What is Pentecost?
This week, as we celebrate Pentecost, I want to take a step away for a week from the ‘lessons from the desert’, and take a look at this historic day. What is Pentecost?
Pentecost is a key date in the church’s history – it’s the day when God releases his promised Holy Spirit upon the disciples, and sends them out into the streets, to publicly proclaim the messages that they have spent the last 3 years witnessing in Jesus. Not only are they sent out to attest to what Jesus taught them, but through the activation of the Holy Spirit, they themselves are released into a new season. A season that sees them used as the catalysts for so much change, a change that eventually grows into the global movement called the church. On this first Pentecost, the disciples see miraculous healing, multilingual portrayals of Jesus’ messages, and people reached with life-changing good news who had never heard it before.
The full story of Pentecost can be found in Acts 2 vs 1-41.
How to Start a Movement
This is a key moment for the church, and it makes me think of the popular TED talk ‘How to start a movement‘. In our day and age, it’s common to hear people in various settings (communications, leadership, business etc) encouraging people to not just start a club or an organisation, but to start a movement. The reason being that if you have a movement, you have a much better chance that the people who decide to take part, will commit to bringing about the change they wish to see. A movement is fluid, it’s empowering, and can inspire people to bring about great change, both as part of a collective whole, and also in their own lives and spheres of influence.
As part of the TED talk, the speaker shows a video. It shows an initial person being the catalyst for the movement, the speaker playfully describes him as a ‘lone nut’. This ‘lone nut’ is just a single person, dancing in a field, until they’re joined by their first follower. This first follower gives other early followers the encouragement to join in, and then more and more people join. This shows the movement starting to gain some considerable speed, as more and more people join, seeing others become liberated by the experience of dancing.
Pentecost – the start of a movement
In many ways this video perfectly encapsulates what happened at Pentecost. In a way (and please forgive me for the analogy, no disrespect is meant), Jesus was the ‘lone nut’ – the Son of God who had spent the last few years showing the world just who he was and who his father was. His ministry would have spread no further if it hadn’t have been for the first followers – the disciples who not only committed to him when he was alive, but spent the days after his death, gathering and praying through what was next, and waiting for the sign that he had promised them would come.
It’s on the day of Pentecost that this sign comes, and comes in a huge way – the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, pour out onto the streets, and this is where many people hear the gospel and its impact in their own language. This is where the movement that is Christianity really starts to get going. The story in Acts ends by saying that “those who had believed what Peter had said were baptized and added to the church that day – about 3000 in all” (Acts 2 v 41). That’s an incredible impact, and spread across many cultures!
Pentecost is an incredibly exciting time for the global church, and a key moment that took Jesus and his first followers, through to a global movement that spread throughout countries and through generations, and is just as relevant today (in my mind), as it was on the day that it started.
What does Pentecost mean today?
So, what does Pentecost mean today? Is it still relevant? Is it just a day that should be consigned to the church history books that we look back on, but it stays static, 2000 years ago. Or is it a day that we can look to for fresh inspiration, and expectancy? Expectant that the same Holy Spirit that was released upon the church then, is as alive and active now?
And if Pentecost is still relevant – what does it look like today?
WHAT DID PENTECOST LOOK LIKE AT THE TIME?
The disciples were in their own version of lockdown in one of the most multicultural cities of the time – Jerusalem. Jesus had left them a few weeks before saying “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised… John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1v6). The disciples had stayed put as requested and were gathered to pray in one house, when suddenly there was a sound from heaven like a roaring gale, filling the house with what looked like tongues of fire, settling on each one of the believers (Acts 2 vs 1 – 2).
Even though each of the disciples had been waiting for a sign from Jesus, it’s hard to imagine what they would have been thinking when this happened. The story tells us that they didn’t really have much time to process this, they were too busy being spurred into spilling out onto the streets, and sharing the gospel, and sharing it so that every single person that heard it could hear it in their own language.
On that day, there were Jews from many nations gathered in the city – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Judeans, people from Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asian, Phrygia, Pamphylia, areas of Lybia around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans, and Arabs. This covers a phenomenal amount of languages, and it’s incredibly unlikely that a group of fishermen and mostly uneducated followers would have known many of these languages, and certainly not fluently. Not only that, but the languages and cultures listed didn’t even use the same methods of writing or speaking – meaning that words and symbols were very distinctive between cultures.
Different cultures and languages, all hearing the same message
Just pause on that for a minute. It’s not just a case of one people group hearing the language, but multiple peoples, and multiple cultures, with multiple ways of communicating, hearing the good news in their own languages for the very first time. This is incredible!
The first Pentecost looked loud, it looked busy, and it looked unplanned. It wasn’t like the disciples had spent years studying the languages in preparation, no, they had spent the last few years absorbing Jesus’ teaching and then praying together to seek ‘what next?’. They had been preparing, but they had been preparing with God, and when the unexpected happened, they went with it.
It must have been an incredible scene, even for a very multicultural city. The bible tells us that the loud noise made everyone come running (Acts 2 v 6), and they were each astounded to hear the believers sharing the gospel in their own language. Some thought the disciples were drunk, others started to listen, as the words ‘pierced their hearts’ and convicted them that there may well be some truth in the story of Jesus the Nazarene, and the hope of a new way of life.
Amidst the chaos, there was a huge amount of order too, with every individual having the chance to respond to the words they heard in their own way. Some would have heard it, and moved on, dismissing the disciples as crazy; others took the words to heart, and their lives were changed from that day on.
What could Pentecost look like today? – The COVID-19 season
I would argue that Pentecost is just as relevant today, especially in this current season. The church has found itself over the last few months in unchartered territory, needing to use new tools and ways of communicating that have not been used before, and the season has challenged all of us to look at the world around us, and to adapt to stay relevant and build community in extraordinary times.
The COVID-19 season has brought a great many changes to a lot of areas, and in many people are asking what the ‘new normal’ could look like. Understandably, many people have different approaches to this. Some are hoping that things will just go back to the way that they were, and some are hoping that it will bring a fresh change – whether that’s looking at our environment, how we look after the people around us, poverty (as with Tearfund’s recent Reboot campaign), and many other areas. There is also a group of people that are hoping (myself included) that this will see the adaptation of more flexible ways of working and communicating and seeing people upskill to better use the digital tools that have developed around us.
I would encourage the church to be no different. It is sad to see some in publications and on social media hankering back to ‘when everything can go back to the way it was’, as we have in front of us currently a once in a life time opportunity to bring about some change and some fresh thinking to the established ways and norms. Now granted, change doesn’t come easily, but we can take an enormous amount of inspiration from the early disciples at the day of Pentecost.
The disciples themselves had been in their own lockdown, as they stayed put after Jesus had left them, and prayed through what was to come next. After their season of intense prayer and seeking, the Holy Spirit is released upon them in the most miraculous of ways, and they themselves break their self-imposed lockdown in quite a spectacular fashion!
‘hearing the gospel in their own language’
For me, one of the key lines in this story, are “everyone heard the gospel in their own language”.
‘Hearing it in their own language‘, didn’t just mean the words, but the good news was spoken fluently, so every member of the audience fully understood. Every single language has different inflections and cultural references, and, for someone to hear it fully, these were miraculously provided by the Holy Spirit for the disciples to share.
This multitude of languages is particularly striking when you consider that each culture would have had different ways of communicating. It wasn’t only the words that were spoken, but how they were spoken that would have ensured that each listener could hear the message clearly. This I believe is a key lesson for the church today. When we do communicate the gospel to others, we don’t just need to take the word that we would use for our own audiences to them, but we need to understand how it is that that culture communicates. There are many organisations that do this well for cultures that we know are less reached with the gospel (Open Doors and Tyndale are two great examples), but, how much do we try to do this for the cultures immediately around us? For different generations? Different backgrounds? Different ways of communicating?
It can be so tempting as a church to want to reach the unreached that are ‘over there’ – the ones in different countries, the ones where poverty is the most pronounced, the ones dare I say it where it seems exciting to go and work with, but, this current season is showing us that there is an incredible amount of need on our own doorsteps too, and we need to be aware of that, and be aware of the different cultures too. Yes, there are many who have more in affluent countries, but there are also a great many in need too, this may be an emotional need as much as a need for physical provisions such as food.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM PENTECOST?
Someone posted a really interesting question on Twitter recently – ‘is digital church an oxymoron‘? The fact that this question was even asked, makes me feel sad, as it shows that someone has not understood the capacity that the digital tools have brought to enhance community connections, and not to take them away.
For me, digital platforms are simply another way of building communities, which each have their own languages and cultures. If we are to pour onto the digital streets and use the same words and messages that we do for our existing congregations and communities, then there will be details lost in the message, which means it can spread no further. However, if we use the digital platforms to pour out so that everyone can hear the message in their own language, then we may well see a new season of growth in the church.
The evolution of digital tools has disrupted our existing landscape, but in the world of communication, digital tools have been shown to be effective ways of reaching new audiences and connecting existing ones for years. In my humble opinion (IMHO), it’s high time that the church catches up. Not to take away anything at all from their existing physical communities, but to enhance them.
I need to be clear that I’m not saying that digital is the only answer, but it is a mode of communication that the collective church has been quite slow to adopt. Also when it has been adopted, it’s been with pre-existing language, rather than adapting the language to reach the desired audience. It certainly doesn’t replace the physical community, but it can be a great enhancer when used well. It can also reach into places where we cannot go and is also a lifeline to people who are not able to travel.
Old wine in new wineskins?
Looking back at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t just give the disciples the ability and courage to pour out into the streets to start speaking, but the disciples were also given the supernatural ability to be able to speak fluently in the languages they were speaking – this means, that they didn’t just understand the grammar, but they understood the cultural inflections and nuances in how each language was used, and how each community expected to hear their language used.
A while ago, we worked with a network of churches to try and provide training in the already well established social media platforms. I remember having long conversations with the leadership about how the training needed to be so much more than how-tos – it needed to be cultural communication and not just a set of tools. Sadly, at that time, that wasn’t a message that the group wanted to hear, and we parted ways. But, the same thought is true of this present day, perhaps now even more so as the tools become more widely used.
If we only train people in the tools, but not in the language, we are more than likely going to miss the mark, and continue to speak to the same audiences that we already have. However, if we are brave, and pray for the ability to understand WHY people use these platforms, as well as how, as the church starts to share more digital content, we are far more likely to see relevance to our audience, and also an increased engagement and reach – speaking to them in their own language, and with the nuances of the respective platforms.
By training simply in the how tos of the tools, without understanding the culture that has built around them, are we not guilty of putting old wine into new wineskins?? Don’t we need to pray for and seek understand the language of the community that the tools are used to connect as well?
A great example of communicating relevance – Elevation Church
One church that have been doing this phenomenally well for the last few years, is Elevation Church in the US. They not only jumped on the digital platforms as they were evolving, but their messages show a clear understanding of the audiences that they’re speaking to – not just in the content of the sermons and songs that they share, but also in how they use the digital tools to share them.
Elevation use a wide range of digital tools to share their services each Sunday, inspiring a global audience to take part and feel connected, through the use of watch parties, facebook lives etc. The experience ensures that every person who takes part feels connected to a global community.
It’s also very interesting to note that Elevation Church’s current top line is ‘See What God can do through you’. This too helps inspire the movement thinking – it’s about a collection of individuals seeking how God can best use them in their every days, and not the line that it can be so tempting for leaders to use, which is ‘come to us, and be the change you want to see through us and our choices’ . The Elevation message is empowering, just like the Holy Spirit was on the day of Pentecost to the early church. The Holy Spirit came to each follower in a different way, empowering them for their own unique callings.
So, what does Pentecost look like today?
Pentecost wasn’t just a day some 2000 odd years ago, where the early church poured out with relevance to the people around them. It’s a day that we as a global church should be looking to each and every day, to seek fresh inspiration in how we pray to understand and relate to the world around us and seek the Holy Spirit to provide relevance and understanding to relate to the people around us. We do this for the exact same reason that the disciples did it at that first Pentecost, so that everyone may know for certain that God has made this Jesus who was crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2 v 36)
It’s also incredibly clear in the story of the first Pentecost, that this was all only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. I would suggest that if the disciples had tried to do this in their own strength, and had not waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the supernatural gifts and insight that were provided, the day would have looked very different. We must remember, especially in these uncertain times, the importance of looking up and leaning into the Holy Spirit, before acting. Where is he leading us? What gifts do we need for the journey? It’s only when we truly press into God that he can reveal the way that he sees the communities around us.
There will be more lessons from the desert next week, but I hope that this piece serves as a thought piece for now – to inspire us each to pray to see the Holy Spirit out pour on our own lives afresh, and to seek to communicate with fresh relevance and fluency with the communities around us.