Identity Challenge: AOGUK

To be honest, May 2009 is not a time I have been looking forward to. Folks are busy planning a surprise party for me as I turn forty this month. I realise that some readers will be less than sympathetic: “Just wait ‘til you’re one hundred and twenty-seven!” I hear you whistle. Nevertheless, the age of forty can produce a slight sense of identity crisis – I am no longer allowed in the youth club but neither am I deemed to possess life’s wisdom. It is the in-between zone of no concessions, where I have to pay full fare.

Like an unwanted birthday, it is a difficult time for the UK Pentecostal church too. We are thrilled to have John Partington back with us and those who have been concerned about a leadership void can relax. But I am not sure that our great movement has faced a leadership crisis. If anything, I believe that we may be experiencing the beginnings of an “identity crisis.”

Come with me for a moment and let’s visit three different AOG churches. At the first, “Ebenezer Mission Hall,” we enter a run down building as the smiling doorman passes the hymn books. Only a few, mainly older folks are in attendance, as is their immaculately dressed Pastor, who ably leads the singing on the accordion. The ladies wear hats and the baffled children sit on the front row. At some point, Mrs Chapel brings an utterance and Mr Williams interprets – you can set your watch by them. Eighty minutes’ later, we leave blessed but there is something out of time about the whole thing. If you were a lost soul you may not easily be “found” here.

We drive to another AOG church. It’s called “The River” and the venue is a school. A much younger doorman offers us a GOD TV guide. The worship is deep and wide; people “ooh” and “aah”; hands quiver and two people spend the service lying on the floor. The Pastor here is in jeans and preaches about “The Glory,” concluding with impartation, catchers and a chance to sow a seed.

Finally, we reach our third AOG church; a converted warehouse called “The Hope Centre.” The door team (with “Hope Centre” T shirts) offer us a DVD. Smoke and coloured lights flash on and off throughout the brief, pop-style worship with dancing girls. The Pastor with bleached, spikey hair preaches on leadership paradigms and, if you want to hear it again later, it’s available on iTunes. We are ushered out to make room for another congregation arriving in fifteen minutes.

Of course, diversity can be a blessing. Like attracts like, and there is room for every kind of expression of church, reaching different kinds of people. No two churches in the New Testament were exactly the same, and today we might wisely encourage our grandma to attend one kind of church and our grandson to join another. But we may face a challenge as we move forward, nationally, to decide just what it is that makes AOG distinctive. What do we contribute to the world and to the Body of Christ in Britain today? Why, for example, should we plant congregations in towns that have a number of churches already? What are we offering on our “Specials Board” that’s not on the current menu?

Part of the problem is that, by God’s grace, we have been successful, at least in the dissemination of our distinctive doctrine. Back in 1907, to hear of healing, prophecy and tongues you had to visit one of “those peculiar churches.” Today, all kinds of denominations accept the message that ostracised Pentecostals a century ago. In short, we’ve done it. Mission accomplished! Except, where does that leave us? Are we now spiritually unemployed?

No Christian movement has the right to exist; it must fulfil a divine purpose. The British Pentecostal church is no longer young, birthed in the Spirit and fire of Alexander Boddy’s Sunderland parish, blazing with the trails of George and Stephen Jeffreys, Howard Carter and Donald Gee. There are no Wigglesworths being celebrated today (at least, not until they’ve died). We may be hot but we are no longer hot off the press; we are the “old revival” now.

With the baptism of the Spirit spread everywhere, many astute Assemblies of God leaders have turned their attention to building community churches, and rightly so. It’s all about winning people for Jesus, after all. But what kind of churches should these be? Many gasp in awe at the success of the contemporary churches (in AOG and outside), but with their curtailed body ministry and occasional embarrassment of spiritual phenomena, something intangible seems missing. Like a new denomination within the old, the Modern Pentecostals have emerged. They are under new management; they have “crossed over” and have turned their attention to social action, seeker friendly evangelism, and establishing churches of quality. They do the songs but they don’t do the tongues. And while the old fashioned “revival” Pastor may give this new style a wide berth, enjoying the frenzy and prophecy of his home assembly, he can only confess that his Gospel nets are loud but empty, as terrified seekers flee from his strange Sunday gatherings, and don’t fancy doing any holy rolling any time soon.

Perhaps, as we move forward into the future, we could find a third way; a Pentecostal movement which is neither Bradford nor Bentley, but the divine best of both. Anointed, on fire AOG teams building community reaching churches where God can and does break in regularly to demonstrate His power and holy otherness. Relevant and reverent would seem to be a wise and biblical mix: leaders who are competent to deal with the issues of contemporary mission, avoiding the trap of becoming unfathomable holy clubs, while also embracing all that is glorious about the amazing ministry of the Spirit. For if we deny access to Him for fear that He may upset our new people, we have truly missed the point.

Last week, we had a community day for our CAP clients, attracting over sixty unchurched people. A few days before, I had been teaching verse by verse through The Book of Job; and at the weekend, we witnessed extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit that would not have been out of place in a revival. There is no conflict. I believe that it is possible to have an excellent, community church that is also a Pentecostal church and we want to build one.

In 1960, Donald Gee brought a prophetic message to the Assemblies of God, promising the movement “another Springtime.” He urged his generation to seek God rather than just applying clever methods, and warned that, “it is easy to continue as a denomination and to die as a revival.” As we approach fifty years since that word was delivered, it seems just as appropriate today. Perhaps as we combine the excellence of the new day, with the fire of the old days, the God of the Springtime will visit us again. I, for one, still believe that we can find our place and play our part well.

Originally published in JOY Magazine, May 2009

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