What Azusa Had and We Need
April 2016 marks the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the historic revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. The Azusa Street Revival served as a major catalyst for the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements around the world. Today, one out of every four Christians worldwide would identify as Pentecostal or Charismatic.
The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people between the time of His resurrection and ascension into heaven (1 Corinthians 15:6). Yet, on the Day of Pentecost only 120 were present in the Upper Room. I have often wondered how the 380 felt when they realized they had missed the moment of a lifetime — the giving of the Spirit in the Upper Room.
At the turn of the 20th century, saints gathered in another room and were empowered by the Spirit. We know it as the Azusa Street Mission, where the revival that effectively birthed Pentecostalism around the world took place. Most of the members of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements can trace their historical roots and spiritual heritage back to that Azusa Street Mission and the revival that lasted night and day for three years.
The Azusa Revival began on April 9, 1906. Ten days later a great earthquake hit San Francisco, California, destroying over 80 percent of the city and killing 3,000 people. But, the Azusa Revival generated an earthquake of a different kind — a spiritual earthquake that is still shaking the world — the ripples and shocks of which have reached to the third, fourth, and fifth generations and embrace upwards of 700 million Spirit-filled believers all over the globe.
What did those believers have that we need today? There are at least five things.
1) Great Hunger for God
The men and women of Azusa Street were driven by a hunger — not to know about God, but to know God; not to hear about God, but to hear God. They wanted to know the Lord in His fullness, thus the term “full gospel.”
They took to heart what Jesus declared about the Spirit: that anyone who believed in Jesus could have streams of living water flow from within (John 7:37–39). The word streams or rivers represents a substantial body of water, surging powerfully — flowing out of the inner core of life.
At Azusa, as at Pentecost, the believers experienced this powerful infilling through receiving the baptism in and the fullness of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4).
They came to the mission on Azusa Street expecting an encounter with God. That expectancy and the reality of God’s presence made them oblivious to things that seem to matter so much today: well-appointed sanctuaries, neatly packaged and on-time services, visiting star-quality speakers and singers, homogeneity and upward mobility in the members of the congregation, social recognition, and ecclesiastical power.
God is no respecter of persons. He does not respect the Azusa Mission any more than the finest cathedral in the world. It is not the place that impresses Him, but the heart of those who come.
So long as any of us considers ourselves full and in need of nothing, we will block God from working in or through us. He sends the rich (in need of “nothing”), away. But to the poor — those who hunger for Him, who long to see God face-to-face — to them, He grants the demonstration of His presence.
2) Great Love for One Another
The Azusa Street Revival witnessed the breakdown of barriers that normally divide people from one another: race, class, gender, wealth, language, education, church affiliation, and culture.
The presiding elder — a black preacher, blind in one eye — named William J. Seymour, served by divine appointment rather than political manipulation. The Mission had an integrated leadership and congregation and, although it was decades before the American Civil Rights Movement, had an amazing lack of discrimination.
Is it any wonder that, with this love for God’s family, the roots of most Pentecostal denominations and the modern charismatic renewal can be traced back to Azusa Street? From there a torch was passed to the present day.
I must add that the American Pentecostal Movement caved into culture, with its racism and segregation laws; and, for decades the multiracial, multicultural aspect of the Azusa Revival was not lived out in our churches. But, in these last days, the anthem of Azusa is being lived out again: “Where the blood line washes out the color line.” The world will know Him not because we all agree on everything, but because we love one another.
Our spiritual life is too individualistic if it is only marked by hunger for God. God desires that we not only love Him, but one another; that we are as at the Day of Pentecost, in one accord. Is there love among us for our brothers and sisters? For the oppressed? For the sinful? For the outcast? The wounded? The rich and the powerful? The low and the needy? The different?
Will our communities know us by our love?
3) A Commitment to the Bible as God’s Word
These early Pentecostals of Azusa were not into experience for experience’s sake. While one may point to a few minor misplaced emphases at Azusa, their quest for a subjective and personal experience with God was within the boundaries of God’s written Word. They believed the Spirit does not go where His Word does not permit.
The Pentecostal Movement has had its problems with personalities who teach as truth matters not found in God’s Word. If we are criticized for validating our experience with what God’s Word says, then let’s wear that criticism as a badge of honor.
The Azusa Revival unabashedly proclaimed that the sure plumb line of truth was God’s revealed and written Word. Elder Seymour and others were criticized sharply for “checking everything out with the Word.” But they were unashamed.
Rather than focusing on the latest fad, let’s proclaim experience that is corroborated by Scripture, and let Christ be the center of our lives, our testimony, our preaching and proclamation.
4) Dedication to Spirit-Empowered Evangelism and Missions
The baptism in the Spirit, as understood at Azusa, was not simply for personal blessing: its central purpose was empowerment for service. That distinction becomes vital when considering how some seek the Spirit for the experience, and not for a new boldness and competence to witness.
Page 1 of the first issue of The Apostolic Faith (September 1906) took up the cause of missions and sending missionaries. Missions was front and center to their existence — starting missions’ emphases and giving in their first hours. They took no offerings; there was a collection box in the back, but that did not mean giving was absent.
From Azusa came a stream of missionaries, ministers, and Christian workers.
Mark this down: the lack of missionary zeal in any church or church leader is the most direct evidence possible that no revival is present. Where people do not have God’s heart for the world, they do not have God’s presence.
No one can be a disciple of Jesus Christ and ignore the Great Commission or treat it as the Great Suggestion. The lack of a missionary emphasis by any pastor or church will be inexcusable on the Day of Judgment.
We need a rebirth of missionary zeal for all the nations of this world. May the Lord help every Spirit-filled believer give of our very finest and best to cross oceans, languages, cultures, and national boundaries with the gospel of Christ.
If there is a contribution that the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements have made to the Body of Christ, it is this: the signs, wonders, and miracles described in the New Testament are for today as well.
The Pentecostal church must avoid at all costs the danger of thinking that the work of the church can be done solely by human power and ingenuity. Our Pentecostal and charismatic forefathers and mothers had little money and none of the resources we have today. Thank God He has given us far more resources in the present hour. But, these resources are tools to use, not rely on. It is not by our power, or by our might, but by His Spirit.
5) Commitment to Restoring the New Testament Church
Over three decades ago, I was in Rome and went to see Michelangelo’s great fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I came away very disappointed, as the ceiling was very dark, the result of centuries of candles burning that had produced a thin layer of soot. Recently I revisited the Sistine Chapel. In the intervening years, it has been cleaned and now the riot of color and detail from Michelangelo blaze forth in all its original glory.
That’s what Pentecost is meant to do. Over the centuries, layers of church tradition, coldness, and apostasy have obscured the pure vitality, the living doctrine, and experience of first-century believers. The idea of Pentecost is to remove the smudge of theological and experiential smoke that has obscured what the Church was at its beginning.
The modern-day Pentecostal outpouring was designed as a restoration movement: “Let’s restore the Church to what it was at the beginning in terms of its doctrine, mission, and experience.” In order words, what did the first Christians believe and how did they behave? Acts 2:42–47 tells us. Let there be no separation between them and us. Let us believe what they believed, and behave as they behaved.
The Azusa pioneers desired to do one thing: get back to being the Church described in the New Testament.
The second issue of The Apostolic Faith, October 1906, printed a message entitled, “This Same Jesus.” Its observation of the modern Spirit-empowered Movement’s relationship to God’s prophetic purpose is even more relevant today than when the words were first given:
“When the Holy Ghost fell on the one hundred and twenty it was in the morning of the dispensation of the Holy Ghost. Today we are living down in the evening of the dispensation of the Holy Ghost. As it was in the morning, so shall it be in the evening. This is the last evangelistic call of the day.”
May God work among us in such a way that Azusa Street will only be a shower compared to what He does in giving the latter rain in the years that lie before us, should Jesus delay His return!