It’s been 10 weeks, or 75 days, or 1800 hours or 108,000 minutes since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO on March 19, 2020.
Since then … a lot of things have happened and just as many questions have gone unanswered. I have my own list of unanswered questions to add to the growing list and I am sure that you do as well. For the time being, and the context of this blog post, allow me to share with you some thoughts that pertain to my role and function as a lead pastor in a Pentecostal church that is navigating the challenges of COVID-19.
Last week was Pentecost Sunday. Depending on your Christian tradition, you may or may not have heard much about it. Within my Pentecostal tradition, it is oftentimes an emphasized Sunday where different aspects and functions of the Holy Spirit are mentioned and discussed.
Pentecost Sunday is often the bread and butter of Pentecostal churches. This is something that I have become accustomed to.
As long as I can remember, every Sunday meant going to church at Pembroke Pentecostal Tabernacle. I can remember the building on Renfrew Street before the expansion and move to the current location near the intersection of Hwy 17 and 41. For three generations previously on my mothers side, the Faught’s were Pentecostal church goers. My children represent the fifth generation of Pentecostal church attenders. I mention those things to highlight the fact that Pentecostal roots run deep within my family, person and spirit. Moreover, who else can say that they encountered God’s Spirit, was called to ministry and met their spouse at three different Pentecostal Camps within Ontario? That’s right, Ottawa Valley Pentecostal Camp, Lakeshore Pentecostal Camp and Braeside Pentecostal Camp were all prominent and pivotal locations in my life and journey with God. My life experience alone is a testimony to the fact that God moves at camp! Sadly, for the first time in decades, many church camps will not open this summer. Which leads me to the main thrust of this blog.
As a fourth-generation Pentecostal, now pastoring within the same Christian tradition, I have had to wrestle my way through the realities and implications of COVID-19. I have blogged about some of these things previously. The question that I am asking now is … what now? And this is a question that I am asking the Holy Spirit.
Without getting into a whole lot of Pentecostal history, it is sufficient to say that Pentecostalism is mainly a revival movement. Much is made about the 1906 Azusa street revival in Los Angeles. The fellowship of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada is a direct by-product of the Los Angeles meetings. Millions of people have been impacted by that revival and others around the globe. But here’s the rub, revivals involve gatherings of people.
In Ontario, churches have not been able to physically gather together for the past 10 weeks and counting. Many church-goers are left wondering about the nature of the church now that we can’t have services. But for Pentecostals, it can be even more troublesome.
If there is no cooperate assembly, or physical gatherings of the saints, how can the Holy Spirit operate and manifest Himself via signs and wonders? Furthermore, what vocal gifts of the Holy Spirit can operate if there is no-one to hear? In other words, what does a Pentecostal church do when people cannot come together to seek the Lord? Our history and tradition seems to thrive on such gatherings. The revival-service has long been the pinnacle of the Pentecostal tradition. What are Pentecostals to ‘do’ now that we ‘cannot do’ what we’ve always done? Herein lies my ecclesiological question: what now Holy Spirit?
Ralph Del Colle said, ‘The church exists in the outpouring if the Holy Spirit’. Referencing Del Colle’s work, Frank Macchia expands upon this and says that ‘the life and mission of the Church is constituted by this divine outpouring of the Spirit.’
The outpouring they speak of is referenced in Acts 2: the Day of Pentecost.
So here is something to ponder: if the Church is somehow intricately (and ontologically) connected with the Holy Spirit, then what does the Spirit truly desire the Church to be?
If the church is a product of the Holy Spirit, then perhaps it is the Holy Spirit that we need to hear from. You may have a different approach or angle to defining ‘what’ the church is, but I tend to agree that the Church itself is something created by the Spirit of God to fulfill a specific calling.
Welcome to my arena, wrestling mat and ground zero. The current pandemic has allowed me to significantly ask these questions openly with our church leadership team and congregation without being labeled as a non-traditionalist and troublemaker. Although I may be that way naturally, I would like to think that there is a supernatural force guiding those questioning thoughts. Regardless, allow me to offer a glimpse into the past that might be relevant today.
During the 1918 influenza epidemic, it’s been noted that Pentecostals struggled with the meaning of the onslaught of disease and death. Many questions were being asked by those who were caring for those that were stricken by the deadly virus in their community. Many Pentecostals understood the epidemic to be a test of fidelity to Jesus the Healer. The epidemic was also referred to as a furnace of the ‘seven-fold heat’ sent by God to judge the world.
Through this trial and testing however, it is also noted that the Pentecostal Church was caring for those in need as they waited for their Exodus. Kimberly Alexander highlights the actions of some Pentecostal’s during the 1918 epidemic: ‘not only did they pray for the sick, but the homes of the Pentecostal saints became infirmaries … the sick received physical, emotional and spiritual care. Pentecostals became caregivers going into quarantined homes, providing the needed services as well as offering prayer for the sick.’
According to Alexander, the Pentecostal church became a pronounced wholistic, healing community during this grim period in its history.
Could this be what the Spirit is saying to Pentecostals today?
Join me as I continue to seek the Spirit’s voice by asking Him about the Pentecostal church’s role and responsibility during this pandemic. Surely our tradition has something to say about the working of the Spirit in the world today. If not, then why have a Pentecostal tradition within Christendom?
But there is hope. In the words of Gregory of Nyssa: Christ is King and the Spirit is the Kingdom.
*** The above mentioned scholars and quotes are from a monograph edited by Chris Thomas entitled “Towards a Pentecostal Ecclesiology:The Church and the Fivefold Gospel”.