An annual Holy Spirit-centered interdenominational movement called Empowered21 was underway this week in Georgia and being hosted by an Assemblies of God leader who believes that young people are hungry for the supernatural, but have been seeking it in the wrong places.
Alton Garrison serves as the assistant general superintendent of The General Council of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that counts more than 66,000,000 adherents worldwide with about three million of them living in the United States, based on 2012 statistics. He, along with pastors Greg Surratt and Rich Wilkerson, are co-hosts of this year's Empowered21 U.S.A. Congress.
Empowermed21's stated purpose is to "unite the global Spirit-filled movement together intergenerationally for the purpose of seeking a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the 21st century." The movement's vision "is that every person on Earth would have an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit by Pentecost 2033."
The Empowered21 U.S.A. Congress 2014 taking place at Griffin First Assembly in Griffin, Georgia, from June 5-7 concludes right before the holy day of Pentecost. The event, recorded in Acts 2 of the Bible, marks when the first Christians received the Holy Spirit and in turn, supernatural power to do things like speak in tongues, prophesy and raise people from the dead. Part of Empowered21's goal at its annual congress is "to celebrate the Holy Spirit, the significance of Pentecost and to pass on the importance of Spirit-empowerment to the next generation."
Garrison, in a recent interview with The Christian Post, spoke specifically on Empowered21's desire to keep Millennials engaged amid other aspects of the U.S.A. congress. The Assemblies of God leader also commented on his denomination's noted decline of Spirit baptisms and conversions, a trend possibly related to the megachurch boom.
Below is a transcript of CP's interview with Garrison. It has been edited for brevity.
CP: What is your role with Empowered21, and is the movement affiliated in any way with the Assemblies of God?
Garrison: I am an Assemblies of God assistant general superintendent with the national office here in Springfield (West Virginia), but with Empowered21, it is a multi-denominational or trans-denominational Pentecostal, or Spirit-empowered group. I co-chair with another gentleman (Greg Surratt) who is the president of another fellowship of churches called ARC (the Associated Related Churches). We co-chair what's called a U.S.A. cabinet (for Empowered21). There are different chapters around the world. Dr. Wilson and others started what became Empowered21 in 2010 at a giant rally. It's not affiliated with any one organization or denomination. I co-chair this chapter and there's a board that's comprised of Four Square, International Pentecostal Holiness, Pentecostal Church of God, Church of God ... all of these are denominations that are in the same kind of religious genre that we would be in.
CP: What is the purpose of Empowered21 and what are some of its goals for the 2014 gathering?
Garrison: The purpose of Empowered21 is to spread a Spirit-empowered message to the world, but particularly to engage the next generation. The purpose of our meeting in Griffin, Georgia, the three things that we have stated as our purpose is: number one, is to celebrate our appreciation of the Holy Spirit's ministry (we believe the Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead); secondly, to encourage ministers, churches to preach on the subject of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. Biblically, 50 days after Jesus was resurrected, there was an event in the upper room called the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost was not just an event, it was a harvest, and that harvest was a grain harvest, but it was a Jewish feast day. We actually celebrate 2,000 years ago what happened in Jerusalem that was called the Day of Pentecost, so we ask people to just feature that. It would be like when you have Christmas or you have New Year's, you talk about what happened there in the history, you know. The third thing would be, as I said a moment ago, to engage the next generation, Millennials, younger people. In fact, we will have a session of Millennials and what we would call the more seasoned, the Boomers, which I am, and we are going to have an open dialogue and discussion.
CP: What do you mean when you say "Spirit-empowered" or "Spirit-empowerment?"
Garrison: We believe, like all evangelicals, in the inerrancy of Scripture and that Jesus was the Son of God and that he died for the sins of the world. We also believe that 50 days after he was resurrected from the dead, this event that happened in Jerusalem, the Day of Pentecost ... there were five occasions in the Book of Acts where they were filled or baptized with the Holy Spirit. In fact Acts 19:2 says, "Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?" So we believe that there is a separate, subsequent occasion, subsequent to salvation, where you can receive the special empowering ... it's a pouring-out, it's a filling.
We believe the Holy Spirit is very present in salvation, we don't doubt that. We're not saying that people that don't believe like we believe are not saved, that's not what we're saying at all. We just believe that this power that comes in a subsequent relationship — prayer, worship, it comes while you're in those kinds of moods — will help you with many activities of life. There are nine gifts of the Spirit, and we do not believe that those gifts ceased operation after the first century. We believe that they continue on. That's what makes us a little different. We are evangelical. All Pentecostals are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are Pentecostal.
CP: What is the significance of Pentecost for all Christians? And how do you believe the Holy Spirit empowers Christians to carry out their calling in the world?
Garrison: Acts 1:8 says, "Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit has come upon you. And you shall be witnesses." Acts 2:4 says that when they were baptized (in the Spirit), they spoke in other languages.
Most people, when they hear the word 'Pentecostal,' they immediately go to the fact that, "Yes, you guys speak in tongues and we don't understand that" and, "That's weird or that's spooky or whatever." What we say is, "Yes, we do believe that when you are baptized (in the Spirit), that is the initial, physical evidence." It's initial because it's first. It's physical because you can hear it, and it involves you, your tongue, your body, your language. But it is evidence. But it is not the goal, it is the gateway, because Acts 1:8 gives us our marching orders. The Great Commission is in Matthew 28:16-20: "Go and make disciples of every nation." Acts 1:8 says, "But you shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit comes upon you to be witnesses." So we believe that Jesus is instructing us not to attempt the Great Commission without this special power, called the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
We believe that's what this generation is hungry for. In fact, I spoke this morning (June 3) in chapel at the national headquarters (watch the video here). I spoke about this Spirit-empowered discipleship. Then I gave an illustration this morning, how young people are so preoccupied with the paranormal. You think about the Avengers movie. You think about everything from Thor to Spider Man, to Hulk to Ironman. All of these mythological characters that we know are mythological and yet we're preoccupied with them because they seem to provide this additional power, this additional benefit, this additional ability. There's a hunger there.
Even though they know that this is a myth, they still seem to be preoccupied with. They pay a lot of money to go to the movies, from the Twilight saga to Harry Potter... We're saying that's the hunger of this generation. We're saying that from a spiritual perspective, we believe that there is a power that can help you be more than you are, say more than you know and do more than you can do. To us, it's a very pragmatic path that we're on, empowering us to help evangelize the world.
CP: Are there any other "crucial issues" facing the 21st century Spirit-empowered church that the conference will be tackling?
Garrison: We will be looking at the results of a Spirit-filled life. In other words, is there an outcome that we're trying to achieve? What is that outcome? Would you know a Spirit-empowered disciple if you saw one? That's another thing that we're trying to say. We're saying we believe it's important. Then we're saying, is there ever an opportunity to evaluate how good you're doing on your goal. Everything has to be measurable at some point. We're not judging anyone's spirituality. We break it down into what we would call a rational theology, a behavioral theology and an experiential theology. We would probably add experiential, where many religions would only say doctrine and duty, belief and behavior. We're saying all of that begins with an encounter. That encounter is an experience. We believe that everyone can have that experience. It may be different for a lot of different people, but it is an experience. That's what we'll be discussing in Griffin, a part of it. There there will be some younger leaders that will be speaking. African American, Caucasian, we're gonna be very diverse ethnically, we're going to be very diverse demographically in regards to age.
CP: Empowered21 encourages and helps to facilitate a fresh outpouring or move of the Holy Spirit for Christians to do God's work. How do you instruct people to test whether the signs they see or experience are actually of the Holy Spirit?
Garrison: We believe that it's almost innate in a way, and sometimes it's very intuitive. The Bible says to try the spirits. That doesn't mean everybody always knows. But we are asking the Holy Spirit to help us. Some people say that doesn't make sense. Many people, their first impression is wrong. I've seen people that I thought liked me, and they turned out to be people who didn't like me. I've had some people I thought didn't like me and they turned out to be some of my best friends. We do it with prayer. We do it with counsel, in other ways we say that there is protection in the counsel of two or three people. So we wouldn't be any different than anybody else in some of those ways. Then we do it in observation. Does it bear the kind of fruit we want it to bear? To me, it's a process and it's also intuitive.
CP: Empowermed21's vision statement includes the desire "that every person on Earth would have an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit by Pentecost 2033." What is the significance of the year 2033?
Garrison: We believe that that's approximately 2,000 years after the original outpouring. Jesus lived till he was about 33, however he was probably born maybe 4 B.C., and so that's how we arrive at that.
CP: The Assemblies of God has experienced much growth in recent years, especially when it comes to racial diversity and Millennials. However, the 2012 statistical report shows declines in Spirit baptisms and conversions. Are these areas of special interest or focus now for the denomination?
Garrison: They are definitely of concern to us. We've had a tremendous explosion of growth over the last — we're in our 100th year, this is our Centennial year. April was our 100th birthday, and we're having a big Centennial in August where we'll be bringing international delegates from around the world. Ninety-five percent of the Assemblies of God constituency lives outside the United States. We're about 3.1 million in the United States, and we're close to 63 million outside the United States. There are 360,000 churches worldwide. Every 20 seconds, best that we can tell with our statisticians, on average somebody comes to faith in Christ in an Assemblies of God Church, and every 52 minutes a new church is planted.
In the United States, 82 to 83 percent of our churches are under 200 in attendance, but we have around 250 churches that have over 1,000 (in attendance). Larger churches see more people converted, but less Spirit baptisms. We're not sure of all of the reasoning for that, but it is something we pray about and we are concerned about. Smaller churches, that ration's much better. It seems to be, the attraction of bigger crowds gives less time for systematic Bible study and what we would call taking time to posture yourself in prayer and waiting before the Lord. For instance, I was at a church Sunday a week ago in Chicago where we had three services back-to-back. We started at 8-something that morning and didn't get out until two that afternoon. They're running them as fast as they can just because every service is packed.
So some of it is just a feature of what's happening. Some of it may be, in some people's area, there may be that there's a decline in spiritual fervency. I don't know that. And we can't seem to get a true answer, whether we look to LifeWay Research or Barna or Gallup, nobody seems to be able to tell us that. So we're just believing that we'll stay strong into our second 100 years.
CP: It would seem that it could be a possible negative aspect of the megachurch boom.
Garrison: We're certainly not against megachurches but we do know that that is an oddity. So we're looking at more than numbers, we're really trying to drill down. And we do conversion to water baptism and conversion to Spirit baptism, and we started encouraging people to look at that more than just numbers. For a while, people wanted to know how big is your church and how many do you have, and that's the only criteria. I call it "nickels and noses."
As noted in a press release, the conference hosts include Garrison, Empowered21 U.S.A. chair, Surratt, Empowered21 U.S.A. vice-chair and founding pastor of Seacoast Church and Wilkerson, pastor of Trinity Church. Speakers include John Gray, associate teaching pastor at Lakewood Church, Dr. Mark Williams, pastor and general overseer of the Church of God, Peter Hass, pastor of Substance Church and Dr. David Cooper, pastor of Mount Paran Church.
The Empowered21 Global Council, co-chaired by George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, and Billy Wilson, president of Oral Roberts University, holds conferences across continents throughout the year. Organizers claim the 2015 global congress in Jerusalem "will be the largest Christian gathering in Jerusalem in modern history." The global council is chaired by leaders from the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, Church of God in Christ, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and several others denominations and ministries.
Learn more online: http://www.e21usacongress.com/