Intimacy With The Holy Spirit Is Energizing Churches, EmpoweringPastors, And Changing Lives
Each of the pastors and executive officers interviewed for this article is equally uncompromising in his or her focus on the person and ministry of the Spirit — not to the exclusion of any other theological truth, but as an empowering foundation for every life-changing principle in Scripture.
Jennifer came from a Jehovah’s Witness background. Life as a single mom was difficult, and she discovered that her relationship with God was hollow. She was desperate. As she cried out to God one day in her home, an incredible thing happened. She sensed God’s presence like never before and began to pray in a language she had never heard.
“I felt so good,” she remembers. “After it stopped, I didn’t know what it meant.” She began going from church to church in Salem, Oregon, searching for that kind of worship.
“I encourage our people during worship time to pray together and sing together in the Spirit,” says Pastor Scott Erickson of The People’s Church (Assemblies of God) in Salem, Oregon. “When Jennifer walked in she realized immediately what she had was what we were doing. The Lord heard her cry longing for a relationship. She’s been growing and understanding that Jesus has forgiven her.”
Individually and in groups, believers at The People’s Church are experiencing the baptism in the Holy Spirit and His fullness. In a recent service, 40 people were spontaneously filled with the Spirit. The sermon about Elijah and Elisha, on the surface, had nothing to do with Pentecost.
“I’ve never seen an altar call like that,” Erickson says. “I just said, ‘Some of you are here and you’re dry and you need the fullness.’ And they just jumped to the altar.”
Erickson has shone a spotlight on the Baptism and the spectrum of spiritual gifts since his earliest days as a pastor, when he says he soon discovered that he “didn’t have any choice but to lean upon the Holy Spirit.” That reliance on the Spirit’s power resulted in about 90 percent of his congregants receiving the Baptism during his pastorate at Lighthouse Worship Center in Whitemarsh, Virginia. Many experienced the miraculous. Erickson is seeing similar results in Salem.
“A lot of great things are happening,” he says, “and the baptism in the Holy Spirit is the doorway to many of the gifts being expressed.”
Practicing What Is Preached
In light of the Assemblies of God’s established Pentecostal doctrines, The People’s Church might appear to be a standard affiliated congregation. The Fellowship has always proclaimed the power of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing the initial physical evidence of speaking in tongues when baptized in the Spirit and connecting every expression of the Christian life with a gift or fruit of the Spirit.
“I wouldn’t want to endeavor to do ministry without the anointing and enduement of the power of the Holy Spirit,” says General Superintendent Thomas Trask. “Why would I want to try to accomplish what only He can accomplish? I know I’m not adequate for the task.”
This doctrinal position, however, finds limited practical expression in some churches. Annual statistics have shown a plateau in Spirit baptisms nationwide. Church leaders take a guarded view of this trend.
“Our statistics suggest,” says George Wood, general secretary of the Assemblies of God, “that the number of persons receiving Spirit baptism, while not edging upward, is not decreasing either.” (See chart, A/G U.S. BAPTISMS 1979–2003.)
If the plateau continues, the results could be devastating for a new generation of believers attending historically Pentecostal churches.
“John Wesley was once asked if he was fearful that the Methodist church in America would cease to exist,” says General Treasurer James Bridges. “ ‘Never!’ he replied. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I am fearful that it will cease to exist as a movement with power and godliness and become only a church with a form of godliness, denying the power thereof.’ That’s a concern I have for our Movement.”
“Nothing is more ineffective than an Assemblies of God church without the fresh touch of God, without the anointing,” says Charles Crabtree, assistant general superintendent. “The anointing is what sets us apart and brings the reality of Christ into people’s lives.”
Culture And Pentecost
Changing dynamics within American culture have contributed to a shift away from Pentecostal experience even in churches that promote Pentecostal doctrine. For example, shrinking attendance on Sunday night has led some pastors to shorten or cut out Sunday evening services, a traditional entry point for many believers to experience the Baptism.
“A great concern,” Wood says, “since Sunday night service is so declined, is how are churches handling the process of people coming through to the baptism in the Spirit?”
A seeker-sensitive approach to evangelism, while valuable in some contexts, can fall prey to current societal trends that prioritize tolerance and seek to avoid anything that might offend. Some pastors are reluctant to place the Baptism front and center before their congregations for fear of driving away those who are searching for spiritual answers.
“There was a tendency in me, even as an Assemblies of God pastor, to try to be more relevant, to focus more on nice praise and worship, good rational preaching, conversion, and baptism in water — but not on the Holy Spirit’s movement,” says Pastor Isaac Canales of Mision Ebenezer Church in Carson, California.
Canales is now solidly among those Assemblies of God pastors who look for every opportunity to connect their congregations to the Holy Spirit. Sunday is no longer the single, targeted day for Pentecostal emphasis. These pastors believe that throughout the week, and in a variety of venues, people can experience the infilling of the Spirit and His touch on their lives.
“It’s not a time to be afraid,” Canales says. “Yes, we’re trying to be relevant, but everybody needs God’s Spirit. When you see rock stars shaking their heads, and you see people high on ecstasy, they’re really hungry for something spiritual. What they need is a good baptism in the Holy Spirit. We see in the teen culture a hunger for deep, mystic spirituality that people try to package and then bring into their lives. This spirituality that they’re looking for is what God provided in the Holy Spirit baptism.”
“Once I was exposed to the power of the Holy Spirit, coming from a different church background, it changed my life forever,” says Pastor Ray Berryhill of Chicago, Illinois’, Evangel Assembly of God. “I’m the wrong one to talk to about being seeker sensitive because I’m not very sensitive to that. Whenever the focus has been taken off of God and placed on the people, I think we’ve made a mistake.”
Each of the pastors interviewed for this article is equally uncompromising in his or her focus on the person and ministry of the Spirit — not to the exclusion of any other theological truth, but as an empowering foundation for every life-changing principle in Scripture.
If churches are to become Pentecostal in more than name only, pastors say, church leaders and congregations must intentionally integrate the Holy Spirit in all they do. They must take concrete steps to welcome the Holy Spirit into every expression of church ministry and promote that divine presence in every area of the believer’s life.
“We preach regularly on the Holy Spirit,” says Pastor Maria Khaleel of New Life Assembly of God in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “You get what you preach for. If you preach for salvation, you are going to get salvations, and we definitely do that. But we also preach the baptism in the Holy Spirit, the person of the Holy Spirit, the work of the Holy Spirit, and that’s why the people are seeking the Holy Spirit. The presence and the person of the Holy Spirit are essential to ministry. He makes the reality of Christ present in the world today.”
“We really want our church to be a place where the Holy Spirit is welcomed and His ministry is received,” says Pastor Danny Duvall of Christian Life Church of the Assemblies of God in Birmingham, Alabama. “So we prioritize establishing a clear identity that this is a church where the Holy Spirit is welcome, where He is honored, where He is esteemed in any and every way we can do that. We’re not a stealth-Pentecostal church. There’s nothing secret about our being a Holy Spirit-oriented church. That’s really our heart.”
The results, these pastors emphasize, are dramatic. In a Holy Spirit-focused church, the third Person of the Trinity draws people to salvation. The Spirit moves in ministry to meet physical needs. He empowers a congregation’s prayers.
“If I honor the Spirit and accommodate His presence in public services and make it possible for Him to touch lives, He always does it,” Pastor Erickson says. “And the proof is that people are healed, people are baptized, people are set free from bondage. It’s just amazing what God is doing.”
Far from driving away spiritually hungry people, Pentecost-focused pastors are observing regular and multiple salvation decisions.
“We see as many as 20 or 30 people at a time come to know the Lord,” says Berryhill. “Almost every Sunday and almost every service we see somebody come to know the Lord. Most of them are straight out of the street.”
Berryhill stresses that the Baptism is a normal experience for new believers at Evangel Assembly, so much so that few congregants would even describe the Christian life without the Baptism.
“I don’t have many people talk about the difference between what their life was like before and after the Baptism, because they don’t know that,” he says.
During 2003, some 3,000 people accepted Christ as their Savior at First Assembly of God in Griffin, Georgia. While Pastor Randy Valimont preached numerous sermons on salvation, he attributes the magnitude of the people’s response to his regular accompanying emphasis on the Holy Spirit.
“It has just been a process of putting in the life of the church those things that are important,” he says. “It was amazing to me to see as people began to get filled with the Holy Spirit the differences in discipleship it made.”
Greg Marsh, Valimont’s visitation and outreach pastor, was saved, filled with the Holy Spirit, and then called to preach through Spirit-focused ministry at First Assembly.
“Here is a guy who was involved in drugs, alcohol, and immorality,” Valimont says. “Now he’s on our staff. God just turned his life completely around through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Jake Garland walked into a service both spiritually lost and obviously drunk.
“I’ve heard people describe how the Holy Spirit sobers people up,” Valimont says. “But I had never seen it myself until that night. When Jake came and gave his heart to the Lord, God just sobered him up, and he was saved and filled with the Holy Spirit. His wife and his family have been changed.”
“During worship,” Khaleel says, “when the Spirit is allowed to move, people meet God. We’ve even had people saved before the preaching of the Word by the very presence of God in operation in the midst of His people.” (The primary purpose of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is empowerment for service and witness [Acts 1:8]. In keeping with the Book of Acts model, a high degree of correlation exists between Spirit baptisms and converts, as the chart, Converts and Spirit Baptisms, 1979–2002, clearly shows.)
Moving In The Miraculous
The Spirit’s blessing of salvation in a congregation is just the beginning. As His ministry gifts are promoted, people’s lives are miraculously touched, often through physical healing. New Life Assembly’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit is constantly connected with divine healing.
About 3 months after Shirley began attending New Life Assembly she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She came forward one Sunday morning for prayer.
“She said that when we laid hands on her, it was like heat went through her whole body,” Khaleel says. “God miraculously healed her.”
Shirley went back to her doctor. The same tests run weeks before were now giving opposite results. She accepted Christ as her Savior, shared her story with her doctor, and he came to New Life Assembly and accepted Christ as well.
“We’ve seen people who were paralyzed healed. We’ve seen people with cancer who have been healed, people with lupus who have been healed,” says Khaleel. “We have a lot of unsaved people coming to the church because of the healing prayer ministry. They’re open to prayer when they would not be open to coming to a church service. Many of them are getting saved and some have even gotten baptized in the Holy Spirit during the healing prayer.
“Just in the last 3 months, we’ve had a lady who was healed of glaucoma,” says Khaleel. “She had lost 90 percent of her sight. She was actually prepped and on the table for surgery when she got up and said, ‘I’m going to my church for prayer.’ She got up off the table and came to our healing prayer ministry and a week later was back in the doctor’s office. They ran another test. She brought both tests to us. She has 100 percent of her sight restored.”
“I don’t claim to be a faith healer,” says Berryhill. “We give all the glory to Jesus. We have the people release their faith in every service because in Jesus’ presence healing can take place anytime. Miracles can take place anytime.”
Just as salvation and miracles are common fruit of churches that focus on the Spirit, so prayer is their common foundation.
As early as 7 a.m. on any weekday, anyone in Griffin, Georgia, who visits First Assembly will find the doors open and people praying.
“We set aside 2 hours every morning for prayer,” says Valimont. “If you walk in, you’re going to hear people speaking in tongues, praying in the Holy Spirit. It’s a constant flow for 2 hours.”
Prayer preparation intensifies on the weekend when 100 to 120 people gather on Saturday night. Participants touch oil to their hands, emblematic of the Holy Spirit’s anointing and ministry, and then pray over the pews and chairs in the auditorium.
“We anoint them and we pray in the Spirit over whoever is going to be sitting there,” Valimont says. “We pray over the platform. We pray over the musicians. We pray that the altars will be full.”
Duvall describes the Saturday night prayer meeting at Christian Life Church as “the beachhead for everything that happens.” Different groups within the church coordinate the meetings, creating a sense of ownership.
“It may be the ushers one week, the Sunday School teachers the next, the choir the next, the church board the next” Duvall says. “People involved get connected with the vitality of that Saturday night prayer, and then they come weeks after that on their own.”
Evangel Assembly appoints an intercessory prayer team to meet for 2 to 3 hours every Saturday morning to supplement the 6 a.m. prayer meetings every weekday. Because of the expectancy generated through prayer, Berryhill says, the church encounters God’s power.
“You have to have believers who are connected with the Holy Spirit to really have that burden for prayer,” Khaleel says. “Prayer is the key to everything that takes place. We undergird everything we do with prayer.”
Prayer augmented with fasting accelerates spiritual momentum. Valimont has coordinated a series of 40-day fasts for his congregation during the past 10 years.
“Right now our church is in the midst of 40 days of prayer and fasting,” he says. “We’ve asked our church to fast one meal a day for 40 days. Our staff wrote a devotional called New Beginnings. We started the first 40 days of this year on a fast. We take 6 weeks off then we fast again for 40 days.
“As I speak, our church is on a 40-day fast,” says Berryhill. We’re fasting for a greater release of the manifestations of God’s Spirit and power. Initially, I took a soft-shoe approach. ‘You can fast TV,’ for example. But the Lord checked me. I don’t have sign-up sheets or anything, but the people are participating in the fast, particularly leaders.”
Holy Spirit, Center Stage
Every 6 weeks on Monday night Christian Life Church holds a Holy Spirit Night. It’s widely advertised and people from across Birmingham and from a variety of church backgrounds attend. The focus is the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The presentation is clear but low-key, and people are being filled consistently.
The format is simple — 40 minutes of Bible teaching on the Holy Spirit, 10 minutes of questions and answers, and then a break.
“People are free to go home and research the Baptism on their own or get as far from the church as they want to and never come back again,” says Duvall. “After that break, if they’re interested in moving into the baptism in the Holy Spirit, then they’re welcome to come in, and we really believe that we’re going to have a Book of Acts’ experience.”
According to Duvall, the service has become a spiritual lifeline raising the vitality of the church and bringing to fruition the work of the Spirit in visitors’ lives.
“We had two people come to a Holy Spirit Night,” Duvall recalls. “They said, ‘We saw your sign. We were praying in recent weeks and received this prayer language. We don’t know what it all means.’ Missionaries from another denomination on their way to Africa have come in and said, ‘We saw the sign. We know we need everything we can get for our ministry, and we wanted to find out what this was all about.’ ”
Canales and Mision Ebenezer Family Church hold Catch the Fire services on the first Sunday night of each month.
“I began to preach on the moving of the Holy Spirit and making it clear to people from both the Old Testament and New Testament what the moving of the Spirit is,” says Canales. “Then I taught a series on Wednesday nights on the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts, in Luke, and especially Corinthians. People could see that this was a legitimate experience that was given from Jesus, our Lord himself. This created a hunger in the church. So I opened up the first Sunday night of every month. It has exploded.”
Canales emphasizes that there is very little structure to a Catch the Fire service. Music and spontaneous worship are the core expressions.
“We play wonderful old classical hymns on the piano,” Canales says, “and we begin to worship God. We may sing all night. Nobody has to quit.”
In this atmosphere of worship, the church’s 12 pastors stand in pairs at the front of the auditorium. Long lines begin to form as people seek the Baptism, healing, and other miracles.
“One of the pastors spoke a word of prophecy to one woman,” Canales remembers. “She broke down and began to confess about her marriage, which was going to divorce. Her husband came forward. They reconciled. The entire pastoral staff gathered around the couple. The Lord opened up the service for any other people who were going through the same thing, and it turned into a service of power and reconciliation.”
But beyond the special emphases, these pastors prioritize the Spirit’s ministry in their churches’ regular services.
“We have a fairly routine New Testament worship time,” says Erickson of Sunday services at The People’s Church. “In the course of the message, I always honor the Holy Spirit by talking about, even if it is a couple of sentences, the importance of praying in tongues, of being a person devotionally talking with the Lord in the Spirit. I may use different phraseology but I always talk about the baptism in the Holy Spirit as being the normative New Testament experience for a believer.”
Every Blessing For Every Age Group
Churches promoting the Holy Spirit’s ministry are not limiting their focus to their adult members.
“We regularly see kids baptized in the Holy Spirit,” says Khaleel. “One of our goals is to have kids baptized in the Holy Spirit by the time they’re 12. We believe that the power of the Holy Spirit is essential to keep them through their teen years. They must have a powerful encounter with God.”
“I saw my own children receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit at 4 and 5 years old,” says Valimont. “I feel like if they’re old enough to be saved, they ought to be old enough to be filled. In our children’s churches we talk about the baptism in the Holy Spirit. We pray with them.”
The results are transformed young lives. Valimont reports fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade children who have made a spiritual covenant.
“They’re reading their Bibles and fasting,” he says. “Some say you shouldn’t have a child learn to fast. My response to that is why not teach them to fast one meal a day occasionally, so they can understand. There are kids all around the world that go without one meal a day. They seem to do all right.”
“We had about 37 of our kids baptized in the Holy Spirit just recently in Kids Church,” says Berryhill. “This is not just an adult thing. We see it in the youth. We see it in our kids.”
For Canales’ congregation, Catch the Fire nights have become a prime opportunity for young people to encounter the Spirit’s power.
“This has been a real time for our multicultural teenagers to come before the Lord in prayer, and our youth pastors are leading our children into times of receiving the Holy Spirit,” Canales says. “To me, it’s a little bit scary, but it’s wonderful because you can’t deny the power of God. You can’t deny it.”
Banishing Fear, Responding To Hunger
Canales admits to his own fears in the past, and he relates to pastors who struggle with launching into an undiluted promotion of the Holy Spirit. But he is uncompromising in his commitment to nurturing Pentecost today.
“We’re going to take the Holy Spirit out of the afterglow room and put him in the sanctuary,” he says. “That’s what I decided to do. I just got tired of hearing of so many ex-Pentecostal churches just stuffing the Lord in the afterglow room.”
“I talked with a colleague the other day,” says Erickson, “and he said, ‘I’m not real good at seeing God do things, at letting the Holy Spirit work. I feel like I’m not equipped.’ We need to eliminate that fear with information and know that God wants to better the services. People desperately want a move of the Spirit in their church. Ministers don’t have to be afraid or nervous about what the Holy Spirit is going to do.”
Abuses can creep into any corporate expression of faith, pastors acknowledge. But that is where focused teaching from the pulpit comes into play.
“People appreciate it when you say, ‘If this gift is not edifying the church, then it’s not appropriate,’” says Duvall. “Then, when they ask what is the proper way for a gift to edify the church, that gives you opportunity to talk about ways everyone can be blessed and hear the interpretation or the word from the Lord or maybe the appropriate timing in the service so the church can be edified. People want to be educated. Leaving it just to guesswork is not the right way to go. I tell our people how our church is governed. I tell them what we believe. I give them from the Word instruction on the etiquette and the person of the Holy Spirit.”
“Every time we have a message in tongues and an interpretation,” says Valimont, “I explain what’s going on for the visitors. We never assume that everybody knows what’s going on. In fact, we always assume there are people there who do not know what’s going on. We’ve had times where there have been messages in tongues and interpretations that were out of order, and we’ve had to call that out of order. In front of several thousand people, that’s not always easy. But a lot of people who were uncomfortable with how some undisciplined churches operate in the gifts now feel very comfortable coming because they know if it’s out of order, that we will deal with it.”
These Assemblies of God clergy are convinced that pastors who will guide their flocks into the deepest expressions of Pentecost in a biblically founded manner will experience true revival in their midst.
“There is a life that is present in a Pentecostal congregation that is not present in non-Pentecostal congregations,” Khaleel says. “There is a level of sanctification that is present among Pentecostals that is not present among non-Pentecostals. I also see a zealousness of soul winning that is a natural part of the church’s life, not just a program of the church.
“Many of the mainline denominational churches are trying to adopt a form of worship without necessarily having the Spirit of worship. During worship, when the Spirit is allowed to move, people meet God. We’ve even had people saved before the preaching of the Word by the very presence of God in operation in the midst of His people.”
Far from driving people away, then, an intentional focus on the Holy Spirit nurtures personal spiritual growth. As a result, true Pentecostalism nurtures corporate growth.
Now in the second year of their Monday night Catch the Fire services, Canales and Mision Ebenezer Family Church have integrated a prioritized Pentecost with their church’s capital campaign.
“We call it ‘Catch the Vision,’ ” Canales says. “God’s blown up our finances.”
The church has bought a $5.5 million property.
“We have 6 acres here of prime property in the gateway of the South Bay area and Los Angeles off of the 405, 110, and 91 freeways,” Canales says. “The main arteries of all of LA connect right outside of our gates.”
Khaleel started New Life Assembly in 1992 and has seen more than 3,600 salvation decisions. The church now includes some 30 nationality groups and has about 750 in attendance on Sunday morning. Throughout that growth, the Baptism has never moved off of Khaleel’s priority list.
“We lead the majority of our people through to the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” she says.
Duvall looks back to 1996 when he started Christian Life Church with 58 people the first Sunday. The church has grown nearly tenfold, drawing people from across suburban Birmingham.
An Eye Toward The Future
The Assemblies of God’s executive officers all stress that the Holy Spirit must continue to play a vital role in every avenue of church leadership and church life if the Fellowship is to thrive.
“We have people. We have finances. We have facilities,” says Trask. “We have these blessings because of the Holy Spirit. It would be a tragedy for the church to live under the canopy of God’s blessing and grace these 90 years and then say we don’t need His help, His insight, and His wisdom. It would be the tragedy of all tragedies.”
“I don’t believe the Assemblies of God will be an effective force for God within a generation if we deny the very reason why we were brought into existence,” says Crabtree.
“Ministry success is often defined by attendance and getting people involved,” says Bridges. “I don’t see that as the criteria of the gospel of the New Testament. A Pentecostal ministry is certainly reaching people and gathering people, but it is so much more. It is what you do with people when you get them. It’s what kind of a transformation, what kind of a lifestyle you can bring them into.”
“It would be tragic if the Assemblies of God became Pentecostal in name only,” says Wood. “The utilization of the term Pentecost implies that we are a restoration church, that we represent the kind of atmosphere that was present in the Early Church. If we no longer represent that, then we’ve hung a slogan outside of our door that masks the reality. The Pentecostal church has to have the product that it holds itself out to have. If it doesn’t, it’s in trouble.”
“Our pulpits need to articulate that the purpose of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is to make Jesus a contemporary, to make Him real in the next 24 hours,” Crabtree says. “Some mainline churches are declining because there is a focus on a ‘historical’ Christ. If we say, ‘Well, the Baptism isn’t necessary. Tongues is not necessary,’ what we have is a historical Pentecost. The problem with a historical Pentecost is that it results in a historical Christ rather than a contemporary Christ who we need today, who is revealed, who is working, who is presently alive in the practical aspects of life.”
The hunger for a contemporary Pentecost is firmly planted in the hearts of many Assemblies of God pastors. They are committed to keeping the flame of the Holy Spirit kindled within spiritually hungry lives. It’s a mandate they want to pass on.
“We have four services back-to-back on Sunday morning,” says Canales. “I just want to say, ‘OK, Lord, if You want to take over, we’re just going to let her rip.’ I can see the Lord bubbling up during our quiet times after praise and worship. There’s just a real awesome calm over 700 folk. Then, somebody will say something in the Spirit. Sometimes we have someone interpret that, sometimes we don’t. But we’re being obedient to the Lord and letting that happen more and more. And we’re just going to let it rip.”
“I’m Pentecostal to the bone,” says Berryhill. “You cut me, I’m going to bleed Pentecost. The theme that I am imparting to my people is we want to reach nations and generations. One generation shall tell another and keep this Pentecostal flame burning. That’s my passion. That’s what I want to do.”