Pentecostal Ministry in a Postmodern Culture
Preserving Pentecostal vitality in an ever-changing American culture
Why view ministry within American culture from a distinctively Pentecostal perspective? After all, Pentecostals are only one segment of a greater American church that proclaims biblical truth and sustains uplifting influences within our culture. On the other hand, many Pentecostals are responsive to an important reality. Cognizant of erosive cultural changes, contemporary Pentecostals are likely to view the rapid decline of Western culture as a challenge mandating a Spirit-empowered ministry reminiscent of the Early Church.
The Challenge Of Culture
As the capstone of God’s creation, humankind has moved from creation’s dawn to the present and along the way produced the anthropological phenomenon of culture. Humankind’s journey has fashioned definitions of culture naturally inclusive of the many aspects of human development including linguistic, political, economic, social, psychological, racial, and religious concerns. According to Kluckhohn, culture embraces the cognitive and emotional aspects of a people. “Culture is a way of thinking, feeling, believing. It is the group’s knowledge stored up for future use,” he observes.1 Simply defined, culture is learned and shared attitudes, values, and ways of behaving.2 Culture is, therefore, varied, and complex. Demanding the utmost effectiveness in Pentecostal ministry, culture is a distinctively human characteristic that does not yield easily or naturally to the Christian message.
The Unfolding of American Culture
Over 200 years of cultural development has allowed an intriguing, if not provocative, development of American culture. Like all cultures, American culture is dynamic, always changing. Converging influences from many sources create the American profile. The cumulative influences of American culture may be viewed as a powerful river that impacts everyone living on its shoreline. In addition, numerous tributaries feed this massive cultural river. These tributaries originate in the various aspects of American life and activity including politics, government, art, education, religion, and other permeating influences. Some tributaries bring life and vitality to the cultural river while other streams engorge the current lifestyle with moral pollution and spiritual death.
To minister effectively, the Pentecostal church must critically assess and understand existing culture and, in some cases, unmask its sinister foundations and values. This understanding of culture is essential for achieving a transformational presentation of the gospel to those around us. In the end, understanding a culture is tantamount to understanding its people and how best to present Christ’s claims to them.
Historically and ideologically, contemporary American culture is linked to the humanistic thought of the Renaissance of the 14th through the 16th centuries with its emphasis on the individual. Somewhat inspired by Renaissance thought and empowered by the notion of greater personal freedom, Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries sought for alternatives to the authoritarian models of thinking and leading found in both government and religion. Predictably, they pursued alternatives to the truth of Scripture and the value of historical tradition.
Theorists of the Enlightenment created a new cultural perspective concerning the individual’s role in society and how truth and meaning are discovered. The values of reason, logic, and empiricism prevailed and became the means for ascertaining truth.3 The enlightened individual had no need for special or divine revelation. Individual destiny and purpose are achieved through the rational and autonomous processes of life.
The tenets of the Enlightenment have now yielded to the complicated cultural condition of postmodernism, a philosophical phenomenon that has hurled America into a cultural shift of remarkable proportions. Grenz observes that postmodernism calls into question the ideals, principles, and values that lie at the center of the modern mind-set.4 Characterized by a denial of knowledge’s objectivity and inherent goodness, postmodernism elevates the value of community-based knowledge that both defines the community and provides truth for it. Postmodernism posits the idea that truth can be achieved through intuition, seriously questioning the scientific method as the epitomization of objective knowing.5
Although the Christian response to postmodernism has been varied, some things seem to be evident. Postmodernism has not stemmed the American cultural drift away from morally and biblically based values that birthed this country. Furthermore, the postmodern condition fails to adequately inform humankind of its highest purposes in life and allows the culture to wallow in the muddy pools of humanism and secularism. Consequently, the American culture manifests an unashamed devotion to secularism — a concern for only the flesh-and-blood life on this planet that blatantly dismisses the importance of God and the pursuit of the spiritual in life.6
Pentecostalism in Culture
Complicated and erosive cultural conditions must not force Pentecostals into a completely defensive posture of ministry. The Book of Acts, a point of historical, theological, and experiential reference for contemporary Pentecostals, is an amazing testimony of how the authentic empowerment of a Pentecostal church forged significant inroads into prevailing cultures. This infant church deeply impacted the cross-cultural crowd present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5–41) and defied the strong religious culture that sought to marginalize their efforts (Acts 4:1–31).
Ultimately, these early disciples broke through their own cultural and theological presuppositions to minister effectively to the various cultures that populated Israel, Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe. The Spirit’s life-changing revelation to Peter began a process of cultural change that allowed the Church to flourish in the Gentile world (Acts 10:9–22). This life episode of Peter stunningly illustrates how the Holy Spirit escorts the Church through its own cultural and traditional biases so it may minister to cultures that know nothing of Christ’s power. Ignoring cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles, the Holy Spirit ushered in a Gentile Pentecost as glorious as the Church’s original Pentecost (Acts 10:27–46). Fortunately, the Jewish arm of the Early Church accepted the validity of this event and rejoiced because Pentecost came to others (Acts 11:4–18).
Ensuing years reveal early Christians effectively ministering within the pagan cultures surrounding them. The Early Church endeavored to stay separated from the pagan practices of decadent cultures but at the same time mingled and remained in social dialogue with non-Christians. Moral and spiritual separation from the evils of the culture did not preclude the Christian’s obligation to civil authority, paying taxes, social and philosophical dialogue, and constant prayers for those in authority (Romans 13:7; 1 Timothy 2:1,2). Simultaneously, early believers embraced new values, lifestyles, and attitudes vastly different from Roman society. All believers, for example, were to be accepted in the church with a sense of equality (Colossians 3:11; James 2:5–9). While culture engendered a stratified society in which the privileged few were served by the lower class and slaves, the church consistently undercut this cultural bane through its emphasis on equality; attitudes of a loving servanthood were encouraged among all Christians.7 Remarkably, Christians of the first century had planted within the prevailing culture seeds of a true biblical Pentecostalism that strategically resurged in succeeding generations of devout believers.8
Christians beyond the first century continued to permeate culture in a significant manner. Despite periods of imperial persecution, pagans were positively influenced by the purity of life, love, and courage of believers. Amazingly, three centuries after the death of Christ, Constantine gave official recognition to the importance of Christianity in the state by calling and presiding over the Council of Nicea. Christianity had successfully produced its own culture within the more pervasive and spiritually bankrupt culture in which it existed.9
America became a point of Pentecostal light at the beginning of the 20th century. The period of time between the early revival fires of Azusa Street and the present have witnessed the development of Pentecostalism as a dominant religious force in American culture. Synan observes, “Pentecostalism is one of the few religious movements to originate in America and subsequently become a major force in other parts of the world.”10 Some believe that Pentecostalism has become a third force in Christian history, taking its place of cultural influence beside Protestantism and Catholicism.
Ideally, American Pentecostalism will continue as a formidable cultural force, a replication of New Testament Christianity that expresses itself in complete devotion to the Spirit and His empowering work in the church. Offering a similar understanding of the vision of contemporary Pentecostals, Durasoff describes Pentecostals as those who have an earnest desire to recapture the early practices and spiritual dynamics of first-century disciples and to know Jesus as a present living personality, all through the enablement of the Holy Spirit.11
Pentecostalism in Crisis
Remarking on the impact of Spirit-initiated revivalism of recent years, Presbyterian writer Charles Syndor writes that Pentecostalism “is an authentic reformation-revival movement of historic significance, equal with those of other great movements of centuries past.”12 Despite the glowing reports of the immediate past, many sincere individuals feel that Pentecostalism has stalled in America. Historically speaking, great religious movements that fail to nurture the unique dynamics that characterized their origins will replace them with attitudes, practices, and methodologies friendlier with the current culture. Some feel that Pentecostals are at a crossroads of fervently embracing the biblical spirituality of their beginnings or accepting absorption into an American religious fabric devoid of the rich texture of the past.
Our present situation may be well framed by the words of author Ron Auch. In Pentecostals in Crisis, he fears that something of the uniqueness and power of the classic Pentecostal heritage may be lost as the baton of Pentecostal experience and ministry is passed from one generation to the next. Auch does not fear a total compromise of faith and experience but rather a slow retreat from the power encounters that characterized the salvation experiences, personal healings, and Spirit baptisms of earlier Pentecostals. This cycle is, however, a tendency and not an inevitability. The point of concern, Auch explains, is that ultimately a new generation emerges with entirely new points of reference to spiritual experience and, consequently, a different approach to ministry.13 If he is right, Pentecostals must continually recommit themselves to spiritual vitality and biblical mission through effective methods of ministry as well as personal and corporate Pentecostal experience.
The Matrix of Contemporary Pentecostalism
Part of the answer for preserving Pentecostal vitality is the ability of Pentecostals to foster a Spirit-empowered expression of Christianity by blending important aspects of New Testament experience and ministry. This blending of critical Pentecostal fundamentals may be viewed as the matrix of life-changing Pentecostalism, a merging of key Pentecostal elements including preaching, personal and congregational spiritual experience, lifestyle, and the Spirit-filled environment. Achieving this holistic approach to Pentecostal ministry is essential for a life-changing expression of Pentecostalism within the cultural milieu.
Preaching the gospel is a critical aspect of Pentecostal influence in the world. The gospel possesses the inherent power for personal transformation (Romans 1:16; 1 Peter 1:22,23). When adequately articulated, the gospel provides a compelling message of personal transformation that lifts the individual above the destructive influences of a decadent culture. When the truth of the gospel is presented through empowered individuals, the result is personal salvation and entrance into the kingdom of God and the life it provides (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Clearly, the apostles believed both in the authority of their historical message concerning the meaning of Christ’s life and the exceptional dynamic needed to deliver their message to the world. The apostle Paul possessed deep convictions concerning the transformational content of the gospel and the Spirit invigoration required for preaching to others (1 Corinthians 2:1–5). Jesus had ordered His disciples to forbear a witness of any kind until the empowering Spirit came to them (Luke 24:44–49; Acts 1:8). Breaking down walls of cultural resistance still mandates a Spirit-empowered preaching event that compels listeners to experience God’s power. The anointed and impassioned preaching of God’s Word still ushers individuals to the threshold of the Pentecostal experience.
The years preceding America’s turn-of-the-century Pentecostal revival were dark. Post-Civil War America was under the crushing blows of sectional hostility and financial confusion. America’s cities were filled with moral decay. Crime, alcoholism, and prostitution grew rampant. Corruption was often widespread in business and government.14 Chaotic and confused, American society was adrift in an ocean of moral laxity.
America’s spiritual condition brought devout Christians to their knees. Spiritually speaking, it was a watershed moment for America. Miraculously, God responded to their prayers by sending a revival to America—a revival deeply marked by the experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, complete with moral and spiritual empowerment, a devotion to personal holiness, and glossolalia. The Azusa Street Revival and other moves of God like it prompted a remarkable growth of Pentecostalism throughout America. Thomas F. Zimmerman remarked: “This, then, is the explanation for the remarkable growth of the Pentecostal movement. Men have tried to adduce all kinds of reasons for it in terms of sociology, psychology, ecology, and economics. But nothing short of the almighty power of God responding to the contrition of His faithful remnant could have produced such results.”15
The elements of Pentecostal experience articulated in Acts have characterized the growth of Pentecostalism in America. Prayer, glossolalia, fearless proclamation of the gospel, a thriving sense of community, conversions, and the miraculous are the continuing signs of God’s presence within His church. Still desiring to uniquely manifest His presence in this new century, the Holy Spirit desires to propel sincere believers into an increasingly glorious future.
An authentic Spirit experience is designed to change both those empowered by the Spirit and those who come in contact with the empowered. First-century believers carried the experience of Spirit renewal into the world around them, unlike the privatized religions of the Roman Empire that served only their immediate adherents. The Spirit’s influence led early believers into Christian practices that fostered the formation of communities with a distinctive self-awareness.16 Rodney Clapp contends that the early Christians were intentional in their effort to create and sustain a unique culture. By the Spirit’s power, they pursued a way of life that would press them into the image of their God. Allowing their Kingdom agenda to often thrust them in harm’s way, they were determined to make the message and life of Jesus a total way of life, a culture.17
American Pentecostals must capture and nurture the spirit of the first Pentecostals. These early disciples offered the hope of a new way of life within a spiritually pauperized culture. Embracing a firm belief in divine assistance, first-century Pentecostals successfully confronted cultural forces that publicly disgraced them and refuted their message (Acts 13:6–12). They overcame internal and external threats and dismantled personal fears (Acts 18:1–11). Geographical distances, cultural differences, and governmental opposition were at best inconveniences to their Kingdom agendas (Acts 20:17–24). Demons, mobs, and dangerous individuals held back the surge of Kingdom life only temporarily (Acts 16:16–34). Determined to make the Pentecostal experience a way of life for others, first-century disciples accepted setbacks in stride, strongly faced their opposition, and never expected defeat (Acts 4:1–31). Their thriving spirituality is still the birthright of every local church wanting to offer a better way of life to its community (Acts 5:17–21).
Luke, the historian of the Early Church, takes the reader inside the corporate life of the Early Church and reveals the vibrant environment in which it nurtured its own. We are immediately in touch with the living soul of the Early Church, the quintessential quality that gave it durability against opposition — its vital sense of community (Acts 2:42–47; 4:33–35; 5:12–14).
Carried along on the breath of God’s renewing Spirit, these early disciples continued to face both the external challenges of antagonistic cultures and the internal challenge of nurturing God’s kingdom in redeemed human beings. As one might imagine, the struggles, miscalculations, and failures of this fledging entity were apparent. Nevertheless, the apostles and those who followed them more than met the gauntlets thrown down before them. The Church not only survived but also miraculously prospered as a caring community of followers and leaders (Acts 2–6).
Cerillo emphasizes that Pentecostals still offer a loving community that encourages spiritual conversion, baptism in the Holy Spirit, and divinely bestowed spiritual gifts as a means to a new, improved life in this world. Local congregations of Pentecostals, often comprised of all social classes, open their heart to engage the power of God through the Holy Spirit. Spiritually fervent Pentecostals provide accepting environments in which cultural and social dichotomies are transcended and personal and social chaos yield to a new vision of a higher order, a greater community than what is offered by the world outside.18
More than an aberration from American cultural Christianity, Pentecostalism is a journey in biblical Christianity. In fact, there is evidence that Pentecostalism is viewed less as an aberration from the more common expressions of American Christianity and more as a significant force for spiritual change in society and the life of the individual. Pentecostals may have opportunities within the present culture that did not exist in the past and may not be guaranteed in the future. We would do well to be ourselves, faithful to our biblical roots, and take advantage of the moment.
1. Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man (New York: Whittlesev, 1949), 23.
2. Stephen A. Grunlan and Marvin K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1988), 41.
3. Guder offers excellent insights into the cultural and intellectual forces that provided impetus to the development of North American culture. See particularly chapters 2 and 3. The understanding of culture is important because “the gospel is always conveyed through the medium of culture. It becomes good news to lost and broken humanity as it is incarnated in the world through God’s sent people. To be faithful to its calling, the church must be contextual. . . . The church relates constantly and dynamically both to the gospel and to its contextual reality.” Darrell L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 18.
4. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 12.
5. Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 18,19.
6. David W. Henderson, Culture Shift: Communicating God’s Truth to Our Changing World(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 123.
7. Paul’s letter to Philemon, the apparent leader of the church in Colossae, is an example of the intentionality of leadership in addressing prevailing cultural attitudes. The letter leaves one with the expectation that Philemon would hear the deeper heart of the apostle and release Onesimus.
8. Stanley M. Burgess offers an excellent read in The Holy Spirit: Ancient Christian Traditions (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984), for those seeking a better understanding of a historical perception of the Spirit’s work and the development of Spirit theology from the apostolic fathers through Augustine. His sources are extensive and offer further research for those seeking a more complete understanding of the Holy Spirit’s continued presence and work through the centuries.
9. Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1981), 84,85.
10. Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 219.
11. Steve Durasoff, Bright Wind of the Spirit: Pentecostalism Today(by the author, 1972), 3.
12. Charles S. Syndor, Jr., “The Pentecostals,” The Presbyterian Survey (June 1964): 37.
13. Ron Auch, Pentecostals in Crisis (Green Forest, Ark.: New Leaf Press, 1988), 20,21.
14. Vinson Synan, ed., Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins (Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1975), 8–10.
15. Ibid., 9.
16. Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1993), 110.
17. Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 81,82.
18. Murray A. Dempster, Byron D. Klaus, and Douglas Petersen, eds., Called and Empowered (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 103,104.