People are often surprised when I point out that until recently in church history, our understanding of the Holy Spirit has been overshadowed by a focus on the Father and the Son. Granted, throughout church history the Holy Spirit was acknowledged in major statements of the Christian faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed. But apart from an occasional outburst of spiritual renewal, or from the writings of various mystics it was not until the 20th-century Pentecostal outbreak was the church introduced to a deeper and more full understanding and awareness of the person, work, and expressions of the Holy Spirit.
Today, such an observation seems strange. From Catholics to Orthodox to Reformed to Wesleyans, there’s a conscious awareness of the life and ministry of the Spirit. However, it took time to develop both an appreciation and widespread understanding. When I was a student at a Pentecostal college in the early 1960s, our systematic theology books—our main text was by Henry C. Thiessen, who hardly even mentioned the Holy Spirit—had little to tell us of the person and work of the Spirit. B. B. Warfield in Counterfeit Miracles said gifts of the Spirit were only for the apostolic age. Emil Brunner noted, “The Holy Spirit has always been more or less the stepchild of theology and the dynamism of the Spirit a bugbear for theologians.”
In these past century, a new chapter of church history has been written. There is a new understanding and awareness of the inner work of the Spirit, his agenda and his activity that presses forth the life and ministry of Jesus in new and meaningful ways. The prior dormancy of our collective understanding of the Spirit has come alive in ways and timing of the Lord’s doing.
Today, right across the Christian spectrum, the church is growing in this important understanding of the life and presence of the Holy Spirit, which is permeating our beliefs and practices. Although obvious theological and missional mutations have occurred as this new understanding has spilled across our various traditions, the essentials of the earlier Pentecostal outbreak continue to shape and catalyze the work of grace today.
Meeting with younger leaders in Helsinki
I recently attended a meeting with Pentecostal leaders in Helsinki. Most of the participants were younger leaders from classic Pentecostal groups, with ministries focused on missional work including evangelism, church planting and relief and development. They are visionaries, exuding passion for faith and public usefulness. They continue to carry forward the classic Pentecostal vision, ready to go anywhere as carriers of the message. They are also creative and innovative, driven to speak to the crises of this age and the needs of this generation.
The growth of this Spirit-awareness over this past century has had both dark and bright moments. Disputes and divisions have characterized some of its people, theology, and practices. Remarkably, however, the Pentecostal movement ultimately inspired arguably the most unifying cross-denominational stream of spiritual fervor in modern church history. Beginning in the early 1960s, a breakthrough known as the Charismatic Renewal changed the nature of the whole Christian church.
The Charismatic Renewal
Led by Father Dennis Bennett, as detailed in his book Nine O’Clock in the Morning, the narrow banks of classic Pentecostal doctrine broke its banks, spilling out into what became the charismatic movement. This inclusion of Catholics, Anglicans, mainline Protestants and Orthodox broadened the Pentecostal message, but it remained in tune with the classic Pentecostal attachment to miracles, speaking in tongues, healings, and prophecies. The Charismatic influence softened some of the harsher and more fundamentalist doctrines of the early classical Pentecostals and provided an opportunity for those offended by some of the earlier Pentecostal claims to join in. Today, the total number of Pentecostals and Charismatics is estimated to be upwards to 700 million globally.
It is helpful for us to know something of our history—how we got to where we are. The breakthrough that lifted the church to a broader and more complete understanding of the Holy Spirit over a century ago—some 1,900 years into the life of the church—has been of enormous benefit to my generation and to the younger leaders with whom I met in Helsinki. Much of the massive growth of Christian witness and service of the last few decades can be traced to that outbreak of spiritual energy, boldness and understanding.
For those in Europe and North America, fed by an assumption that the church is in decline, it is helpful to see what is emerging within the leadership of both classical Pentecostal and Charismatic communities. There is a rising generation of able and creative leaders who live within the claims of the Gospel promise that when the Spirit comes, he will enable and empower. When asked what all this is about, they reiterate Peter’s response: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel …“(Acts 2:16).
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I conclude with a note on how the classical pentecostal, and more recent charismatic groups are globally organized. Here are three primary global organizations you might want to know about who serve both the specific denominations and the wider movements.
The World Assemblies of God Fellowship (WAGF) is a worldwide fellowship of 140 national Pentecostal churches, most of whom trace their beginning to the Assemblies of God denomination in the US (founded in 1914). There are a few exceptions, such as the Assembly of God of Brazil, which dates back to 1911 and thus preceded the US denomination. The WAGF, which represents some 80 million Christians, was founded in 1988, emerging in part from a proposal by Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea (considered the world’s largest congregation).
The Pentecostal World Fellowship (PWF) represents classical Pentecostalism, including denominations who find their roots in the 1906 Azusa Street revival and other spontaneous outbreaks of renewal. It includes the Pentecostal Holiness churches, the Foursquare churches, the Apostolic churches and the many Church of God denominations. The PWF comprises an estimated 110 million people.
Finally, Empowered 21 (E21) is quite unlike the above two, organized as an action-oriented movement among Pentecostals and Charismatics. Its vision: “that every person on Earth would have an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit by Pentecost 2033.”
The church today is richer by the early 20th Century movement in which a greater and more detailed understanding and appreciation of the Holy Spirit reworked much of our theology and allowed laypersons to more closely and specifically be at the center of witness. The hierarchy of priestly and pastoral functions was passed on to Christians, who in their daily places of work, administered faith, aware now of the personal gifting and anointing given by the Spirit.
Today we live in the “This is what” era.
Brian C. Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance
Author: Brian Stiller