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Perspectives on the Pentecostal Movement

By James E. Cossey

Dr. James E. Cossey, editor in chief of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) Evangel, recently interviewed Dr. Raymond F. Culpepper, general overseer of the Church of God; Bishop Jerry Macklin, second assistant presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ (Memphis, Tenn.); Dr. Jeff Farmer, president of the Open Bible Churches (Des Moines, Iowa); and Dr. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (Springfield, Mo.). The following remarks are compiled from these interviews.

COSSEY: Many in the new generation attending our churches have no background in Pentecost or know very little about the operation of the Holy Spirit. How can we lead them to become truly Pentecostal?

CULPEPPER: There seems to be an assumption that if a church is truly Pentecostal, it cannot reach young people. That is patently false. Look around us; the churches that are really growing are Pentecostal — not just in name, but in practice. The 2009 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports that the only Protestant denominations experiencing growth in 2008 were Pentecostal. In that publication, the Church of God is credited with a growth of 2.04 percent, and the Assemblies of God with 0.94 percent. These figures fly in the face of the idea that you can’t be Pentecostal and grow the church in this generation.

FARMER: I grew up in the Disciples of Christ movement. As a senior in high school, I walked into my first Pentecostal service and pretty much sat in the back and laughed my way through it. I thought it was hilarious until, of course, God brought me to Calvary. That changed everything.

I don’t think the gaps are all that difficult to bridge when we approach youth with intentionality. We have to intentionally engage in Pentecostal worship and in teaching about the Holy Spirit.

WOOD: If pastors will give focus to the person and work of the Holy Spirit and preach on the Holy Spirit, young people will follow. Pastors need to meet with young people. This is a hungry generation. It’s a broken generation. I find that young people are very open to the ministry of the Spirit.

COSSEY: What really makes a Pentecostal service Pentecostal?

MACKLIN: Pentecostal worship, in my view, is when we are open to the moving of God’s Spirit, and we allow that moving of His Spirit to be demonstrated. Pentecostal worship does not limit God. It anticipates the unexpected. I preach a sermon on “The Church of the Unlikely,” where I talk about how unlikely things should happen in church. We can talk about the unlikely, we can sing about the unlikely, but people need to see the unlikely. Nothing can take the place of being a part of a service where people can literally sense the presence of God.

COSSEY: What trends do you see emerging in today’s Pentecostal churches that give you reason to rejoice?

FARMER: I am encouraged by the way Pentecostals are talking about social ministries in conjunction with the preaching of the gospel. We are finally getting it that real ministry is what happens outside the four walls of our churches. We are talking once again about getting out into the harvest, and that is good.

CULPEPPER: I am excited when I see in many places a more vivacious and involved spirit of worship. I visit a lot of churches, and I am pleased to see good involvement in praise and worship.

MACKLIN: I think the music has changed to where there is a sincere effort to worship God in a way that is unique and refreshing. This whole idea of welcoming the Spirit brings a level of excitement that makes for a positive future.

WOOD: I think we should celebrate the diversity in our churches. Our statistician was looking at an alphabetical listing of our churches and came across two next to each other in the “C” section. One was called Church on a Sure Foundation, and the other was Church on the Edge. Both are Pentecostal, but as you can tell, they are reaching different groups of people. It takes many kinds of lures to catch a variety of fish, and there are a lot of fish in the sea.

COSSEY: What do you see in today’s church that concerns you?

CULPEPPER: I feel there is sometimes a misunderstanding of what the ministry of the Holy Spirit is all about. We must not limit the Holy Spirit to just one way of doing things. There are many expressions of spiritual worship. Sometimes it is exuberant, and sometimes with tongues and interpretations. But sometimes it is equally Spirit-driven to have quiet moments or weeping. The Holy Spirit can be just as present when we are contemplative as when we are emotionally high.

FARMER: I am concerned about the seeker-sensitive trend and about the elimination of Sunday School from many churches. Biblical illiteracy is such a problem in the church, and we are losing too many of our children because they do not have a biblical worldview.

MACKLIN: I call it the “cafeteria-style church,” where we’ll give you whatever you want. Tell us what offends you; we won’t offend you. Tell us what you want; we’ll give you that. That’s dangerous.

COSSEY: Statisticians say that most Pentecostal churches are growing faster outside of North America. To what do you attribute this?

WOOD: The Parable of the Sower may offer us some insight. You remember that Jesus said the cares of this world and the desire for riches grew up and choked the fruit. We are very comfortable in the Western world. We are also very rational and, therefore, less open to a sense of need for the work of the Spirit. In my travels overseas, I see a much greater sense of dependency on the Holy Spirit.

MACKLIN: If you trace it a bit further, you will see that most of that growth is in Third World countries among the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised. Whether in South America, Africa or wherever, Pentecostalism speaks to the oppression the people have been through and provides hope for them. No other movement can do that! When you look at the early movement of the Holy Spirit in the United States, it did not come to the rich and powerful; it came to the poor and the disenfranchised. People without any power connected with the power of God.

FARMER: Phillip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom (Oxford Press), says the entire Southern Hemisphere is becoming the center of Christianity. There is no question that this is because of the influence of Pentecostalism. It is unprecedented.

CULPEPPER: There is a growing cynicism and a diminishing of faith in America. Among believers, there is less true faith in America to believe that God can do anything. It’s like we’ve done it all and seen it all. May we never forget that it is in the simplicity of faith, not in the profundity of faith, where Jesus operates! I also believe in sovereign moves of God. God moves in some places because He sees that the harvest is ripe and ready in those areas.

COSSEY: There is a lot of talk, even panic, about the economy and financial realignments. How is this affecting your Movement?

WOOD: These times of economic hardship provide a real opportunity for the church to expand and not to retrench. In the Assemblies of God, our United States growth was exactly 100 percent from 1929 to 1939. We doubled in that decade, and increased our number of missionaries by about 50 percent. That was during the Great Depression! We didn’t have the resources, or church buildings, or any of the programs we have today. Pentecostals did not put the Great Commission on hold during the Great Depression.

CULPEPPER: The same was true with the Church of God. In 1929, we had congregations in 28 states, and Charles Conn says, “The tithes of the church dropped severely in 1931 and 1932, finally leveled off in 1933, and increased rapidly thereafter.” During the following years there was an 840 percent increase in tithe receipts, membership grew by 170 percent in the United States, and by 2,389 percent outside the United States. Missions giving increased by 5,888 percent from 1929 to 1944! I believe this current period of downturn and financial chaos will be one of our greatest times as we discover again what it means to trust God!

COSSEY: Would you encourage our Pentecostal pastors and leaders from the various denominations to more fellowship and interaction with one another?

FARMER: Thankfully, this is already happening in many cities. In Charlotte, N.C., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for example, Pentecostal pastors have come together to influence their communities for Christ. It has been a dream of my life to see Pentecostal movements, led by the Holy Spirit, marching together to attack poverty, to do outreach evangelism, and to effect societal transformation.

WOOD: Most of what separates us is polity and history. Our doctrines are pretty much the same. We need to work together at building relationships. We need to demonstrate to the world that we are one in Christ and that Christ transcends our differences.

MACKLIN: I propose we start by planning cooperative celebrations on Pentecost Sunday each year. I think this is a powerful model. Bring together Pentecostal believers on an interracial, intercultural, interdenominational basis, and let’s see if we can celebrate the things we have in common. From that, we can foster relationships for the future.

CULPEPPER: I would greatly encourage our ministers and churches to interact with fellow Pentecostal brothers and sisters. We need that. But I would go a step further and recommend that we also be more open and more interactive with non-Pentecostals. There is a great deal we can learn from one another. It is dangerous for us to draw a line and assume there is nothing we can learn from others. It is not a compromise when we fellowship and pray with others.

From “Perspectives on the Pentecostal Movement,” Church of God Evangel, August 2009. used with permission.

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