The first time I walked into a Pentecostal church as a sixteen-year-old, I didn’t know quite what to expect. Entering First Assembly of God (AG) in Columbia, South Carolina that Sunday morning in 1975, was different than anything I had ever experienced; I could feel a sense of excitement, freedom, and spontaneity. Then, I heard something I had never heard before in a church service … voices projected other than the pastor’s; audible gifts of the Spirit operating amidst seasons of worship, prophecies, prayers for healing and, yes, speaking in tongues. And, on that day it honestly was the speaking in tongues that most caught my fascination.
Although speaking in an unknown tongue was something I had experienced only a few months earlier, attending this new church where it was accepted, even celebrated, was something I had not experienced. There was one thing I knew, another I did not: What I knew was that this experience of speaking in tongues was something quite amazing. While I had long wondered if God may ever speak to me in some way, this gift presupposed the possibility that through charismata, a “grace gift”, his Spirit could speak through me – an extraordinary thought for a quite ordinary sixteen-year-old.
What I did not know at that time was just how powerfully this thing called speaking in tongues and the fostering Pentecostal movement it “evidenced” was sweeping the planet. Nor did I realize the iconic and symbolic role it played in classical Pentecostalism. I have since come to find out that the movement that began with a handful of tongue-talking worshippers on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906 grew to a following of 12 million by 1972. Today, quite remarkably, Pentecostals in their various forms have reportedly grown to almost 600 million worldwide, approximately one-fourth of all of Christendom. Respected historian, Vinson Synan predicts that by the end of the twenty-first century Pentecostals will comprise half of all Christians in the world. And, although not a member of the Assemblies of God (AG) himself, he also estimates that at her present rate of growth, the AG will become the largest Protestant denomination in the world. Statistics verify this trend.
In his new book, Noticing God, Richard Peace writes about a partical “mystical experience” Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the famed mathematician, author, physicist, Christian philosopher and child prodigy, had with God at age thirty-one. His record of it sounds quite “Pentecostal”. Pascal recorded it and described this way:
From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
Not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
“Thy God and my God.”
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything,
except God . . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy . . . .
“This is eternal life, That they might know Thee,
the only true God,
And Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.”
These words in which Pascal attempted to describe his mystical encounter with God were written down and found penned inside his coat. Clearly his mystical encounter with God had a pivotal and transformative impact on his life. As it turns out, he had transferred that account from coat to coat and taken it with him everywhere he went for years until the day he died.
Richard Peace has more to say about the prevalence of mystical encounters with God:
Pascal is not alone in this experience. Countless men and women down through the ages have had similar experiences. A research study by Andrew Greeley and William McCready for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago determined that fully 35 percent of adult Americans have had what can only be deemed a classic mystical experience. The study also revealed that few of these people talked about their experience with others even though they regarded this as the most valuable or among the most significant experiences they ever had. (They feared they would not be believed.) A follow-up to this original study took place in 2005. This time, one-half of the respondents claimed to have had a life-altering spiritual experience. In yet another study, via in-depth interviews, some 60 percent of the respondents reported that “they have had an experience of the presence of God or a ‘patterning’ of events in their life that persuades them that they are part of a cosmic design.” (Peace, Noticing God, IVP, 2012, p. 24-25)
Abraham heard an unmistakable call. Jacob wrestled a divine opponent. Moses saw a burning bush. Peter spoke in a new and unknown tongue. What about you? Have you experienced a mystical encounter with God? If so, have you dared speak of it?