A Generous Pentecostalism, Part 1: Direct, Dynamic, Relational

This strange, amazing, and sometimes perilous journey of discipleship, on which I’ve been traveling with Jesus since I was a teenager, began among a wonderful, loving Pentecostal congregation. It was among those warm-hearted and open-minded folks that God met me in a very specific and undeniable way. And it was among them that I learned what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Eventually, it was time for me to leave the nest, and the following several years were filled with questions. When I encountered a much different incarnation of Pentecostalism in the South, my foundation was severely shaken. “Is Pentecostalism really like this?” I thought. “Am I really even a Pentecostal then?”

See, for some, Pentecostalism is merely evangelicalism plus speaking in tongues. And, for others, Pentecostalism is a drastic departure from historic Christianity—an aberration of which we should be highly suspicious. Still others dismiss Pentecostalism as the misguided fervor of the uneducated and overly-emotional. For many years, I’ve found each of these characterizations utterly inadequate, while continue to wrestle with the question of whether or not I can fully identify with Pentecostalism. That is why, after exploring many other traditions with the broader Christian tradition, I have come to appreciate Pentecostalism more, and am proud to call myself a “lowercase ‘p’ pentecostal.” I believe there is a pentecostalism for all of this Jesus Movement we call the Church. Call it: “Pentecost for the Rest of Us.”

This pentecostalism, accessible to all Jesus-disciples, is marked by at least three characteristics: The first is its insistence that a “relationship with God” entails direct, dynamic communication with God. This is why Pentecostals are known for their emphasis on prayer. Through prayer, God is able to lead and guide those who have given themselves wholly to following Jesus.

Second, this pentecostalism celebrates the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom into our world now. When Jesus comes on the scene, the King has arrived. And where people bow to Jesus as King, there also is Jesus’s Kingdom. Pentecostals are also known for their belief in the miraculous. Why is that? It is because God is making all things new, even now, in our midst. This is the establishing of God’s Kingdom. Third, this pentecostalism that is available to all followers of Christ is marked by an urgency to announce and demonstrate the Good News of God’s Kingdom to all people. There is both a belief that we have significant responsibility in God’s redemptive mission, and that every day matters. What might surprise most Western Christians is that this urgency that characterized the New Testament church continues in most of the church around the world.

In each one of these distinctives, I believe the church at large can find common ground. After all, it was at Pentecost is when the church was thrust on its mission with God in the first place.

Direct, Dynamic Relationship with God

Because my early understanding of discipleship was nurtured in a Pentecostal environment, I’ve taken it for granted that all Christians enjoy the kind of direct, dynamic relationship with God that I’ve come to accept as “normal.” It isn’t until a fellow Christian reacts with shock or dismay at my description of God’s presence or God’s guidance that I’m reminded that not all traditions approach discipleship in this way. Some Christian traditions spurn any idea that God communicates directly to the hearts and minds of his children. For them, the Bible is only means of knowing God’s will, and the only way God communicates with them. I must confess, this makes me very sad. If my faith was reduced to interactions with a book, I’m confident I could not live the Christian life.

Thankfully, the Scriptures themselves teach us that God communicates directly with his covenant people, inviting them into a dynamic, adventurous relationship. One of my favorite examples of this is Jesus’s encouragement to the disciples as they are being sent out ‘like sheep among wolves’ to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. Jesus warns the disciples that they will endure many trials, but that he will be with them in special way.

…they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life. – Luke 21.12-19

I love this passage because Jesus doesn’t promise just to provide us with a book to study (save your hate mail, I love the Bible), but beyond that to provide us with words and wisdom by his Holy Spirit, the Counselor (Luke 12.11-12; John 14.25-26). This is the kind of relationship with God we need to navigate this complex calling to live in this world, on mission, as Jesus’s witnesses yet as pilgrims and sojourners.

This direct and dynamic relationship with God is promised to all of Jesus’s disciples—not just the charismatic/Pentecostal kind. The New Covenant reality is that God no longer focuses his presence in the Tent of Meeting or the Jerusalem Temple, but in Jesus and Jesus’s church. John has a vision of the church, the bride of Christ, as a new and holy city made by God. In this city, there is no need for a Temple, because God dwells directly among his people (Rev. 21.3, 22). Additionally, Paul teaches us that we are those whom God is building into a living temple, and in whom he dwells by his Spirit both individually and corporately (I Cor. 6.19; II Cor. 6.16; Eph. 2.19-22; I Pet. 2.5). In and through this direct, dynamic presence, focused in God’s church, God’s Kingdom is breaking into this world.

Why Does This Matter?

Without the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are left to trust in our own wisdom and our own ability to interpret the Bible correctly. A view of discipleship that discounts the role of the Holy Spirit places an incredible about of trust in our own human reasoning faculties. However, the Bible itself teaches us not to trust in our own ability to understand the Bible, but specifically instructs us to trust God’s Spirit. On its own, the Bible is just dead letter. The Spirit is the Person of God who illuminates the truth of Scripture, making it come alive (John 16.12-15; I Cor. 2.10-13; II Cor. 3.6; Eph. 1.17-18). It is the Spirit who makes the Scriptures “God-breathed.” (II Tim. 3.16; II Pet. 1.21) The Spirit is the Person whom the Father and Son have sent to accompany Christians in our walk of faith. And it is the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives that confirms and assures us that we are God’s children (Rom. 8.14-17; Gal. 4.6).

A direct, dynamic relationship with God by his Holy Spirit offers us wisdom and boldness to be Jesus’s witnesses and navigate this complex world, no matter what trials we may face. We no longer have to fear that the world will corrupt us or overpower us, for he who is in us is greater than he that is in the world (I Jn. 4.4). And if the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is living in us, we are assured of the resurrection! (Rom. 8.11) Therefore, we can obey Jesus’s commission to make disciples of all people with confidence that, by his Spirit, Jesus will give us the words we’ll need to testify to the truth, and will give us the courage to give our lives. We will overcome the accuser because of Jesus’s Cross and the word of our testimonies! (Rev. 12.11)

In part two, the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom will be explored in greater depth. Stay tuned!