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 in deciphering how they think they differ from earlier generations.
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's different. Pentecostal churches have become more accepted and now are part of mainstream Christianity. That is good in some ways, in other 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 at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906), Pentecostalism now incorporates 600 million worldwide in its various expressions. David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia states that in 1900 only 0.7 percent of Christians were Pentecostal; today, approximately 25 percent are.
Yet there is a new Pentecostalism emerging, a more meditative movement, more of a social justice movement, more concerned about the outside of the church rather than what goes on inside.
Ministry practitioners, denominational leaders, and scholars 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.
The last trend is especially noteworthy. On numerous fronts and in an increasing number of ways, Pentecostals are engaging in compassionate ministries and social change.
A DIFFERENT AWAKENING
"There is a huge awakening for social concern today, especially from age 30 and down," says Pentecostal leader Jack Hayford. "It is profoundly present, and it is a welcomed renewal."
But, Hayford says, this isn't the first time Pentecostalism has seen such a groundswell of compassionate ministry. Hayford, a leader in the Foursquare Church, cites the successful "commissary ministry" of Pentecostal revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson.
"It touched millions during the Depression," Hayford says. "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 sprang up across the nation.
Still, for many years North American Pentecostals were gun-shy about using terms such as "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 countries, 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 in excess of $2.3 billion in goods and services to 250 million people in more than 100 countries.
Though Pentecostals have demonstrated an accelerated interest in social issues, Pentecostalism has never abandoned social concern. One of the longest-standing social efforts has been Teen Challenge.
Established in 1958 by 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 United States and more than 1,100 centers in 82 countries. A vital part of the recovery process is prayer for conversion and baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Another longstanding Pentecostal outreach is Latin America ChildCare. 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."
Social action has definitely taken on a new role among Pentecostals and their churches today, according to U.S. Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood. He oversaw a crucial change at the organization's national convention three years ago.
"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," Wood says. "The AG has entrée into 80 countries that would 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."
| A Convoy of Hope volunteer (right) distributes groceries at an outreach.
Two recent expressions of Pentecostal social concern are the Los Angeles-based Dream Center movement and Convoy of Hope, 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."
During its 17 years of service, Convoy of Hope has helped more than 50 million people in more than 100 countries, and given away in excess of $287 million in food and needed supplies. This movement has joined forces with churches, businesses and government agencies. Currently, more than 115,000 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 (in Springfield), and six international distribution centers.
What has contributed to the increased attention to social concern in North American Pentecostalism? The reasons are complex, but a few stand out:
One is 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.
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says the new Pentecostals stand at the nexus of both dynamics - salvation and transformation, covenant and community, righteousness and justice, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr.
Demographics also are a factor. While the predominantly white U.S. Pentecostal denominations have seen their growth rates level off in recent years, nonwhite churches are exploding. This is especially true for Hispanic congregations.
Rodriguez notes that by the end of the 21st century, the majority of Pentecostals in North America will be nonwhite. For decades American Pentecostalism has been predominantly white and rural, but it will soon become primarily ethnic and urban, Rodriguez says.
According to Rodriguez, 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."
|A Southeastern University (AG) student participates in a Lakeland, Florida, outreach.|
A generational shift is evident. Rodriguez says there has been a shift that has drawn younger Pentecostals "to both the vertical and horizontal planes of the cross."
Billy Wilson, executive director of the International Center for Spiritual Renewal, an alliance of Pentecostal and charismatic leaders, says, "This generation has the strongest horizontal desire to change the world of any other one in history."
In the book Spirit-Empowered Christianity in the 21st Century, contributor and 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, NIV), Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.
"Jesus follows the parable with the statement, 'Do this and you will live,'" Burgess says. "We can no longer separate Jesus' command to [Nicodemus] to 'be born again' from His social injunctions in order to inherit eternal life."
Author: Robert C. Crosby, Pentecostal Evangel