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Positive Persecution

In a recent study by the Barna Group, it was found that younger generations of Americans (those between the ages of 18 and 44) are more accepting of Pentecostal and Charismatic beliefs than older generations. Younger generations also believe in the Holy Spirit at higher rates. These results reflect the increased spirituality of younger generations.

While these numbers are encouraging, other results are not. Although the young adults are more accepting of the Holy Spirit and other Pentecostal beliefs, they are less likely to understand these beliefs and to put them into practice.

David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna group, interpreted the results this way: “The charismatic and Pentecostal community in the U.S. has reached a conflicting social status – its numbers have established the group as a significant social and spiritual force, yet generational changes and the diffusion of Pentecostalism across many denominations have made its beliefs, behaviors and identities much less focused. For millions of the youngest Christians, the charismatic, Pentecostal and Spirit-filled labels are not as divisive as they were to their parents’ generation. The Mosaic generation in particular is removed from many of the long-standing debates about the validity of spiritual gifts, the role of expressive forms of worship, and about the need for receiving personal direction from the Holy Spirit. As a consequence, the next generation of charismatic and Pentecostal Christians spends less time defending their views to others, but also seems much less certain what they believe or how to put their faith into action.”

Is the Pentecostal church being lulled to sleep by the acceptance current culture? Is persecution good for the church? The results of this study seem to indicate this.

There is an inverse correlation between acceptance and spiritual discipline. When the culture accepts our beliefs with less skepticism, young adults are less likely to practice spiritual discipline. In other words, the more we’re accepted, the less we practice discipline.

In previous generations, when culture wasn’t so accepting of our beliefs, there was a need to be prepared to defend our faith on a daily basis. When someone is throwing rotten tomatoes at you or threatening to hurt you, you’d better be sure that this is the way you want to live. Or maybe persecution served to concentrate the population of Pentecostals, so that only those who were 100% committed to the biblical plan of salvation remained in the church. In the parable of the sower, if the sun would have never come out there would have been twice as many plants at the end of the parable.

So what does this mean for Pentecostal young adults? Kinnaman goes on to say, “It raises the question of what will define the next generation of young charismatics and Pentecostal believers in the U.S. Facing less criticism from within the ranks of Christians, they must focus on being grounded theologically and finding a way to live faithfully within the broader culture of arts, media, technology, science, and business.”

The article on barna.org concludes by stating: Kinnaman also pointed out that because younger Christians are open to the Holy Spirit and to spiritual gifts but hold contradictory beliefs and behaviors, there will be a premium on the theological and spiritual development of the next generation. “Just like young Christians of various traditions, young charismatics are less likely to adopt their beliefs and practices based on deep, considered theological reflection. The future vitality of this portion of the Christian community will depend in part on connecting young charismatic and Pentecostal believers to better training on theology and doctrine.”

In a world where acceptance is high, it seems that there are few challenges to externally force spiritual discipline into young adults. Instead we must find a way to motivate ourselves internally. The future of our movement depends on young adults that transcend the knowledge of spiritual discipline to the desire for spiritual discipline.

We must not see this time of acceptance as a reprieve from discipline. This should be a time when we take advantage of cultural attitudes to push ourselves, and our churches, to explore this wonderful gift that we have been given.

Joel Gray