
For Pentecostals, the times have changed. A movement that has experienced rapid growth in the past century in the United States amidst periodic controversy and frequent misunderstanding has both influenced mainstream church culture and been influenced by it. Pentecostalism, once unaccepted and spurned by other denominations, has become more welcome among evangelicals than ever before. But has that acceptance come with a price?

“From WWII to Vietnam, the evangelicalization of Pentecostalism occurred,” says noted Pentecostal theologian, Russell Spittler. “Then, from Vietnam till now, we’ve seen the pentecostalization of evangelicalism. Each movement [has] influenced the other.”

Pentecostal and charismatic expressions of praise and worship have arguably had a great influence on many mainstream churches. Since the charismatic renewal of the 1970s and the characteristic celebratory forms of worship that accompanied it, worship teams have replaced numerous choirs and organs across the country. Praises and singing accompanied by upraised hands and clapping, formerly a mainstay unique to Pentecostal or charismatic churches, have become common fare in many mainline churches formerly given to more reverential and contemplative forms.

But while more mainstream evangelical churches have borrowed more charismatic styles of worship and thus grown more “pentecostalized,” Pentecostal churches appear to have changed as well, at least in North America. Many report a muting in public worship gatherings of the more demonstrative expressions of spiritual gifts such as messages in tongues with interpretation, prayers for healing, and prophecy. In many cases, churches and megachurches have relegated glossolalia and other charismata to Sunday night services or small groups. In some cases and places, according to church historian, Dr. Stanley Burgess, “it has virtually disappeared.”

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, believes that the “white Pentecostal church is becoming less and less Pentecostal. It is ‘Pentecostal’ in name only [and] in a state of crisis. There is so much trepidation among its leaders.” He says there is a “don’t ask/don’t tell policy mentality about the pneuma,” and that by the end of this century the white Pentecostal church may be a very small community “unless there is a coming back to authentic Pentecostalism.”

The diminishing of demonstrative spiritual gifts in public worship among North American churches is not indicative of what is happening in Pentecostal churches on other continents, however. According to Thomas Trask, former general superintendent of the AG, “In fact, the overseas Pentecostal church looks at the church in North America and asks: ‘What’s the matter with you? Why would you even [limit or] question the public operation of the Spirit and the gifts? After all, these have served you so well over the years.’”

Jack Hayford, renowned Pentecostal leader and former president of the Foursquare Church, concurs: “Why is the church exploding in growth south of the equator in Charismatic and Pentecostal movements? It is because those people go after the whole package and live in it. There is a sense of quest. There is no sense of a need to appease social tastes or acceptability.”

Can the American Pentecostal church bring the full expression of spiritual gifts back to the fore without “scaring off” or confusing new visitors in worship services? Warren simply suggests providing some guidance to “the opera.” Several churches list a handful of FAQs in their bulletins. The AG also provides a short sample on their website.

As for an “explanation” for dynamic gifts such as speaking in tongues, the Apostle Paul gave advice to the charismata-consumed Corinthian church somewhat similar to Warren’s: “If anyone speaks in a tongue … someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:27-28, NIV).

Perhaps most surprising of all Warren’s admonitions at th e council was this one: “Don’t lose your Pentecostal distinctive.” Could it be that God has brought a fresh word to Pentecostals in North America, and that He has chosen to use an unexpected source? While Elijah sought for a sign from God, he looked for it in the “wind,” the “earthquake,” and the “fire.” Instead, it came in an unexpected “still, small voice.” It may be that in this instance God didn’t send a message in tongues or a prophetic word to challenge North American Pentecostals, but rather a clear message from the plainspoken tongue of a Southern Baptist pastor.
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ROBERT CROSBY—(D.Min., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is Professor of Practical Theology in the College of Christian Ministries & Religion, Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL). He has written several books, including More Than a Savior: When Jesus Calls You Friend.
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