To get into the minds of today's Pentecostals, visit a classroom of ministers in training, 20-somethings getting their first taste of practical ministry. Recently I posed several questions to a large group of them in one of my practicum classes: What are the changes going on among North American Pentecostal believers and Pentecostal churches today? In what ways does the new generation of Pentecostals differ from earlier generations? In what ways is it similar?
The first response was immediate. A young student named Emily said, "For years, Pentecostals had an inferiority complex. They felt as if they were the weird uncle of modern Christianity, as if they were not quite accepted by peer denominations. Today it is different. Pentecostal churches have become more accepted and now are part of mainstream Christianity. That may be good—in some ways, not so good."
Indeed, Pentecostalism in North America has come a long way. It has moved from a faith to and of the disenfranchised to one that is recognized if not fully accepted across the board among evangelicals. From the movement's origins among a few adherents in the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906), Pentecostalism grew to some 12 million adherents by 1970, and now incorporates some 600 million worldwide in its various expressions, a fourth of all Christendom. David Barrett's monumental World Christian Encyclopedia states that in 1900, only seven-tenths of 1 percent of Christians were Pentecostal; today, approximately 25 percent are.
Another theme emerged in my classroom. As a student named Ross put it, "There is a new Pentecostalism emerging, a more meditative movement, a more social justice movement, more concerned about the outside of the church rather than [what goes on] inside."
Ministry practitioners, denominational leaders, and scholars whom I have talked to have noted three prominent trends in North American Pentecostalism: a marked decrease in speaking in tongues in public worship; fresh developments in Pentecostal eschatology; and a broader engagement in compassionate ministry and social concern.
All three trends deserve comment, but I want to highlight the last trend: On numerous fronts and in an increasing number of ways, Pentecostals are engaging in compassionate ministries and social change.
A Different Kind of Awakening
"There is a huge awakening for social concern today," says noted Pentecostal leader Jack Hayford, "especially from age 30 and down. It is profoundly present, and it is a welcomed renewal."
But, says Hayford, this isn't the first time Pentecostalism has seen such a groundswell of compassionate ministry. Hayford, a leader in the Foursquare Church, cites the hugely successful "commissary ministry" of Pentecostal revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson: "It touched millions during the Depression. It has significantly marked our movement. It spread over the first half of the 20th century." McPherson's compassionate work was carried out from the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles and through numerous "lighthouses" that sprung up across the nation.
Still, for many years North American Pentecostals were gunshy about using terms like "social concern" and "social justice." Some feared losing a spiritual edge by embracing the "social gospel," identified with Walter Rauschenbusch and mainline theology. Many worried that a social justice emphasis would undermine the message of salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition, some felt the idea was too politically volatile and smacked of socialism.
Globally, however, Pentecostalism has not been nearly as reluctant. Pentecostal ministry in Brazil, Chile, and other Latin American regions, for instance, includes reforming education and agribusiness, among other social arenas. Much has been written of the undeniable "social lift" Pentecostalism has brought to vast numbers of disenfranchised communities.
In the book Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori identify "progressive Pentecostals" as a group of "Christians who claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and the life of Jesus and who seek to holistically address the spiritual, physical, and social needs of people in their community." From their research, Miller and Yamamori report that since 1980, Pentecostals and charismatics have contributed over $2.3 billion and 250 million people in goods and services in over 100 countries.
Though Pentecostals have demonstrated an accelerated interest in social issues, especially in North America, Pentecostalism has never abandoned social concern. One of the longest-standing social efforts has been Teen Challenge (TeenChallengeusa.com). Established in 1958 by the late Assemblies of God minister David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge is the oldest, largest, and most successful drug rehabilitation program of its kind, with 233 centers in the U.S. and over 1,100 centers in 82 countries with some 25,000 beds available for people in need. Scholars debate how to count and compare its recovery rate with that of similar ministries, but all agree that it's no less than that of Alcoholics Anonymous, and much better than that of many secular programs. A vital part of the recovery process is prayer for conversion and baptism in the Holy Spirit: an infilling of the believer subsequent to conversion and accompanied by ecstatic signs (glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is the sign most often cited).
Another longstanding Pentecostal outreach is Latin American Childcare (lacc4hope.org). Founded in 1963, it is the largest integrated network of evangelical schools in Latin America and the Caribbean, incorporating 300 schools and projects that reach nearly 100,000 children in 21 countries. The community's shared vision incorporates "transformation" through the gospel of words and deeds, "education" through equipping children with knowledge and skills for real-life contexts, and "compassion" through nutrition and health-care programs. All of this is designed "to equip them with basic skills for competing in, and transforming, their society."
Still, social action has "very definitely" taken on a new role among Pentecostals and their churches today, says Assemblies of God general superintendent George O. Wood. He oversaw a crucial change at the organization's 2009 national convention in Orlando. Wood says, "The AG in 2009 added 'compassion' as the fourth element for its reason for being—in recognition that Jesus came to glorify God (worship), save the lost, make disciples, but also serve human need. The AG has entree into 80 countries that would [otherwise] be closed to traditional missionaries, but are open to compassion workers. Our churches increasingly have focused on the poor in practical ways: food banks, Adopt-A-Block, mentoring programs for children of prisoners, assistance to single mothers, and so on."
Two recent expressions of Pentecostal social concern are the Los Angeles-based Dream Center Movement (see below) and Convoy of Hope (ConvoyofHope.org), a Springfield, Missouri, faith-based organization with a "driving passion to feed the world through children's feeding initiatives, community outreaches, disaster response, and partner resourcing." In 2010, Convoy brought aid to nearly eight million people in the United States and worldwide, providing clothing, food, medical assistance, and other needed resources via outreaches and disaster response.
In its 16 years of service, Convoy of Hope has helped over 43 million people in more than 100 countries, and given away over $227 million in food and needed supplies. This movement has joined forces with churches, businesses, and government agencies to carry out the Convoy mission. Currently, over 88,000 children receive assistance from Convoy's feeding initiatives in El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.
Convoy of Hope is considered a reliable "first responder" organization in disaster relief. Its resources include a fleet of tractor-trailers, a 300,000-square-foot World Distribution Center (based in Springfield), six international distribution centers, over 22,000 partner churches and organizations, and over 325,000 volunteers. Convoy has responded to the recent natural disasters in Japan, Missouri, and Alabama.
The New Realities
What has contributed to the increased attention to social concern in North American Pentecostalism? The reasons are complex, but a few stand out:
Christianity's new center. Miller and Yamamori characterize Pentecostalism as "a major new social movement that is shifting Christianity's center of gravity to the developing world." Pentecostalism arguably thrives amid adversities extant in places of violence, corrupt politics, and poverty. As developing-world Pentecostalism has become better known in North America, so have its social needs and demonstration of social concern.
Demographics. While the predominantly white U.S. Pentecostal denominations have seen their growth rates level off in recent years, non-white churches are exploding. This is especially true for Hispanic congregations. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says, "By the end of the 21st century, the majority of Pentecostals in North America will be non-white [some say this will occur as early as year 2050]. For decades American Pentecostalism has been predominantly white and rural. It will soon become primarily ethnic and urban."
Rodriguez notes that Pentecostals have traditionally held "a vertical worldview of their faith, focusing on personal beliefs and a salvation that prepares one's soul to make the Rapture. White Pentecostals have said, 'I receive the power of God to live a holy life in order to go up in the Rapture.' Ethnic Pentecostals on the other hand say, 'I am saved by grace, but I also receive the power of God so my family can be transformed, and so we can overcome social ills and gangs in our neighborhood.' The priorities of this [ethnic Pentecostal] community are issues of life, biblical marriage, education, sex trafficking, immigration reform, poverty alleviation—all under the canopy of the Great Commission."
Developing theology. Jurgen Moltmann, professor emeritus at the University of Tubingen, Germany, and widely regarded as the leading living theologian of pneumatology, says, "Theologically, the Pentecostal movement has come of age!"
"During the past two decades or so, Pentecostal theology has emerged and is about to establish its place among other traditions," adds Veli-Matti Kärkkainen, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. More specifically in recent years, Pentecostal theologians have focused on eschatology, especially the Lukan view centered on the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61. This passage is rife with social ministry significance and images, including, "The Spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; … to comfort all who mourn" (ESV).
A generational shift. Rodriguez says there has been a shift that has drawn younger Pentecostals "to both the vertical and horizontal planes of the Cross." The new Pentecostals "stand at the nexus of both dynamics—salvation and transformation, covenant and community, righteousness and justice, Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King."
Billy Wilson, executive director of the International Center for Spiritual Renewal, an alliance of Pentecostal and charismatic leaders, says, "In my opinion, this generation has the strongest horizontal desire to change the world of any other one in history."
In the new book Spirit-Empowered Christianity in the 21st Century, contributor and noted Pentecostal scholar Stanley Burgess says that it's time for Pentecostals to "take seriously a commitment to Christian social justice." He notes that when a distinguished teacher among the Jews asked Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. "Jesus follows the parable with the statement, 'Do this and you will live.' " Burgess concludes, "We can no longer separate Jesus' command to [Nicodemus] to 'be born again' from his social injunctions in order to inherit eternal life."
It's apparently a message that Pentecostals now hear loud and clear.
Robert C. Crosby is professor of practical theology at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He writes a column for Patheos.com called "Catch the Current" and is author of several books, including More Than a Savior: When Jesus Calls You Friend (Multnomah).
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Robert Crosby's column "Catch the Current" can be found at Patheos.com.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of Pentecostalism includes:
Pentecostals: The Sequel | What will it take for this world phenomenon to stay vibrant for another 100 years? (April 1, 2006)
Grading the Movement | Three leaders talk frankly about Pentecostalism: the good, the bad, and the unpredictable. (April 1, 2006)
Explaining the Ineffable | In 'Heaven Below,' a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (August 1, 2001)
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