I am Pentecostal, although I prefer the word Charismatic. Pentecostals have been known for their extreme emotionalism and demonstrative behavior, neither of which I am. The importance of God’s immediate presence expressed and sensed are part of how I relate to God. Our church history has been one in which we withdrew from the community and tried to keep ourselves pure from the world. We cared about people. We desired for them to “get saved”. But being involved in the community was not encouraged. This uneasy relationship with the city gave me a skewed view of living out the Christian life.
While this thinking still persists in some Fundamentalist Pentecostal churches, this is changing. The Gospel that cares for the whole person is being embraced. This last week I read Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. When two scholars go in search of churches that are the most socially engaged, they are surprised when they discovered 80% are Pentecostal. The shift from otherworld escape and seeing God’s Kingdom working on earth is a healthy shift. That is very heartening.
Many years ago one of our missionaries Mark Buntain went to Calcutta, India to start a new church. The conditions were deplorable. Quickly what he confronted was the severe poverty of the city. This he could not ignore. He realized that people were not open to the Gospel when they didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So he lobbied the Assemblies of God headquarters to start a feeding program. Later he launched a first class hospital and school. Although these ministries are thriving and endorsed today, they were resisted by those in the organization who thought the primary task of a missionary was salvation of souls and beginning churches.
I encountered this thinking from a missionary that I think may be one of those who resisted Buntain’s social efforts. He said if we help people out of poverty then they will not be receptive to the Gospel. When people prosper they tend not to desire God anymore. This does have some truth to it. When people prosper, they do tend to ignore God. But when I heard that I was incensed. I cordially disagreed. We did not support that missionary. I am so glad this trend is changing in my context.
Miller and Yamamori report how Pentecostal’s are moving beyond charitable giving to “explore development-oriented social ministries.” These churches are engaging in their communities need for basic human needs, emergency responses, education, medical, counseling and even economic development. What this book revealed is that the Pentecostal experience gave people a sense of power over their lives. Their encounter with God reordered their lives into productive ways of living. Young adults that were part of their worshipping communities found themselves in a place where they were more upwardly mobile. The energy of the Pentecostals is being unleashed in social ministries that care for their cities and empower the poor and weak to move out of their hard conditions. The examples in this book are not from the western world. But increasingly there is a new movement among churches, in general, in the U.S. for social engagement.
I have been engaged with an inner-city children and youth ministry. We bused hundreds of children every week to church to go to a children’s’ rally where the message of God’s love was presented. We visited the children’s homes during the week on a regular basis. We also and gave out food baskets at Thanksgiving and have hundreds (think 800 or so) Christmas gifts out ever year. But my spirit became restless with the bring them to church and entertain method of ministry. Something deeper needed to be done. I could sense that the very structure of the children’s lives and in fact the structures of the culture their lived in hindered our Christian influence. I have heard since then both positive and negative effects of that ministry in these now young adults. What was clear is that societal structures themselves needed to be changed. One church on its own couldn’t do it.
The questions I have for us is, “Will this new awareness of being social involved with our community help us see the structure of society as needing engagement as well as individual conversations? As Pentecostals are more involved in social work, we will need to pay attention to those faith traditions that have gone before us. Miller and Yamamori surface the question about how well we will be able to engage in practices that we can learn from other denominations. Will we seek to collaborate instead of dominate in our serving efforts?