‘We Should Make Pentecost as Big as Christmas!’ Say Evangelical, Catholic Leaders
Part of an ongoing series on “Pentecost and the Holy Spirit Today.”
This weekend, the fifty-day liturgical season following Easter comes to a climax on Pentecost Sunday. Centered on receiving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is celebrated by churches globally — even those who shun practices labeled as Pentecostal.
“Pentecost is not just the memory of an event that occurred 2,000 years ago,” says Deacon Keith Fournier, long associated with the Catholic charismatic renewal. “It is an ever-present invitation to ask the Lord to pour out His Holy Spirit. Then we can overcome fear and become those witnesses who will turn the world upside-down with our message.”
One minister based in Telangana, India says supernatural encounters are changing their culture. Bishop Joseph D’Souza oversees more than 4,000 Christian churches in the Good Shepherd Church of India network.
“What we’re seeing in India is the full-blown charismata of the Holy Spirit,” says D’Souza. “It’s not limited to Pentecostal congregations, or even to Christians. I see the workings of the Holy Spirit among people of other faiths — sometimes without even human agency being involved. They are having dramatic visitations and then finding Christ through that.”
In interviews, diverse Christian leaders consider the Holy Spirit through lenses of both theology and experience. Leading voices of various ethnicities and generations offer insights into the least understood member of the Trinity.
Awakening in India
Joseph D’Souza grew up in what he calls the “Christian ghetto” of India. Oppressed as the lowest caste in India’s culture, Dalits were the majority in his area. D’Souza earned a seminary degree and married across ethnic lines. Even while opposing discrimination, the minister sees much to praise in the Indian way of life.
“By culture, many are very spiritually inclined in India,” says D’Souza. “They know that many of the answers to problems in life come from turning to a higher power. For them, this awakening and demonstration of the works of the Holy Spirit is a phenomenal thing.”
While his focus is on education and anti-trafficking outreach, D’Souza relates that signs like healings and prophecies are commonly observed in their church network. He recently reported how Hindu radicals are attacking Christian schools — though things can change if they remain long enough for a worship service, he says.
“Without any question, the spiritual awakening in India is massive,” states D’Souza. “That’s one of the problems for radicalized religious groups. They don’t understand this phenomenon until the Holy Spirit touches them and turns their lives upside-down. Then they realize, it’s not human — it’s supernatural.”
Such open talk of inexplicable events at church is foreign to many American Christians. The ideology of cessationism claims that certain gifts ceased to be in operation following the first century. Seminary teacher Dr. Michael Brown says he often encounters people who doubt the examples of divine healing he shares.
“While there is a debate going on, I have to say candidly I don’t really think there is a debate,” states Brown. “The Scriptures are so overwhelmingly clear. As far as I can tell, the only reason people question the Holy Spirit outpouring today is because of the way they were raised in the Lord or because of bad experiences.”
Having observed abuses in charismatic circles, he has sought to bring correction. Last month, Brown released Playing with Holy Fire to chronicle self-aggrandizing practices among “Spirit-filled” believers and offer biblical rebuke.
D’Souza sees spiritual experiences fostering greater equality, starting in the church. “The charismatic outpouring of the Spirit in India is important because we want to see India become an equal and just society,” he says. “The caste prejudice and oppression of Dalits, local tribes and women must come to an end.”
A popular Christian conference speaker from Dallas, Texas affirms these views. Dehavilland Ford serves as executive director of 818 The Sign, which seeks spiritual renewal particularly in urban communities.
“Women and children are the most oppressed globally,” she says. “In so many nations, they don’t have the freedoms that we have here. I believe a movement of women being empowered by the Holy Spirit will result in a global harvest of souls.”
Such a vision has echoes of what happened in the iconic Upper Room.
The Day the Church Was Born
Deacon Keith Fournier ministers in the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. Even at the end of an hour-long interview, he excitedly shares about the events of Pentecost.
“The earliest believers, even though they had encountered the risen Christ, were still filled with fear and apprehension,” says Fournier. “Those people who gathered in the Upper Room were just like us. They had volatile personalities. They made a lot of mistakes. They came from every walk of life. But power came and changed them.”
As professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary near Chicago, Illinois, Scot McKnight has taught the Book of Acts for decades. He has a ready answer for why Christians should take part in the Pentecost season.
“The church calendar is important because it keeps before us the principal events of God’s work in our midst,” says McKnight. “We find a pattern of calendar in the Old Testament that shaped Israel’s piety and faith. What God has done in the past becomes critical for what God is still doing.”
Brown, a Messianic Jewish believer, aligns closely with this perspective. “We need to go back to our roots,” he says. “As we remember the past, we have great faith for the present and the future. Let us be reminded afresh of how tongues of fire came on each one. God shook the entire ancient world through the Spirit-empowered church!”
Both emphasize how the spiritual call leads to a sending. “At Pentecost, we celebrate the sudden powerful presence of the Spirit that anointed the apostles and early Christians to become agents of mission in the world,” says McKnight.
“We should make Pentecost as big as Christmas and Easter!”
A Place for Women to Minister
Dehavilland Ford believes much of the church still misses an aspect of Pentecost, chronicled in Acts chapter two. She hones in on verse 17, which states: God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people, [on] your sons and daughters.
“We don’t do a good job of equality in the church,” she says. “Women get the chance to sing in the choir or work in the nursery. But in terms of women preachers and voices in the pulpit, we have something to bring to the table.” On Mother’s Day, Ford delivered the message at Trinity Church-Fairmeadows in the Dallas area where she and her husband serve on-staff.
In McKnight’s new book Open to the Spirit, the chapter on prophecy recounts when a woman preached to America’s government leaders. In January 1827, Harriet Livermore addressed more than 1,000 people in the U.S. Capitol—with a sermon on God’s standard of justice. Listening intently, President John Quincy Adams was strengthened in his abolitionist resolve.
“She denounced the injustices of our nation,” says McKnight. “Like the prophets of the Old Testament, she spoke with the Spirit of God in power in ways consistent with Scripture, to those in high positions. I was really impressed with that story, in part because I’m so supportive of women in ministry.”
Nearly two centuries later, women still limited opportunities in most churches. A 2017 Barna study revealed 62 percent of practicing Christians are open to a female pastor, yet only nine percent of Protestant churches are led by women. Ford sees greater openness in certain segments of the church.
“In charismatic circles, women are more empowered because we believe the gifts are for now,” she says. “A lot of my spiritual moms fought for that. It’s time for the women to be bold and to be a voice — whatever that looks like, through teaching, blogging and certainly raising up godly children.”
Unity Across Ethnic Groups — and Christian Confessions
Indian Bishop Joseph D’Souza rejoices at how Pentecost is centered on salvation. “People from many different nations were gathered there,” he says. “They heard the apostles who preached, and five thousand people came to Christ from all groups.”
The value of every person is also an integral part of the message, he says. “We are all equally created in the image of God,” continues D’Souza. “What the Pentecostal experience should do, which many do not understand, is to break down all ethnic and caste barriers and bring unity among peoples.”
When seeking to work with Christians of “other confessions,” as he says, Keith Fournier often encounters suspicions of another sort. His Catholic brethren claim being open to charismatic gifts leads congregants into Protestant churches.
“It’s an oversimplification,” responds Fournier. “The opposite happens as well. I count as personal friends many former evangelicals who were led into the fullness of communion in the Catholic Church, through the same Holy Spirit.”
Author of Evangelical Catholics, Fournier urges believers to rediscover mutuality in faith. “We have something to offer one another,” he says. “Many of us Catholics have been changed when evangelicals helped us come to a deeper understanding of a personal relationship with Jesus. Many evangelicals have benefited from the wealth and depth of the sacramental life and historic rootings of the Catholic Church.”
The two leaders mourn where they see divisions. “The best Pentecostal experience is incomplete if you are not able to experience unity in Christ,” says D’Souza. “In Jerusalem, they had blacks, whites, brown, Chinese and all gathered together to exalt Christ.”
“Today, large sections of the church are not able to see this.”
There Is No Plan B
These leaders are not hidden away in their parishes, unaware of the world around them. Rather, they recognize hopelessness and cynicism gaining ground in society.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, and much to be fearful of,” says Fournier. “We need the encounter that changed the apostles on that day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit takes ordinary people and makes us extraordinary.”
Chicago-area theology professor McKnight believes Pentecost is a rare opportunity for churches. “It should be big,” he says. “We should invoke the Spirit and be open to the Spirit coming upon us, transforming us, impelling us into mission and compelling us towards holiness, love and grace.”
Despite their distinct backgrounds, these five leading voices share a vision of experiential Christian faith that is global in scope and unified in focus.
“The Lord will bring us together, and he may surprise us all,” concludes Fournier. “I believe it will include the best gifts of each confessional group. Those gifts need to be expressed in the body of Christ.”
“Because God only has one plan, and that’s the church.”
Explore the entire series on “Pentecost and the Holy Spirit Today.”