The Rapid Growth of the Pentecostal Movement

Many years ago, I preached against the "experience" concept of salvation as just another false doctrine practiced by a relatively small number of "Holiness" folks. It took me awhile to finally awaken to the fact that this is a matter of serious proportions, affecting not only the religious world at large, but even our own congregations. Whereas we formerly over-generalized that those susceptible to "Pentecostal" doctrine were the ignorant and unstable - now we observe the movement composed of well-educated and stable persons, being led by highly sophisticated and capable teachers. While the Pentecostal doctrine used to seem especially appealing to older folks, now we see masses of young people flocking to this position. Our previous pat explanations no longer adequately explain what has been happening. What follows is a brief review of some of the historical factors and other matters which are , in my opinion, involved in the growth and popularity of the modern Pentecostal movement.

By the year 1930, "Classical" liberalism, which rejects the trustworthiness of the Bible, had almost complete control of most of the largest religious bodies in this country. The majority of church-goers were being fed on a steady diet of infidelity which left them without a positive guide as to what was right and wrong. Classical liberalism proved to be a very unsatisfying dish, and, therefore, many theologians began to question the validity of its conclusions. But, instead of returning to a confidence in the Bible, they seized upon the theology of one Karl Barth. The so-called "Neo-Orthodox" or "Existential Theology" era was thus launched. Barth and his cohorts argued that while the Bible was unreliable and full of mistakes, we still ought to believe it! Thus they removed "faith" from any connection to evidence. According to them, one must come to faith subjectively - that is, without any connection with objective reasoning. They talked much about a "leap of faith." By this they meant that one cannot come to know God by means of a study of the Bible. Since the "faulty" Bible cannot bring true faith, one must just leap up and grab hold of faith which has no basis whatsoever in fact. Behind Barth's thinking were the ideas of famous Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard emphasized the necessity of a subjective, existential "experience," sometimes called a "first order experience." This "experience" did not necessarily have to do with religion. It was only when Barth took Kierkegaard's secular philosophy and reshaped it, that the "experience" idea was brought into a religious focus. Neo-orthodox teachers talk much about the experience by describing it as an "encounter."

The effect of this kind of thinking has not only been felt in some religious denominations, but it has permeated the educational institutions of the land to such an extent that many young people have been unwittingly influenced by the existential philosophy. We began to see this clearly in the Hippie Culture of the '60s where "doing your own thing" was the lifestyle of choice among many. This was merely a reflection of that part of the philosophy which denies the reliability of the Bible as an objective standard of authority; therefore, "whatever turns you on" is right! Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics, which became so popular among college students and "intellectuals," was a reflection of this same theme. The acceptance of this kind of thinking also explains, to some degree, the beginning of the "Drug Culture." Having bought the idea of the necessity of the existential "experience," many turned to drugs which, some of them claimed, enabled them to have this mystical experience and find out "what it's all about, Man."

During the most wide-spread acceptance of this false wisdom, in stepped a few "Holiness" preachers of the new variety: with college degrees, styled hair, tailored suits, and impeccable grammar. Their target audience was largely composed of the "baby-boomers" who, although many had married, cut their hair, had families and responsible positions in the community, nevertheless retained their appetite for the "subjective" approach to life and a disdain for a faith based on an objective standard of authority like the Bible. They also found a willing audience among some of the older "intellectuals" who had grown weary of trying to find meaning to life as proposed by barren existentialism. These preachers started talking about the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" and a "better-felt-than-told" experience with Jesus, with little or no emphasis on objective Bible truths. There was a joyous acceptance by multitudes who were attracted to the ecstatic, emotional experiences promised by these teachers. The false, secular philosophy upon which many of them had cut their teeth, made them especially vulnerable to the experiential excesses of Pentecostalism.

The rapid growth of the Pentecostal movement is not, as sometimes represented, the result of a "back-to-the-bible" approach to life. It is our view that precisely the opposite is true: There are elements in the movement which are appealing to and capturing a segment of society which is moving away from objective authority as the result of an infidel philosophy which denies the validity of the Bible. Many centuries ago, Catholicism captured into their fold large numbers of pagans by simply "Christianizing" some of the pagan customs (viz., Easter, idols, etc.). We believe some "Pentecostals" have used and are using a similar tactic. They are bringing into their ranks significant numbers of existentialists and others who reject objective authority, by "Pentacostalizing" the much sought after "experience" or "encounter."

Once we understand what I believe is a major source of the rapid growth of this movement, we will be better prepared to effectively meet the threat it poses for the church today. How very important it is for us to reemphasize the trustworthiness, sufficiency and finality of the Bible as our only guide. We need to instruct our children and one another that Truth is found in God's revelation - not through some emotional, subjective, "experience."