For the first fifty years of the 1900’s, most communities viewed Pentecostals as undesirables. This group of folks claiming a spiritual experience that had been outside mainstream Christianity for years were springing up everywhere and nobody knew what to do with them. One thing was certain: their experience did not mesh with most churches’ worship traditions. Claiming that baptism in the name of Jesus was the only correct formula was the final straw. Those who embraced this “new” doctrine found themselves unwelcome in most mainline and community churches.
The church I pastor started as a tent revival in 1916. When the evangelist took down his tent and moved on, the new Pentecostal congregation began meeting in the local Community Church – a building that all faiths shared and used to hold their worship services. Things were fine for a while, but one day the Pentecostals arrived at church to find that the locks had been changed and they were no longer welcome to use the church that the whole community shared. Their noisy worship, speaking in tongues, and baptizing folks in Jesus name wasn’t going to be tolerated any longer.
The Community Building, and most of the faith groups that once worshipped there, have been gone for a generation now. Today, the Pentecostal church has the largest and nicest church facility in our small town. But the day the grandparents of our current congregation were locked out of their church was a trying and dark hour. Theirs was a close-knit community where everybody knew everybody, and many, if not most, were related to each other. Family was divided against family; friend against friend. The question the Pentecostals had to answer was is this new experience important enough to accept being tossed out of our church and disrespected by our community for?
Many decided that it was. They bought a small cotton patch. Soon they’d earned enough money to build a small building complete with plank pews. They gave up the idea of being accepted by the community and sought instead the favor of God.
All over the country, this story was repeated in countless communities. In little farm towns and huge cities alike, men and women were forced to take a stand for what they were convinced the Bible taught. Those who could not afford a building built brush arbors or set up tents to worship under. Frequently, they were pelted with tomatoes and rotten fruit, the tent cords cut, and in some cases, their little worship centers were set on fire. Several preachers of that era were threatened at gun or knife point. Some were even beaten. Yet these men and women refused to stop their praying, worshiping, and preaching, and the Pentecostal message spread like a wildfire across the United States and Canada.
Those were men who believed their message so strongly that they, having little money, walked from town to town to preach the gospel, often staying in the homes of anyone who would offer. If they received any pay, it was usually a couple of live chickens, or a dozen eggs, or a gallon of milk, or a few pints of green beans. Just enough to feed their family for a day or two. With their own hands they built pulpits and pews and brush arbors. Some had only a change of clothes and one pair of worn shoes. But they gave God everything they had. And because they did, they changed their world. The Pentecostal message changed the face of our country and that of many other nations around the globe.
By the late 1960’s, the Pentecostal experience had jumped denominational walls. Nearly every mainline church had a large segment of its members who regularly spoke in tongues. Like it or not, communities had to accept the fact that Pentecost was not going away, and over the next few years, Pentecostal churches became accepted alongside mainstream denominations in America.
Although on the surface the world grudgingly accepted the Pentecostals, the doctrine they espoused kept walls between them and everybody else. Their worship services were loud and long, the preachers hollered and roamed while they spoke, they joyously spoke in tongues, and they baptized in Jesus name. The other churches had to accept them as neighbors, but they continued to view them as their grandparents had more than fifty years earlier. Uneducated, unsophisticated, uncultured: the same undesirables just cleaned up and dressed in nicer clothes.
But for the Pentecostals, now into the third and fourth generations, it was a matter of Biblical mandate. Baptism in Jesus name was the only formula the Apostles used. Speaking in tongues was the sign that Peter and his friends associated with receiving the Holy Ghost in Acts 10. Being filled with the Spirit required living a life of outward holiness which meant carefully choosing the clothes you wore, the places you went, the words you spoke, the friends you kept – pretty much every choice and decision was linked to a scripture or principle that emphasized self-denial.
As the 1990’s began blending into the new century, some Pentecostals began shifting. Saying that their church was no longer relevant in today’s society, they determined that current culture would define modesty and determine clothing styles. They said that their elders, well meaning though they were, were not educated in biblical hermeneutics and exegesis and textual criticism, and, therefore, their simplistic, dogmatic ideals were framed by their limited life experiences more than they were Bible mandates. So they were replaced with the…well, with the doctrines of the church their grandfathers had been kicked out of.
The biggest barrier, baptism in Jesus name, was gradually labeled non-essential. You don’t have to be baptized, but if you do, it would be nice if you did it in Jesus name. That made it more palatable to the other churches whose approval they sought.
And so with many, the circle is now complete. They have become the church their grandparents were tossed out of. Those elders who bore the rejection and ridicule of their families and friends for the message they loved more than life, today would not be allowed to preach that message from the pulpits of the churches they built. The men and women who through prayer, fasting, and personal sacrifice created a spiritual movement that changed America and the world, have been replaced by better educated and more refined ministers who, instead of trying to continue the movement their grandfathers started, have found it more convenient to partner with the church where their grandparents’ experience was ruled unacceptable.
By linking arms with the churches who never wanted anything to do with this Pentecostal way, they have all but eliminated the likelihood that they will ever have to experience the sacrifice and rejection that their grandparents endured. They have also eliminated the likelihood of the next generation of their family enjoying the spiritual experience their grandfathers paid dearly to provide for them.
I hope they find the exchange worth it. Because you can’t be both your grandfather’s church and the church he was kicked out of.