As I was at the Empowered21 evangelism conference in Amsterdam in June, I was reflecting on an article I published on my former Christianity Today blog that I wanted to edit and expand here in a brief two-part series. (Read Part 1 here.)
Throughout the West, many churches and denominations are in a state of plateau or decline—and have been for quite some time. Since 1987, almost every major denomination in the United States has fallen in its overall membership.
However, there has been one consistent outlier to buck the trend: Pentecostals.
In my previous article, I discussed the key ingredients leading to continued growth for Pentecostals, both in the United States and abroad, at a time when most other Protestant denominations are in a state of plateau or decline.
I now turn my attention to discussing what these learnings mean for evangelicals on a mission to spread the gospel in our communities and around the world.
A Faith Worth Sharing
One key to the growth of a movement is for its people to believe with conviction that what it possesses is so important that it is worth sharing with others. This is a significant reason for the explosive growth of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard Church movements in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. They wanted people to experience what they had to offer. Looking earlier back, Baptists thought that way in the 1950s. Methodists thought that way during the Second Great Awakening.
Pentecostals believe they have something worth sharing. That’s a conviction from which we can all learn. Simply put, a lightly held faith is not a faith that is shared. Pentecostals seem to be less likely to hold their faith lightly, and that makes a difference.
Of course, to non-Pentecostals, some Pentecostal distinctives seem odd. Also, in some cases, they might be difficult to spot. For example, during the church planting boom in the United States, which began in the 1980s, many Pentecostal planters adopted more mainstream church growth strategies that downplayed their “oddities,” such as exuberant worship, altar ministry, deliverance ministry, speaking in tongues, etcetera.
This, coupled with established churches seeking to modernize and become more culturally relevant, has led to some portions of Western Pentecostalism attempting to blend in with the mainstream evangelical expressions of the church growth movement. Up until fairly recently, Pentecostalism and evangelicalism had an interesting relationship. If you were to ask 10 Pentecostals if they were evangelical, you might get 10 different answers. The relationship between Pentecostals and evangelicals is long established—the Assemblies of God joined the National Association of Evangelicals in 1943, with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) joining a year later. But many Pentecostals will tell you they’ve always felt a bit evangelical-ish.
From the outside looking in, Pentecostals still are regarded in some circles as a somewhat confusing aberration—though more so in the West than in the majority world. Despite the overwhelming dominance of Pentecostalism in the growth of Christianity here and abroad, people sometimes still don’t know what to do with the movement or those who belong to it. This was perhaps demonstrated most acutely by the headaches Sarah Palin’s AG affiliation caused for the McCain-Palin presidential bid in 2008.
More recently, the first episode of the FX documentary “The Secrets of Hillsong” almost described the global megachurch’s Pentecostal affiliation as though it were a best kept, cautionary secret of which viewers would be surprised to learn.
While there’s room for theological nuance and disagreement, from a sociological perspective, it would be unwise for other Christians to downplay the power that fuels the Pentecostal engine. You don’t care for some of their expressions? That’s fine. But Pentecostals are trying to reach the lost and grow the kingdom—and they’re actually succeeding at it.