The Healthy Pentecostal Church:
Measurements and Best Practices
Central Assembly of God Archive/Design Pics/Thinkstock
For the local pastor and congregation that long to become a healthier Pentecostal community, consider these five recommendations drawn from the Early Church's ancient story and our modern reality.
By Michael Clarensau
As a second century dawns for the U.S. Assemblies of God, questions of health and fitness now rise in the windshield of one of the strongest denominations to emerge from the past century's Pentecostal explosion. What does it mean to be 100 years old and healthy? Frankly, those are not realities we typically expect to see side-by-side. To find the muscle-bound and athletic, we typically drive past the centenarian's home, expecting to find more measurable strength among the youthful at a park or local gym.
But while even the most profitable organizations find their life spans growing shorter and with the strength of older denominations fading dramatically in recent decades, there seems cause to believe that the Assemblies of God is far from finished in its quest to make disciples of this and future American generations.
Numbered among the relatively few Protestant groups to show growth in the new millennium, the U.S. Assemblies of God currently celebrates increases in number of churches and worship attendance, though it has not kept pace with its own exponential growth overseas. Still it seems a new century offers the possibility of continued expansion alongside other growing Pentecostal groups and congregations.
But after 100 years in a rapidly evolving culture, we would expect the product of past priorities to now govern our potential future. Who we have been and how we have grown have a way of shaping the parameters of what we will be. Just as dietary choices and exercise habits have a way of defining your body in later years, so our church-health habits will have much to say about life in the next century. We can see positive proof in how today's remarkable harvests on the African, Asian, and Latin American continents stem largely from the sacrificial seeds sown by a previous generation. In the same, but not so positive way, many local congregations facing decline in their seventh or eighth decade can look to lost priorities in their not-so-recent history as the beginnings of their not-so-distant ending.
At one time, Methodist leaders wrestled with the question, “Are we yet alive?” At its 100th birthday, the U.S. Assemblies of God must at least consider a pair of somewhat less ominous queries, “Are we healthy?” and “What does a healthy Pentecostal church look like?”
Are We Healthy?
While we could argue for numerous standards and measures for determining church health, Assemblies of God leadership has recently adopted a simple statement defining a healthy Pentecostal church: a Spirit-empowered community of disciples following Jesus, fulfilling His mission.
Three ideas about this community are clearly overt in this definition: Spirit-empowerment, discipleship, and Christ's mission — to “seek and save what is lost.” Let's consider them in reverse order.
First, how are we progressing as a missional community bent on evangelism? In the Book of Acts, the Pentecostal church's biblical road map, spreading the gospel is the pinnacle of Pentecostal purpose. Acts 1:8 affirms worldwide evangelism as the principal goal of Holy Spirit empowering. At the Church's first altar call 3,000 respondents punctuated the arrival of that power on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4). From there, we define the spread of the Church by the missional efforts of the apostles and the other Pentecostal saints who followed.
While the priority of the question, “Are we healthy?” is both present and future, we can hardly overlook the missional priority of the Assemblies of God's first century. With unapologetic focus on evangelism, both in the U.S. and abroad, this Fellowship's remarkable growth offers ongoing proof that a healthy church is an outward-focused church.
So how are we doing now? While some of our churches have lost their zeal for evangelistic effort and succumbed to the downward spiral of inward focus, the numbers offer better news than some might imagine. Recent years have seen evidence of a strong commitment to and success in evangelism. A wave of renewed evangelistic fervor seems to have arisen in the past 15 years, perhaps due at least in part to a similar rise throughout the evangelical world, an increase in church planting, and the emergence of a megachurch era. In 2011, U.S. Assemblies of God churches reported twice the number of conversions than they reported just 25 years ago. This evangelistic wave, while currently fading a bit, seems to still be pounding the beach with significant force.
Second, while there are numerous ways to measure discipleship, we can see one piece of good news in an apparent renewed passion for water baptism. Our rate of baptizing converts is actually improving, even amidst the increase in conversions. A decade ago we were baptizing one out of every four reported conversions, but that number today is drawing closer to 3.5. Our smaller churches (under 200 in worship attendance) are leading the way in “baptism efficiency” by baptizing one person for every 2.2 reported conversions. Our larger congregations (200+), where we have seen the greatest increase in conversions, report one baptism for every 4.7 conversions. While that number seems high, it marks significant improvement over the baptism ratios of the previous decade.
Likely we see the most glaring concern in our current reality in our pursuit of Spirit-empowerment, the final overt priority of our healthy Pentecostal definition. While, as stated, conversions reported in 2011 were 100 percent greater than that of 1986, Spirit baptisms rose by less than one percent when comparing those same years. Increasing numbers of converts without a corresponding increase in this critical step of Spirit empowerment means many congregations may be becoming less Pentecostal in both pursuit and practice.
Twenty-five years ago, our churches reported one Spirit baptism for every 2.83 conversions. That means we could anticipate that one of every three people finding Jesus through the ministry of our churches would also experience their own Day of Pentecost at some point. By 2011, that ratio had nearly doubled to 5.62, meaning that now we can expect approximately one in six of our reported converts to someday be Spirit baptized. In our largest churches (1,000+), the 2011 ratio of reported conversions to Spirit baptisms stood at 9.12.
Conversions come in many scenarios. Some might be out-of-town guests or responders to outreach efforts where the opportunity to assimilate them into church life and membership is complicated or even impossible. Still, if we are producing five, or even eight, non-Pentecostal converts for every one that will be Spirit-baptized, might this not diminish our Spirit-empowerment over time?
In Acts 1, the mission necessitated the pursuit of such empowerment. Jesus' clear directive to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 4) underscored a reality the 120 likely sensed — they needed His help to do what He was commanding them to pursue. Surely our passion for that purpose draws us to that same need.
Our current realities underscore that, while we can argue for many priorities in the search for healthier churches, surely expanding our outward focus and rekindling our pursuit of Spirit-empowerment must top the list for Pentecostal churches. Indeed, the concurrently running worldwide revival sparked by these same priorities underscores their potential for America's churches as well.
What Does a Healthy Pentecostal Church Look Like?
We have long held the Acts 2 Church with fascination, mesmerized by its effectiveness against seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Why wouldn't we want to be like it? After all, we can see the clearest demonstration of the Church's missional success in the fact we in the Western world, along with millions in the East, are still pursuing its mission more than two millennia later. Of course, we have our own obstacles of secularism, moral decline, post-modernism, and consumer mentalities to overcome, but we certainly hope that future generations will find us as effective.
For the local pastor and congregation that long to become a healthier Pentecostal community into our second century, I offer five recommendations drawn from the Early Church's ancient story and our modern reality.
1. Amplify the priority of Spirit-empowerment
Urgency for Spirit baptism is the first way we must express the priority of Spirit-empowerment. As in Acts 1, all believers need Spirit baptism so they can join the missional journey in which we have engaged. It is reasonable to assume that the disciples might have bypassed the Day of Pentecost entirely were it not for Jesus' clear direction. Spirit-empowerment mattered to them, not because of their immediate perception or understanding of its need, but because Jesus communicated its necessity. In the same way, what we say about Spirit baptism sets the tone for our new believers and our long-time members.
While our culture has come to view spiritual pursuits as reflections of individualism, Christ's true mission goes beyond life change to target world change. When we limit the reason for Spirit baptism to personal blessing or advanced discipleship practice, it takes on a more optional feel to Christ-followers. For the soon-to-be apostles of Acts 1, their Pentecost was essential to the mission Jesus had given them — the mission we still carry into our communities and global village.
Second, we must make available opportunity for that empowerment. Just as Sunday morning altars open the way for people to make conversion decisions, there must be settings where people can pursue the power of the Holy Spirit. With modern times necessitating limited meeting schedules for some — existing services are more tightly time-managed, Sunday evening services are less common, and consecutive night revival services have become impractical for many — it seems we have lost key avenues from yesterday's paradigms. If people are to pursue this priority, we must find an Upper Room somewhere.
Many churches successfully navigate this challenge through focused ministry weekends, often engaging the help of guest speakers who can bring proven effectiveness to this priority. Others use small-group ministry settings or weekend retreats where they can give focus to the quest for Spirit-empowerment. Conventions and camps still offer opportunities for the young, while older saints gather in prayer meetings with this special pursuit. The point is that we must find opportunities to receive Spirit baptism. The numbers indicate that Pentecost is not going to occur without intentional effort to make it a priority. We need the power from on high, and this often requires waiting for it.
Mobilization is the third, and perhaps most missing, element. To be a healthy Pentecostal church, we must connect the dots between Spirit-empowerment and missional involvement. If our greatest Pentecostal question is whether or not we allow tongues and interpretation in our main worship services, then clearly we have moved into a management mode and lost track of the greater questions.
How can we connect Spirit-empowered people to the marketplace? How can we exercise this missional power out there rather than simply try to manage its expressions in here? If church-house Pentecostalism is our sole legacy, then our next generation may be our last. Like the Church in Acts 8, we need to be “scattered everywhere, preaching the Word.”
Jesus gave the Church the verb “go” as its mandate, and yet we spend a great deal of our current energy trying to get our target audiences to “come” to where we are. Surely in Christ's kingdom both are essential, but the greater potential likely lies in what dozens of Spirit-empowered saints could be doing all week long.
To be a healthy Pentecostal church, we must renew the urgency for Spirit baptism, identify opportunities to pursue, and develop strategies for mobilization that justify both the urgency and the missional pursuit. Spirit-empowerment is mission-critical, and we need to amplify it if we will find our way to enduring health.
2. Shorten the gaps between faith and experience
It's likely that a church's intentional effort to more quickly move people from salvation to water baptism and the pursuit of Spirit baptism would increase effectiveness for both discipleship and missional involvement. Churches that offer an annual baptism service or a Pentecost Sunday-only focus on Spirit baptism cannot expect a year's worth of new converts to connect with such a limited moment. We must shorten the gaps.
When the apostle Paul encountered a group of Ephesian believers in Acts 19, his first question was whether or not they had received the Spirit's power. For the Ethiopian eunuch, the presence of water made his immediate baptism a no-brainer. Why then should we relegate acts of water and Spirit baptism to later calendar moments? These can, and likely should, be matters of immediate priority once a person has expressed faith in Christ. Healthy Pentecostal churches will provide multiple opportunities for demonstrating that faith through water baptism and the hunger for Spirit empowerment.
3. Multiply contact with the unchurched
Often, especially in churches nearing their own centennial celebration, long-term Christians have lost significant contact with the unchurched people in their communities. Over time friendships center on fellow believers, making our Sundays even more isolated from the “them” of our mission. To be a healthy Pentecostal church, leaders must prioritize repeated efforts to help their people connect with the unchurched.
Among the Church's primary functions (worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism), most see worship and fellowship as strengths of their congregation while evangelism is a proven weakness. Why? Likely because we engage the other four together. Evangelism, however, is the one assignment the church expects us to carry out on our own. So most don't.
To be a healthy Pentecostal church, we must find ways to engage the unchurched together. Relational outreach activities, community service projects, and even just time spent together off of church property help make our missional task feel less threatening to those who timidly carry the assignment.
4. Emphasize the “Acts” of the Spirit-filled
We most directly define the word Pentecostal by the connection to what occurred on the Day of Pentecost. Spirit baptism is the threshold for what it means to be a Pentecostal. But that does not mean the entry is to remain the focal point of the life that follows, any more than the front door can be the full experience of the house. We call the fifth book of the New Testament “Acts” for a reason. That's where its focus centers.
Healthy Pentecostal churches do not see Spirit baptism as a terminal experience. It is a launching pad, not a mere deacon qualifier. What comes next is a life of missional activity that, when added to the others in the community, tells a world-changing story.
While the fruit and gifts of the Spirit will always be worthy of significant study, a healthy Pentecostal church knows that these are symptomatic of an active Spirit-filled life — the former is the byproduct of such a life, and the latter is the Holy Spirit's manner of resourcing that life. The greater goal is the work achieved by the Spirit in the life of power we live — that “full of the Spirit” was the original deacon qualifier among Pentecostals.
There is certainly so much more that goes into being a healthy Pentecostal disciple — far more than we can measure on an annual report or fully discuss in a brief article such as this. But clearly, healthy Pentecostal people known for living active Spirit-filled lives will populate future healthy Pentecostal churches.
5. Give your best energy to new horizons
Finally, to be a healthy Pentecostal church we must pursue new life everywhere it can emerge. New people, new ministry efforts, and new church plants are where we can find new vitality. Certainly such awareness does not abandon what exists, but Pentecostals find their greatest expansion amidst new horizons.
The days of burnt-over fields are no more. Green shoots are sprouting through sidewalk cracks nearly everywhere the Church thought it had paved over. This post-Christian era finds our own nation among the largest mission fields in the world. In even our smaller communities, the number of unchurched significantly outnumber those who celebrate faith on Sunday mornings. Where we could not find a harvest a generation ago, today new and even greater potential is waiting to be found.
There's a healthy future to be had for America's Pentecostal church, but we may not find it on the road that many are pursuing. We find the right path among the missional-minded and Spirit-empowered among us. Be that, and when stories are written of tomorrow's church, yours will be among them.