Pentecostalism's Future: Where Do We Go Now?
We must reclaim the spiritual fire we've lost. We must also be willing to bury what has become stale and outdated.
by J. Lee Grady
April 28, 2006
Pentecostals from around the world converged on Los Angeles this week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the revival that launched their movement. About 3,000 people began the party on Saturday by marching through a downtown area carrying flags and banners. They ended their procession in the Little Tokyo neighborhood where Pentecostal pioneer William "Daddy" Seymour held his famous Azusa Street Revival a century ago.
As of yesterday a crowd of 23,000 had gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center for special revival services. Other Azusa events were scheduled at Fred Price's Faith Dome, Bishop Charles Blake's West Angeles Cathedral and at Angelus Temple—the nation's oldest Pentecostal megachurch.
Azusa is truly a miracle worth celebrating
Seymour's unscripted, racially mixed prayer meetings, housed in a dilapidated building that was once a livery stable, attracted curious Christians from around the world between 1906 and 1909. Many of those who visited testified of receiving a life-changing "baptism of the Holy Spirit" that was contagious. Pentecostal fervor spread quickly, giving birth to countless new denominations.
What began in that tiny building on Azusa Street (furnished with crude plank benches and a pulpit made of shoeboxes) has grown to be a movement of 500 million Christians who believe that the miracles performed in the book of Acts still happen.
What started in a poor neighborhood has moved uptown. What was once derided as religious fanaticism has become mainstream. We've gone from rural clapboard chapels to sophisticated, glass-and-steel megachurches; from sawdust floors to plush carpets; from plank benches to cushioned seats; from tent revivals to climate-controlled television studios. And our pulpits today are made of clear plastic.
I hope this is progress.
As thousands more Pentecostals descend on Los Angeles this weekend, we need more than a festival. We must re-evaluate. What core values from Azusa Street must we reclaim? I can think of a few:
Racial equality. Azusa was an interracial experience. White pastors from Tennessee and North Carolina knelt at the altars in 1906—in an age of racial segregation—and allowed black men and women to lay hands on them and pray. In many of our churches today, the "color line" that Azusa historian Frank Bartleman said was "washed away" at Azusa Street has returned as an ugly stain.
Women's empowerment.The Pentecostal fervor at Azusa Street dismantled gender prejudice. Some of the 20th century's greatest women preachers trace their roots to that humble stable, where men and women shared the makeshift pulpit. Today, with all our technological advances, we tend to slam the door on women rather than give them the microphone.
Holiness and humility. Azusa was certainly not a celebrity event. Seymour and the others who frequented the Azusa mission were simple folks who lived in Los Angeles years before Hollywood's big film studios were built. Today many Pentecostal and charismatic ministries look and smell more like Hollywood than anything holy.
There is nothing wrong with carpet, sound systems, PowerPoint, three-piece suits, TV cameras or Plexiglas. But in some cases those things are used today to mask our superficiality—and our corruption. If sawdust could take us back to the deep spiritual conviction and passionate prayer on display at Azusa, I would roll in it myself. But what we really need is the brokenness Seymour modeled.
Meanwhile, as we reclaim the lost values of the past, we can't fall into the nostalgia trap. We are called to worship Jesus, not Pentecostalism. We can't go back to the "good old days." We cannot make idols out of old church buildings. That's one reason I am glad the Azusa mission is gone.
The cloud of His presence always moves, and we must follow the Holy Spirit as He leads us toward a new horizon. While we hold fast to the values of the past, we must bury what has become stale and religious.
God warned through the prophet Isaiah that we must never become locked in the past, even to the good memories. "Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past," He said (Isaiah 43:18), speaking of the good things God has done. "Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth" (v. 19, NASB).
As much as I appreciate Azusa Street, I am eagerly awaiting "the new thing." If William Seymour were with us today, he would agree.
J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma magazine and an award-winning jounalist.
Used with permission of the author.
Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by Todd H.