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A Waterline Of Another Kind

Six Marks of a Pentecostal Church

By George O. Wood

During my early teenage years I lived in a small, southern Indiana town that backed up to the Ohio River. Giant levees protected the area from flood stages on the Ohio, but over the decades the river had overrun the levees and inundated the town several times.

I remember looking at the interior walls of my junior high school. Near the top of the first floor you could see the distinct, thin, brownish residue left over from the greatest flood that ever hit the town. The intensity of future floods was measured against that waterline.

Acts 2:42–47 represents a waterline of another kind. Six characteristics describe the first days of the Early Church. These constitute the high-water mark that each succeeding generation of the Church must seek to equal or exceed.

We know there is a great flood tide of the Spirit when these same elements are present in the local church today.

Core Values

First, the 120, plus the 3,000 added on the Day of Pentecost, were devoted to the apostles’ teaching — the core values of the Early Church.

The use of the word “devoted” to describe the commitment of these early Christians to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, prayers, and breaking of bread lays to rest the idea that spiritual growth is automatic. Devoted means to persist obstinately with strength or adhere firmly to. The same word describes the persistence of the 120 in prayer in the 10-day time prior to Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Thus, these early believers made it a priority, a firm and fast discipline, a set commitment to give themselves to the apostles’ teaching and all that went with it.

Let those who minimize doctrine note that the first priority in the Early Church was devotion to the apostles’ teaching. Every fad and heresy must be judged by the test: “Was this a core value for the apostles?”

The Pentecostal church ardently proclaims the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3, KJV).

Note that the noun is plural — “apostles’ ” teaching, not “apostle” teaching. In other words, what the Early Church devoted itself to was the collective affirmation of those entrusted by Jesus to proclaim His gospel. Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation. If an individual apostle was not at liberty to proclaim some “truth” that only he had discovered, then there is no warrant for a modern-day preacher or teacher setting forth his own peculiar idea of doctrine.

Obviously, the central theme of apostolic teaching or doctrine was the lordship of Jesus (Acts 2:36; 5:42). Core apostolic values centered on Jesus proclaimed Him as Savior (He rescues us from sin), Healer (He cares for our physical bodies), Baptizer in the Holy Spirit (He sends the Helper to empower us for witness), and soon-coming King (He rescues us from death).

There is yet more to proclaiming Him as Lord. It is one thing to assent to a doctrinal statement that says, “Do you believe Jesus is Lord?” and “Do you proclaim the cardinal truths of a Pentecostal church: Jesus as Savior, Healer, Baptizer, and soon-coming King?” It is quite another thing to inventory our possessions, relationships, time management, lifestyle, and recreational outlets. Is Jesus truly the Lord of my attitudes, my time, my checkbook, my home, and my emotions?

Unfortunately, some view doctrine from the mind-set that doctrine or truth involves only a propositional set of beliefs. A Pentecostal church consists of people who are devoted to Christ living in them. That Christ-centered life is reflected in apostolic core values that regulate what we think (belief) and how we live (behave). Our watchword is “Jesus Is Lord” over thought and deed. No less an authority than the apostle Paul articulated “sound doctrine” as that which shapes our conduct (1 Timothy 1:9–11).

Connected

The second mark of the first Pentecostal church was its focus on relationships. “They devoted themselves to … the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.”

There is a tremendous difference between building an audience and building a church. When I go to a basketball game, it does not matter to me who is in the stands. I am watching the players. But the church must never be a group of spectators watching platform participants. Pentecostal churches may have great crowds, but they must produce great Christians. An indispensable ingredient for producing great Christians lies in building the relationships that shape spiritual life.

Think for a moment. What has influenced you the most toward Christ? A particular sermon or song, or a believer whose life deeply impacted you? Most of us would answer the latter. While we thank God for anointed sermons and songs, we must recognize that we were not meant to live the Christian life alone — it is life together in Christ that nourishes the development of strong Christians.

The early church grew from 120 to 3,120 in a single day. How would you like to plan that kind of new member absorption?

It is obvious that 3,120 members could not have all known each other personally. There were simply too many of them. So, how did the koinonia (or fellowship) happen? Acts 2:46 says, “They broke bread in their homes.” I would not be surprised to learn that the 120 were the home group leaders for the newly arrived 3,000. Had there not been small group venues, the culture of the 3,000 would have swamped the Pentecostal culture of the 120 — the majority would have shaped the minority. But give the church a Pentecostal core, and the minority will shape the majority.

I doubt that you can truly experience the church of Jesus Christ until you have shared Him together in a small group, ministry task force, or home setting. The churches that realize this are vital bodies the Lord is using to impact culture. They are soul-winning churches, for people are largely won through relationships.

Churches where people only come once a week to worship and then watch everyone go his or her own way the rest of the week do not incorporate new believers into the life of Christ well. Members do not share their needs with one another and people go unsupported in times of burden and crisis. In short, this kind of church is full of unconnected Christians and lacks the dynamics necessary for a growing apostolic church.

Fellowship or koinonia does not happen by itself — you must be devoted for it to happen.

So, the early church devoted itself to fellowship — to connecting with one another. In fact, the word for “one another” (allelous) is used 59 times in the New Testament. We are to love one another, encourage one another, strengthen one another, and a host of additional admonitions dealing with “one another.”

True Christian fellowship involves far more than getting together or simply developing mutually satisfying friendships. Other components of that fellowship include the breaking of bread, prayer (Acts 2:42), and the exercise of spiritual, motivational, and ministry gifts for edification of all (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:4–11; Ephesians 4:11,12).

The breaking of bread in the Early Church involved more than a brief moment of crackers and grape juice. It was part of the meal. In the midst of eating together — which is time consuming — the early believers carved out moments to reflect on and give thanks for the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The bread reminded them of His broken body, and the cup reminded them of His shed blood. The center of their common mealtime was Christ; and no time of fellowship was complete without devotion to prayer.

The modern-day Pentecostal church can learn from the Early Church. Too often our prayer meetings become a collection of individual believers gathered in the same place praying their own prayers in their separate places of kneeling, standing, or sitting. I sense from the New Testament that early believers prayed in a more dynamic way. They prayed together, and during prayer they would pray in unison and then pray by turns. The praying “in turns” or spontaneous interaction provided an opportunity for focused agreement and common intercession.

A Pentecostal church consists of individual believers who not only pray as a collective whole, but pray together within smaller units gathered for fellowship and the breaking of bread. The Early Church “ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46,47).

Why were they glad at mealtimes? Were they getting better food since they became believers? I doubt it. Their attitude toward food was different because their mealtimes bound them closer to Jesus and one another.

This should cause us to stop and reflect on our own eating habits. We often eat food in a hurry, in argument or silence, or with our minds distracted by reading material, phone calls, or television.

The most necessary and ordinary event of our daily routine — eating — can also be a time when the Spirit affects our relationships with those who share our meal.

From eating food with gladness to the supernatural exercise of charismatic gifts — the early church shows us that life in the Spirit ranges on a continuum from the very human to the very divine. Therefore, a Pentecostal church welcomes the Spirit himself and the gifts He bestows.

The connectedness of the Pentecostal church is also seen on regular occasions when believers come together in larger groups. The First Church met daily in the temple courts (Acts 2:46), and the writer of Hebrews admonished believers to not forsake regularly assembling together (Hebrews 10:25). In a Pentecostal church, it is common for people to say, “I do not want to miss a single service” or “I felt the presence of the Lord.”

Confirming

Several weeks ago I preached in a large Assemblies of God church in a Middle Eastern country. When the building emptied of believers, the pastor explained to me that hundreds of Muslims were at that moment gathering outside for the doors to reopen. Why were they coming? Because they knew the Christians prayed for the sick and cast out demons.

In that church the question of whether we need or do not need the baptism in the Holy Spirit does not even come up. When you are confronting powerful, evil forces, invading hostile, enemy territory, confronting situations individuals have no human answer for, and where positive thinking and self-help techniques do not work — you must have a power that comes from God.

Jesus had warned His disciples, “Don’t you dare go out and try to represent Me until you have received power from on high.” They obeyed Him and walked through the doorway of the supernatural by experiencing the baptism in the Holy Spirit and then measuring their own or one another’s spiritual depth by relegating the work of the Spirit to a past tense event. The Baptism was the gateway into experiencing the miraculous.

The third mark of a Pentecostal church is found in this sentence: “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). This apostolic action is reiterated in the closing words of Mark’s Gospel, “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20).

Years ago David du Plessis addressed the chapel at Union Theological Seminary. Union was known for its Bultmannian neo-orthodox approach to the Bible — namely, the task of the biblical interpreter was to “de-mythologize” Scripture. Bultmann believed the miracles reported in the Gospels were myths. They were invented stories told to illustrate spiritual truth — thus, one must strip the husk (demythologize) off the story to get to the kernel of truth.

Du Plessis, knowing the bias at Union, startled the faculty and students by beginning his address with these words, “People have asked me what I do. My answer is this: my main task is to demythologize the Scripture.”

The audience was stunned. They wondered, How could this Pentecostal leader be a Bultmannian?

Du Plessis went on to say, “There are two ways to demythologize the Bible. One way is to do what Bultmann and the neo-orthodox have done. The other way is to demonstrate that God does the supernatural today. When we demonstrate that, then we show that the Bible stories are not a myth after all. Let me tell you some of the things the Lord has done recently.” Du Plessis then described the present-day acts of God.

That is what a Pentecostal church does. It continues not only what the Lord began to teach, but also what He began to do (Acts 1:1). Jesus continues His words and acts through His church.

In our American culture, it is possible we have gone overboard on methodologies. We have many books and conferences on church growth, on leadership techniques, and on successful ministry. We all want to replicate the seven habits of highly effective churches in our own environment. There is nothing wrong in sharpening our skills and learning all we can from those whom God is using. The danger lies in thinking that the church can prosper if we can just do the right things.

Something deeper drives the growth of the church. We see it when Paul and Barnabas finished their first missionary journey and reported back to their sending church at Antioch. They did not take time to talk about their missionary strategy, their powerful preaching, their suffering, or the implementation of church governance through the appointment of elders. All those things had happened, but they were not the focus of Paul and Barnabas. “They gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).

A Pentecostal church talks insistently and incessantly about what God is doing. The apostle Paul tells us the key to effective Pentecostal leadership: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4,5).

The Pentecostal church must avoid the great danger of thinking that church work can be done solely by human power and ingenuity. Our Pentecostal forefathers did not have funds to lend for church mortgages. They had little or none of the resources we have today. Thank God He has given us far more resources in the present hour. But these resources are tools. We are to use them, not rely on them. Our reliance must be on the power of the Spirit to break through the strongholds in our communities. It is not by our power, or by our might, but by His Spirit.

One of my heroes is now with the Lord. He died last year at the age of 96. My parents helped lay the foundation of a church in northwest China, and Pastor Mung took the work when they left. Ultimately he was arrested and spent long years in prison. Afterward, he was permitted to preach again and reopened the church in 1983. It had been closed 27 years. He was 75 years old at the time, and the church only had 30 elderly people when it restarted. At his death, 20 years later, the church numbered 14,000 adult, baptized believers.

When I first talked with him again in 1988, the church was at 1,500. I asked him, “Pastor Mung, how did this happen?”

He probably thought that, as an American, I was looking for an answer that would give me a transferable technique. We are great at that in the West — “If I can figure out how they did it, I can do it too.”

He smiled a big smile and gave me an answer I will never forget. “Well,” he said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Then he paused and added, “And we pray a lot.” He then went on to describe what the Lord had done in that town.

A Pentecostal church lives in the midst of the supernatural and describes its progress by “what the Lord has done.” It expects the Lord to confirm His Word with signs following.

Caring

Why is the Pentecostal movement the fastest-growing segment of the Church? It is because Spirit-filled people care about reaching the lost and helping the found. No other segment in the contemporary body of Christ can match Pentecostals in their financial generosity toward missionary and compassion enterprises.

Acts 2:44,45, tells us that the first expression of caring in the Early Church came in their financial generosity toward one another. Someone has said they practiced communism with a small “c” — those who gathered little had no lack and those who gathered much had nothing left over.

In reading Acts we must always apply the question as to whether a particular incident is meant to be unique or normative for the entire church. It is obvious from the balance of the New Testament that the Jerusalem experiment in communal living did not become a pattern for the rest of the church. There is no command in the New Testament that believers should live out of a common pooled fund; there is no example of other churches doing so; and within the early Jerusalem church the practice of pooling assets was voluntary, not conscripted.

However, we must not lose sight of the fact even though the particular form of generosity practiced by the early Jerusalem church did not become normative — generosity itself is normative.

Something happens to the wallet of a Spirit-filled person and a Spirit-filled church. Show me a church that has no compassion for the poor in its midst, does not seek to meet needs within its community, and gives little or nothing of its substance to missions, and I will show you a church that is not Pentecostal. It may have the name Pentecostal on its marquee, or even Assembly of God on its sign — but in reality it is a functioning non-Pentecostal church.

Unfortunately, a limitation of the early Jerusalem church is that it did not use its resources for missionary endeavor outside its own cultural boundaries. Over time, the Spirit corrected that mistake through establishing sending churches like Antioch.

A Pentecostal church cares deeply about the needs of people. First, their spiritual need — that is why we send those called to plant churches and do the varied work involved in home and world missions. Second, we care about the needs within our own local body and our community. In recent years we have witnessed the Spirit birthing a multitude of compassion ministries to meet the physical, social, and relational needs of those without their own resources.

The Pentecostal church generously responds to the demands of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) and the compassion commission (James 1:27).

Credible

In the days after the outpouring of the Spirit, the church in Jerusalem enjoyed “the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47).

The approval of the church by the watching world ranges on a continuum from favor, to neutrality, to marginalization, to outright persecution. It does not matter where the church falls on that continuum, it must be credible.

The early church enjoyed favor because the lives of its people were consistent with what it proclaimed. Behavior matched belief.

The community is watching how we treat one another and how we serve in our localities.

A friend of mine has a brother who is in his sixties and recently went through serious heart surgery. He had been away from the Lord all his adult life, but through the witness of my friend, his brother has now given his life to Jesus. My friend informed the local, small Assembly when the brother and his entire family came to the church. One month later no one from the church had called on these new converts. The pastor’s excuse was that he had been “too busy.” That one incident tells me why that church is not growing — it has no credibility. The pastor himself is simply not credible because his actions toward the lost and the newly found do not square with his preaching about reaching the unsaved.

Effective Pentecostal churches take care of business. Their facilities sparkle even if the building is simple. The sign outside is attractive and the grounds look inviting. The phone is answered and calls are returned. Bills are paid on time. But more than that, the surrounding community is served. The Pentecostal church looks for needs within its locality that it can address. It remembers that Jesus healed people without first asking if they believed in Him as the Messiah.

Both the New Testament and the contemporary church illustrate that even when the church does its best to win the favor of those around it, opposition and persecution may come. But the body of Christ should always operate with integrity so the world would not have an opportunity to discredit the church.

Converts

The primary purpose of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is empowerment for witness (Acts 1:8). Therefore, a Pentecostal church without converts is one in name only. The first Pentecostal church grew as “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Perhaps the time has come for us to look more carefully at the nomenclature in American churches and recognize that there is a vast difference between reporting the number of souls “saved” and the number of actual “converts.” A convert is one whose life is truly changed and who is indeed “added to the church.”

Earlier I mentioned Pastor Mung in northwest China and the growth of his church. I asked him the process the church used when a person came to faith and was being added to the church. He told me that most conversions were through personal witness, and that the doorway of entry for most “seekers” was not in their main services but in their many group meetings throughout the city during the week. These home or rented-hall meetings were really evangelistic preaching points in addition to serving as fellowship centers for believers. Once people came to Christ, they were enrolled in a new converts class. To my surprise, he indicated that each new convert had to pass two exams to complete that class. When the new convert course was completed the people, if they desired water baptism, were interviewed by the elders.

The convert had to bring a friend to the interview who knew him before and after his conversion and could attest that since coming to Christ there had been a real change in that person’s life. Then, Pastor Mung explained to the convert that following baptism he would register them at the city office as a Christian and that could have implications for their employment or future schooling. In 20 years, over 14,000 people have gone through this process. The number of “souls saved” and the number “added to the church” is the same number.

That is a great model for us in the American church. We often fall under the spell of “cheap grace,” “easy believism,” and “no-cost gospel” where the number of those praying the “sinner’s prayer” outnumber those added to the church by no less than 10-to-1.

In the truly Pentecostal church, people are being saved regularly and added to the Assembly. By its nature, the church is missions oriented — first at home and then abroad — to fulfill the Great Commission throughout the whole world. Evangelism and missionary endeavor is the natural fruit of a Spirit-filled church’s life and witness for Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I have used the description of the church in Acts 2:42–47 as a template for describing what a Pentecostal church should be. Certainly there are more characteristics than these that could be given — qualities that must be present if the church is Pentecostal.

Paul writes in Romans 12:2 that we are not to be conformed (schema) to this world, but instead we are to be transformed (metamorphe). The two Greek words, schema and morphe, describe the difference between the temporary and the permanent. For example, my morphe is male whether I am 6 or 60. My schemachanges — the photos prove it. I do not look like I did 30 years ago.

Many good people get hung up on this because they confuse schema and morphe when assessing whether or not a church is Pentecostal. For example, 50 years ago my father preached from notes. For many people, true Pentecostal preaching was “high, loud, and fast.” Preachers operated without notes and by spontaneous inspiration. Therefore, to some people Dad did not qualify as a Pentecostal preacher. However, we must never confuse style with substance. The schema of preaching or worship does not make it Pentecostal. What makes worship and preaching Pentecostal is that it exalts Christ by the Spirit’s empowerment and anointing, edifies the church, and effectively bears witness to the unbeliever.

The schema of Pentecostal singing may include hymns or choruses. It may employ the electric guitar, organ, saxophone, harmonica, piano, or bass drums — that is all schema. The early church did not have these instruments, so these things cannot be morphe. Morphe is what stays the same from generation to generation. The morpheof Pentecostal services is whether God is worshiped in Spirit and in truth — with heart, mind, soul, and strength. The schema of Pentecostal meeting times may be Sunday morning, Sunday night, or some other time. The morphe of Pentecostal worship is Presence — did the worshiper come into vital contact through the Spirit with Jesus? (See the sidebar, “The Tune and the Transition: a Pentecostal Legacy!”)

I have dealt with the Acts 2:42–47 account of the first Pentecostal church because, except for its communal experiment, the characteristics are all morphe — essential, unalterable components for a Spirit-filled church. We are never told by Luke what songs they sang or did not sing, what musical instruments they played if any, what format their services followed — all these are schema — forms that change from time to time, generation to generation. What we are told by Luke is that the Early Church demonstrated the universal, essential qualities (morphe) of a Pentecostal church. And no matter what the century, country, or culture — when these non-negotiables are present, you have a Pentecostal church characterized by:

As Pentecostal leaders we take seriously Joel’s prophecy, reaffirmed by Peter, that, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17). In October 1906, the second issue of Apostolic Faith, the official publication of the Azusa Street Mission, put the present-day outpouring of the Spirit alongside that of the original Day of Pentecost: “When the Holy Ghost fell on the 120 it was in the morning of the dispensation of the Holy Ghost. As it was in the morning, so shall it be in the evening. This is the last evangelistic call of the day.”

Friends, we are at the evening. There has never been an hour when a vibrant Pentecostal church is needed more than right now.

George O. Wood, D.Th.P., is general superintendent for The General Council of the Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri.

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