My friend Miriam will tell you about a dream she had. She was standing at a busy crossroads. Lying in the middle of the intersection, crying, was a baby. She felt compelled to run into the street to save the baby. Once she picked up the baby, she found herself surrounded by children and many North Americans.
She didn’t know any North Americans at the time. She and her husband Ramon were involved in ministry at a church called Verbo. They had two daughters and a relatively comfortable life for Managua. All the same, she knew that God was calling she and Ramon to something new. She just didn’t know what.
Today, less than ten years later, she and Ramon pastor a church called El Faro (the Lighthouse), which they started in the Managua City dump. Their ministry, now includes two church locations, two pre-schools, an accredited elementary school, a microfinance program, a small business, training for lay ministers, and feeds over 750 children at multiple sites, every day. Ramon has no business training, and when asked how he was going to support this rapidly growing ministry, all he knew to do was pray. I don’t know anyone else quite like Ramon and Miriam, and a treasure every opportunity I have to go and work with them and support them. Both of them radiate the presence of God in a way that is visible and tangible. Someday I hope to be just like them. (This link tells more about their story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yFsTZl_460.)
The story of El Faro mirrors the story of the Progressive Pentecostal movement told by Miller and Yamamori(1). Miller and Yamamori attempt to provide an overview of a holistic model of ministry that is set apart by several factors: Holy Spirit led, engaging worship, and social ministry. The authors approach the topic through a sociological examination of the potential of this movement, particularly in the developing world, to make an impact on problems facing the world (2). They completed an extensive study including site visits and thousands of interviews, over multiple years, in order to highlight key features of the movement. Their attempt is to provide an academic description. But they struggle with one key feature (from an academic point of view): how can they explain the influence of the Holy Spirit? How do they explain what cannot be explained through scientific method? Certainly, this movement is conducted by human actors, but those human actors consistently say that it is God, the Holy Spirit, and not them who is doing the work. People are healed. Communities change. Churches grow. But they rarely have a strategic plan or a financial model. They say they are doing some crazy thing: trusting God.
I love how the authors wrestle with the challenge of creating an academic product without negating the influence of the supernatural. They are clear to point out that they haven’t “gone native”(3) (which I find to be an offensive phrase, but I will let that go for now). Yet they recognize the struggle of the church and the academy to understand and embrace what cannot be explained. Early on, they discuss the movement as a possible response to modernism, in which “all the magic disappeared.” (4) While scientific discovery abounds, the human spirit has taken a huge hit. Pentecostalism seems to resurrect that magic by restoring the Holy Spirit to an active role in the every day. This is a logical explanation, but only begins to touch on the unexplainable. It is not merely the restoration of more demonstrative, engaging worship (though worship seems to be at the heart of the movement); but also a return to other spiritual manifestations, from speaking in tongues to healing to resurrection from the dead.
The primary question to me is this: Is this movement an act of man, or an act of God? Are these mutually exclusive? On the one hand, there are human actors who move in what they believe is obedience and love. On the other hand, there are common themes and events that simply cannot be explained based on human intervention alone. Almost all of the leaders interviewed reported some kind of spiritual call or event, much like Miriam’s dream. They act out of love, because when they minister in the name of Jesus, they see Jesus in the people they serve. Lives are changed. Communities are changed. Perhaps whole societies will be changed.
There is a common assumption in social work that when you help someone to make an improvement in one area of their life, you see improvements in their whole life. This could explain some of the broad spectrum change. But the lack of structure, the clear reliance on prayer and faith, and the documentation of miracles suggest that there is a greater power at work; something outside of the human sphere. Miller and Yamamura include the following quote:
“Here, by contrast, is a theory that would be truly controversial, daring and radical: human religions have existed and do exist everywhere because a God really does actually exist, and many humans – especially those not blinded by the reigning narratives of modern science and academia – feel a recurrent and deeply compelling ‘built-in’ desire to know and worship, in their various ways, the God who is there.” (5)
It’s a crazy idea, that maybe, just maybe, there really is a God that simply cannot be explained by the academy. He is magic. He is all powerful. He is invisible and visible and amazing. He is love. He is compassion. He unites us. He convicts us. He restores us. And He is not made up. How can we not respond to a God like that?
- Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Social Engagement, Berkely: University of California Press, 2007.
- Ibid, 31.
- Ibid, 4.
- Ibid, 25.
- Christian Smith, as quoted by Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Social Engagement, Berkely: University of California Press, 2007, p 158.