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Neil Hudson, You Will Never Know Where You Are Going Until You Know Where You Came From: British Pentecostals’ past development and future challenges

In the light of these challenges to classical Pentecostal theology, some Pentecostals have responded with a call to return to a form of ‘radical Pentecostalism’. This is more than a mere rhetorical flourish. It is aimed at getting back to the roots of Primitive Pentecostalism—an emphasis on holiness linked to power, rooted in a subsequent experience of the Spirit. The temptation for Pentecostal denominations is to merely insist on their acceptance of their doctrinal formulation even whilst acknowledging that the doctrine itself may be inadequately formulated to carry the weight of experience that many of their constituency have had. So Pentecostal theologians such as Frank Macchia, Simon Chan and Amos Yong are pushing at the boundaries to more fully explore the very experiences that the doctrinal formulations were created to protect.

Naturally, globalisation does not help this sense of a lack of self-identity. Many of the largest churches in the world are Pentecostal in practice and theology, though many are not part of wider Pentecostal denominations, and even if they are, they are linked together on a supra-denominational basis. Peter Wagner has written about the new networks of apostolic churches—based in every continent with leaders in relationship with each other not primarily on the bans of doctrine or history, but on the foundation of shared vision and ecclesiology.

For Pentecostals, the search for the perfect ecclesiological shape has always been their holy grail. From the days when the Assemblies of God were obsessively alarmed by fears of centralized bureaucracy, and George Jeffreys was prepared to shipwreck his own successful denomination in order to reconstitute the organization, there has been a fallacious equation that anything that approximates to the New Testament expression of church life will result in the same spiritual power portrayed in the New Testament. The number of false assumptions exhibited here are clear. However, when this is allied to a pragmatism that wants to use in God’s service whatever ‘works’, it can mean that Pentecostals are too often desperately experimenting with church structural change. At its best it means that Pentecostal churches are dynamic, evangelistically minded groups wanting to express their relationships. At worst, Pentecostal churches can be insecure places always looking for the new model.

At the heart of Pentecostalism is an emphasis on a God who does intervene and do surprising things in people, a God who performs miracles both as a sign to his own people and a cause of wonder for non-believers, a God who is to be encountered. Therefore, worship for Pentecostals is not a framework in which one is to taught something but is where one experiences something. So if the classical format of an Evangelical service is one where the didactic elements are to the fore, with the Bible being central and centrally used, for contemporary Pentecostals the worship band and the display of worship songs is central. This is not to say that the Bible is not honoured, but the desire and purpose of Pentecostal services is that the God of the Bible be experienced, not just known about. Furthermore, whilst this encounter can occur during sermons, in practice, it is more likely to be experienced in sung worship or in the ministry time following the sermon where individuals receive prayer. For some, grappling with evangelizing amongst the sensory nature of a postmodern generation, this emphasis on experience resonates with the desires expressed in society. It is no surprise that there is a growing feeling that Pentecostalism might succeed in evangelising a postmodern generation more effectively than they ever did in the rationalistic modernist era.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2012

About the Author: Neil Hudson is a Pentecostal pastor who has worked in local churches, theological colleges, and is currently working with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity as a church consultant and trainer. His most recent book is Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples (IVP, 2012).

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