Rescuing Pentecost

June 7th, 2011

Pentecost is in trouble. And that means trouble for the Church.

It’s not that Pentecost is in danger of commercialization, like Christmas or even Easter. The Spirit is too indefinable to depict as a cozy manger scene, and too strange for greeting cards (“May tongues of fire consume you”?).

Nevertheless, Pentecost is in trouble—not because of some outsider trying to make a buck, but because of church leaders who have adopted the same entrepreneurial tactics. And the more we try to put the Spirit to work for us, the further we get from Pentecost truth.

The story of the Spirit’s coming and the subsequent birth of the church is found in Acts 2. It’s a breathtaking account of God’s power descending on the disciples, including the miracle of languages that enables representatives from all over the known world to hear the good news of God’s salvation.

Peter, the lead apostle, is at the center of it all. Once the furor of the spectacle dies down a bit, he preaches with a hitherto unknown power and conviction. When he is finished, three thousand people are baptized. Before long, all of them are sharing their possessions.

That’s enough to get any ambitious church leader excited. It’s the ultimate church plant, a success story of (ahem) biblical proportions. When a congregation is struggling, preachers return again and again to the power of the Spirit and the fruits it produced. We ask, why can’t we harness that power? Why can’t we be like the early church again? Why can’t this be us?

Quite simply, because it isn’t our story.

We’d like it to be. We’d like some assurance that the frantic effort we pour into church leadership will translate into the Three B's (butts, bucks, and buildings). We yearn for some assurance of success, some validation of our hard work.

But if we look for that in the Pentecost story, we won’t find it. Not if we pay attention to what the story says.

Pentecost is not a template for how church is supposed to work, but a unique event that bears witness to God’s expansive love, which includes every tribe on earth. This, like much of the Bible, is important not because of the outcomes it produced, but because of the witness it presents.

The rule for typical church life is much different, even in the world from which Acts developed. Paul’s letters—at least some of which pre-date the writing of Acts by several decades—tell of the myriad difficulties in nurturing communities of faith. These earliest bands of Christians tended to be small, poorly resourced, and often divided. It took tremendous effort just to keep them going.

But Paul seems to have considered this a worthy effort. Not once does he bemoan the fact that his churches do not measure up to some Pentecost ideal.

If Paul was aware of the Pentecost story as Luke presents it (he never references it in his letters), he did not see it as a template for how churches should grow. Neither should we.

God took some initiative at Pentecost to do something particular to that time and setting, and the universal church is blessed by it. When God does something similar in our time, the whole church can rejoice and share in that blessing. But that doesn’t mean we should try to reproduce it for ourselves, much less envy it in others. To do so only feeds our obsession with outcomes, which will blind us to the larger picture.

The success of the early church at Pentecost is not the necessary fruit of faithfulness. Rather, it’s a single stroke of bright color on a much larger canvas, one dominated by the gray areas that mark the early Christians’ struggle to follow Jesus.

If we try to replicate Acts 2, we not only set ourselves up for disappointment. We unwittingly narrow the range of what God can do with us to some ideal of our own creation. We lose the beauty and wonder of the stories God may call us to live in an effort to become what God may not intend for us to be.

To view Pentecost rightly, we have to let go of our desire to produce the same results as Peter’s preaching. We have to embrace the hard work and persistent love that characterized the majority of early Christian fellowships, and continues to be the mark of thousands of struggling congregations in our time.

Most of all, we need to adopt the posture of the disciples. They were not praying for three thousand converts, but for the Spirit to come. Their humility—not their strategy or vision or talent—paved the way for God’s work among them.

If we want to rescue Pentecost, we need a similar posture, one that invites and allows for the Spirit to work. But spectacular growth and even revival is God’s business, not ours. Ours is to love the people in front of us, to be patient with each other, to proclaim that Jesus lives and moves among us.

And to be ready, should the Spirit decide to sweep through.

comments powered by Disqus