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What's in store for the charismatic/Pentecostal movement: adaptation or extinction?
Spending the last 3-1/2 years meeting younger charismatic/Pentecostal leaders across the United States in field research has been an enormous joy, but it has also unearthed some jolting issues that concern both these young friends and those my own age. (I'm 50.)

Some of my peers are wondering if our movement even has a future with the "barbarians" of emerging culture at the gates. Meanwhile, many under-35 leaders are concerned that revival meetings and renewal conferences have little relevance among a generation that regards The Simpsons' Ned Flanders as the best-known "Christian" in the land.

It seems, though, that everyone agrees on two things: First, the charismatic/Pentecostal movement is growing rapidly--everywhere but North America. Second, some important assumptions about ministry have been changed without our permission.


The culture which most Christian leaders were trained to reach is being rapidly submerged in a wave of changes often referred to collectively as postmodernism. The world in which I grew up was dominated by an Ozzie and Harriet modern mind-set, which made it a very centered place.

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In this popular sitcom of the day, people knew what was expected of them, conformity was valued, technology promised an ever-brighter future, and life had a predictable pace and reliable moral foundations.

Today, MTV has captured our postmodern culture in The Osbournes, a reality-TV show depicting a world without centers. Disappointed with the Ozzie and Harriet way of life, and rejecting anyone's right to define the truth, natives to Ozzy (as in Ozzy Osbourne) culture are suspicious of the claims made by institutions--especially religious institutions.

While postmodern thinking is incurably spiritual, it also tends to view conservative Christianity as either irrelevant, dangerous, or both. In this sense, the spiritual aspect of postmodernism can be understood as a sort of "folk religion" in which an informal blend of spiritualities is woven together into a pleasing combination that is tolerant of all other combinations.

As comedian Richard Lewis confessed in a recent interview: "When I hit my knees, I'm calling on a little private god that I have that I know exists for me. Just for me." This folk religion is so powerful that natives to emerging culture tend to practice it without ever thinking of themselves as postmoderns.

Nonetheless, the shift is pervasive and is here to stay. Theologian Craig Van Gelder refers to it as "the cultural air we breathe." This new folk religion marginalizes the Christian faith by making it one of many, overlapping spiritual options in a culture that has no center of any kind.

Consequently, the "if you build it they will come" strategy (which assumed the presence of a credible church operating in a majority Christian culture) is declining in viability. Charismatics and Pentecostals are no exception.


Does the charismatic/Pentecostal movement have a future in the face of this postmodern mind-set? In my experiences I have found many answers to this question. One pastor walked up to me in a hallway at my seminary and angrily said, "There are no postmodern people in my church!" I was pretty sure he was right. A young leader with a very different perspective said, "If we don't get rid of all the Pentecostal stuff, we'll never be able to hold onto the visitors."

Those who side with the first pastor cling to the culture that has defined the movement and believe that defending it against the possible alternatives represents faithfulness. Those who side with the postmodern leader feel that this traditional charismatic/Pentecostal culture is the problem and that the missing ingredient is relevance to our rapidly changing communities.

Between these two opinions, I have located another group searching for a third way that would maintain the biblical aspects of the traditional charismatic/ Pentecostal movement while adapting to cultural realities. Abandoning our experience of the Spirit is not an option, but conducting ministry as if we are still under a tent in 1954 or in a hotel conference room in 1984 may actually limit the operation of the Spirit in the 21st century.

Facing a similar challenge, Timothy receives this reminder from the apostle Paul: "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim. 1:7, NIV).

I have met leaders who are indeed shrinking back in "timidity" because they feel their ministry skills are obsolete. Others admit privately that their understanding of Spirit-filled ministry seems outmoded and ineffective and needs to be replaced.

But these are not the only choices. A third way is possible if we follow Paul's advice to Timothy:

Power: Have faith in the core experience. In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul reminds Timothy "to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (NKJV). This inspired counsel is provided to a younger leader serving in a hugely diverse, hedonistic city known throughout the Roman Empire for the worship of the goddess Diana.

Facing these odds, the apostle's guidance is not to adapt to culture by quenching Spirit-filled ministry, but to adapt by accentuating it. There is good reason to see this principle as a precedent for our times.

Unlike their Ozzie and Harriet predecessors, the Ozzy generation is less skeptical about spiritual matters. They have no trouble believing in the supernatural. They just object to your insistence that their is only one way to God.

So, the beginning point for the charismatic/Pentecostal leader is faith in God's power to vindicate the gospel through the experience of His presence in worship, signs and wonders, and the revelation of His goodness directly to the pre-believer.

There has never been greater openness to the supernatural than there is today. In his book Post-Modern Pilgrims, Leonard Sweet notes that, "Postmoderns want interactive, immersive, 'in your face' participation in the mysteries of God." Similarly, Pentecostal scholar Wonsuk Ma explains that this "great interest in spirituality that paradoxically exists in a postmodern world opens a vast opportunity to Pentecostals."

It is ironic that some leaders in the charismatic/Pentecostal movement are becoming timid just as our cultural setting is being spiritually sensitized, and just as evangelical churches are experimenting with charismatic worship forms and experiences.

How strange it would be if our evangelical friends caught a fresh wind of the Spirit just as we were hauling our boat out of the water. No wonder Paul admonishes Timothy, "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership" (1 Tim 4:14).

Love: Become a spiritual parent to younger leaders. For the first time in history, we have four generations of adults alive simultaneously in the church. Paul models the adhesive that can bind these groups into a family when he addresses Timothy as "a beloved son," and tells him with thanks to God that "I remember you in my prayers night and day" (2 Tim 1: 2,3).

The warm affection displayed by the apostle reminds us that every generation of leaders is standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. " ... I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also" (2 Tim. 1:5).

Emerging leaders often tell me that they would love to have an older pastor in their lives as a confidant and prayer partner. Older ministers often lament the lack of a Timothy into whom they could invest time, friendship and resources. I have seldom seen these individuals find one another because there are very few settings in which such connections can be made easily.

No "Paul" should rest until there is at least one "Timothy" in his or her life. No "Timothy" should feel complete without a "Paul." The greatest joy in my middle-aged years is to see a young leader in my doorway.

These are our spiritual children. Abandoning them because we do not understand their music or appreciate their methods is irresponsible and may be the best way to cultivate rebellion and doctrinal confusion.

Embracing them, listening to them and blessing them unconditionally will create the kind of ministries into which the Spirit of God can flow in power. I understand Paul's feelings when he tells Timothy, "Greatly desiring to see you, being mindful of your tears, that I may be filled with joy" (2 Tim. 1:4). It's difficult to imagine a spiritual climate that could be more pleasing to God or attractive to our communities.

Self-Discipline: Place Spirit-filled ministry in a larger context. This term communicates the idea of "self-discipline." Thus, one of the antidotes to "timidity" is personal wisdom in the conduct of ministry. The self-disciplined charismatic/Pentecostal leader rejects both the temptations of power and the counterfeits for love, to make several critical choices:

1. Refocus on the mission of Jesus. While admonishing Timothy to stir up his spiritual giftedness, Paul identifies himself as "an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus," and states his calling: " ... the gospel to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher ... " (2 Tim. 1:1, 10, 11).

Clearly, his servant relationship with Christ is the beating heart of the apostle's ministry, an aspect that he doubtless hopes Timothy will emulate. If we traditionalists insist on making our own spiritual experiences the center of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement, our futures will be far below our potentials.

But if we put the mission of Christ to seek and save the lost back at the center, we will involve ourselves in things so impossible that, without Spirit fullness, our ministries will simply not happen. The Spirit flows to the mission, not to style.

2. Make space for a more holistic charismatic ministry. Spirit baptism is only one factor in a much larger mix recorded in Luke and Acts. Without diminishing the significance of this experience, it is fair to say that the apostles viewed power ministry as necessary, but not sufficient in itself (see Acts 6:3,10).

A badly led ministry is destined for failure regardless of the intensity of its worship experience. A culturally naive church may have an abundance of utterance gifts but be unable to reach its community (see 1 Cor. 14:23).

We dare not assume, then, that having experienced the power of the Spirit, everything else will simply take care of itself (see Heb. 6:4-6). Were this true, the same Spirit would not bring us the gift of leadership (see Rom. 12:8).

A holistic movement would refuse to trivialize holiness by making it merely a code of disallowed behaviors, and such a movement would expand its sense of mission into concern for the whole person.

It would build bridges into culture (see 2 Tim. 1:8-9) rather than barricades to keep the barbarians outside the gates. If the One in us is greater than the one in the world, we have nothing to fear from opening the gates (see 1 John 4:4).

Flowing with the Spirit in emerging culture will require leaders who operate in power, love and self-discipline simultaneously. This triad of graces equips leaders to discern both the times, and the difference between what is scriptural in our experience and what is only cultural.

Leaders filled with love, power and self-discipline will preserve the biblical and morph the cultural to shape a charismatic/Pentecostal movement that can be a major missionary force in the postmodern world.

Four Tribes, One People

A guide to understanding generational differences in the charismatic/Pentecostal community.

The postmodern mind-set is not exclusively confined to the younger generation. In observing the overlapping generations within the charismatic/Pentecostal community--and the church at large, one may observe a shift from the modern to the postmodern, the traditional to the transitional:

The Neck Ties: (Traditionals) Charismatics and Pentecostals who are doing ministry in roughly the same way they did it 20 to 30 years ago. They judge the legitimacy of the ministry based on how closely it approximates forms received from the past. The demographic center of this group is 50 to 60 years old, and some still own charismatic-conference tapes from the 1980s.

This is the church at Jerusalem, representing the founding generation and the cultural center of another era. Ironically, most African American and immigrant churches would also identify with this type of ministry. A leader here is a prophetic commander in chief.

The Polo Shirts: (Contemporaries) These baby-boomer (born 1946-1964) leaders tend to do ministry in the suburbs and have been heavily influenced by the Church Growth and Seeker movements. Their ministry template does not come so much from the past as from churches and conferences developed by their peers.

This is the generation that first applied the word "model" to church and is constantly tweaking things. They have tended to move away somewhat from the traditional charismatic/Pentecostal style toward the laid-back ethos of the Seeker churches, although lots of Third Wave folks feel comfortable here.

You can recognize my tribe anywhere by their polo shirts. This is the church at Antioch, where the founding generation first encounters outsider populations (Gentiles in this case) in large numbers. The leader here is a prophetic CEO.

The Goatees: (Emergents) Baby-buster (born after 1964) pastors are the cultural entrepreneurs of this generation, tending to be artistic, creative and somewhat suspicious of both the Church Growth and Seeker phenomena.

Like the Traditionals, they regard themselves as striving to restore an apostolic experience, but, like the Contemporaries, are not persuaded that the experience has to look like a tent meeting. They regard this process of definition as a "journey" rather than a destination, and a "conversation" rather than a directive.

This tribe knows popular culture inside out, understands how to communicate with its natives and dresses way cooler than I do. This is the church at Ephesus, attempting to take root in a "poly" world--polytheistic, polycultural and polystylistic. The leader here is a prophetic spiritual director.

The 'Xbox'-ers: (Transitionals, Globals or Adaptives) The millennial generation, the oldest of whom are in college right now, constitute a global youth culture. While their basic traits are well-documented from a marketing perspective, their approach to Spirit-filled ministry is still largely unknown due to their youth.

I use this tribal name because their native culture will be organized around change, not stability. Baby-boomer notions like "change management" may seem to them like telling fish about water. You will recognize them by their devotion to Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation, the electronic campfires of the 21st century.

They might be the church of Spain (see Rom. 15:24-28). We know Paul longed to found this church personally, but do not know the outcome of his venture. The leader here may be something like a prophetic webmaster, facilitating a ministry network.

Earl Creps, Ph.D., is the director of the doctor of ministry program and associate professor of leadership and spiritual renewal at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary ( He is conducting research sponsored by a grant from the Louisville Institute and is writing a book titled Postmodern Pentecostals.

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