I met my first ‘tongues-speaking’ Christian when I was about 15. At first his ‘can do’ attitude and boldness when talking about his faith impressed me. But within a month of our meeting, I caught him out lying. It was a blatant barefaced untruth, yet he seemed unconcerned. I shared this with a close friend. “Never trust a Pente,” he advised; “They speak in tongues, and shout ‘Praise the Lord’ a lot, but it’s all emotion and no substance. Keep clear of that lot!”
And so, for some years, I did. Bizarrely assuming that if there was such a thing as ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ today, that this would also bring about instant spiritual maturity, I carried around a prejudicial view about anyone with the ‘Pentecostal’ tag.
It wasn’t till my 20’s when I worked alongside a Youth for Christ evangelist for some weeks that I had to change my views. Seeing at first hand a man who was spiritually mature, who exercised daily spiritual disciplines, who exhibited the fruit of the Spirit, and yet also practised the gifts of the Spirit, meant I dropped some of my defences. Soon after, I experienced my own Pentecost and since then have daily asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to receive and exercise the spiritual gifts He wants to give me.
Today, as I write, Pentecostals and Charismatics from around the world are gathering in Los Angeles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which most believe birthed the Pentecostal movement. The Azusa Street Revival began with prayer meetings in a tumble down wooden shack. The African American believers met there having been expelled from a Baptist Church. Led by William Joseph Seymour, a humble, uneducated son of former slaves from Louisiana, the meetings extended to virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the presence of the Holy Spirit fell and people spoke in tongues.
A century on, in rather less humble surroundings, tens of thousands are attending a range of meetings and conferences to celebrate this landmark. In the past 100 years the impact of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement has grown. With an estimated 580 million adherents (growing by 19m a year), this has become the fastest growing and most globally diverse expression of Christianity in the world. At the current rate of growth, some researchers predict there will be 1 billion Pentecostals by 2025, most located in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What is more Pentecostals/ Charismatics can be found in all the Christian denominations – where they have made a huge impact.
But still many people hold Pentecostals and Charismatics in low regard. Some Christians are sceptical at best, deeply prejudicial at worst, about this movement. Just like me in my teenage years, they may have come across a less than impressive adherent, or been ‘put off’ by the schmaltz of a Pentecostal TV evangelist. Sadly there is no shortage of those and their profile is significant, partly because they pay for the best slots on the Christian TV channels. Some of these preachers have prostituted their message with a prosperity gospel. But to those who look beyond these false prophets there is true gold to be found. God through his Holy Spirit wants to empower His church to reach the lost and gives gifts to those who seek his face and ask. Despite the unfortunate excesses – I praise God for the Pentecostal / Charismatic movement. As well as celebrating the past 100 years, this is a time for solemn reflection and sincere prayer, that another fresh outpouring will drench the world and result in a harvest of souls.
John Buckeridge is the senior editor of Christianity magazine.