I heard the biblical gospel for the first time in 1999. The Holy Spirit, in relation to that event, invaded my life. I’ve never been the same. For the first year and a half, I limped along in my Christian faith – a member of a small, conservative brethren network of churches. Eventually, through the ministry of Teen Challenge and Stauros – I met some Pentecostal believers. I was hooked. These guys seemed more alive and more evangelistic.
Teen Challenge was inspiring. Through that ministry I encountered many people like myself – people who had been living on the edge of hell and who had been snatched from the flames by God’s grace.
Now, almost 18 years later, I’m a preacher in a conservative network of Churches – the Free Church of Scotland. As I reflect on my past and present experiences – I’ve noticed a pattern. Very often Pentecostal/charismatic believers are much more effective in evangelism, but very often poor in faithful gospel presentation and discipleship. Like-wise, ‘conservative’ gospel churches are good at preserving, explaining and preaching the gospel – but they are rubbish at actually getting out there and sharing it with people. Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rule – but this is a pattern I’ve spotted – and here are some suggestions as to why this might be the case, and how we might overcome our ecclesiastical blind-spots.
- Pentecostal believers emphasise an experiential conversion
In charismatic Christianity, Christians actually believe that Jesus can transform lives. It’s not a theory. It’s an experienced reality which works itself out in a desire for others to encounter God in a similar way. In contrast, many reformed churches are full of third, fourth and fifth generation believers. The normal way to faith is ‘process’. Consequently there is not much expectation that God will visit people in a powerful way.
- Pentecostal believers emphasis passion (or religious affections)
Enthusiasm is contagious. And let’s face it, the conservative crew are not exactly known for excitement. Conservative Christianity can be dead serious, but it can also just be dead. Joyful expression on the other hand attracts people like moths to the light. Joy spreads.
- Conservative Christianity is too middle-class – whereas Pentecostal Christianity was, historically, more working-class
Middle-class folk have a set of values that are just not very compatible with evangelism. It really is that simple. Middle-class folk are preoccupied with respectability, image, and socially acceptable behaviour. Working class folk just don’t give a crap about those things. Working class folk are more open, honest, and blunt. Consequently, when someone from a working-class background finds Jesus, they tend to be open, honest and blunt about it – and as a result the gospel spreads.
Sadly, what happens is, working-class folk get saved, and instead of being discipled – they are made more middle-class – especially if they go to theological college or seminary. To my shame, I actually think I was far better at evangelism before I went to study theology – now I need to constantly surrender a barrow load of cultural-sensitivities just so that I can allow the Holy Spirit to use me.
- Conservative Christianity tends to be better educated
I’m aware that what I’ve just written above can make it sound like I’m having a dig against conservative and middle-class Christianity. But that’s not my aim. The reality is, we need a Christianity that is educated. Uneducated Christianity is prone to errors. Yet the reality is, most of the grass-roots evangelism that is happening both in the west and in the east is happening through Pentecostal believers. Why is that?
I think God honours obedience. If one group of believers has a little truth, but is faithful in applying the little truth that they have, and another group of believers has a temple full of truth, but is only faithful to a fraction of that truth – who is God going to bless more? Exactly.
Of course, the consequence is this, some of the most effective evangelism that is taking place today is also the most damaging evangelism. It is the gospel, but it is often a gospel that is weighed down with all sorts of baggage and deficiencies. It’s a gospel that is often laced with legalism or licence; mysticism or materialism. Often the popular gospel presentations undermine their own foundations because they are wrapped in the packaging of relativism and experientialism. Consequently, many new converts don’t last the pace. Why? They were given a bad foundation.
Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity needs the correction that comes from more conservative Christian churches. But equally, conservative churches need to learn from the Pentecostals about how to do grass-roots, Spirit-led evangelism.