A Personal Journey
I grew up in Bible and Baptist churches, so I never knew a Pentecostal growing up. They were strange people who did strange things, and we knew to avoid them. My senior year of college (where I had been involved in Cru) Chi Alpha (the campus ministry of the Assemblies of God) started up. There was tension. For me the idea of Pentecostals among the urbane and wealthy of SMU seemed anachronistic.
But, things change. While attending a Presbyterian church, I met pastors who spoke in tongues, and held a weekly healing service. I attended a traditionally “dispensationalist” seminary which allowed Pentecostal and Charismatics to attend, and where most of the theology and missiology professors were highly complementary of global Pentecostalism. We read about Pentecostal theology and praxis side by side with Liberation theology. On trips to Cuba I met and became great friends with Pentecostal pastors. I marveled at their love of Jesus and people, and their stories of healings and exorcisms, and was witness to more than a few very interesting experiences.
The very same Chi Alpha group at SMU eventually partnered with our Presbyterian church to serve and love international students. Our church was doing the Alpha course, and Chi Alpha began funneling interested international students to the course. There I made a friend from India named Shomik. Shomik was getting his masters in engineering and had gained a curiosity in Christianity. He enjoyed the Alpha group and we often met up for lunch to discuss issues of faith and spirituality. At one lunch he explained how he had once been near death, and his parents had prayed to a local Hindu deity and he had miraculously been healed. He asked me what I thought about this and how this fit into my view of the world and Christianity. I was a bit dumbfounded in my Western, secular assumptions. Shomik then went onto explain that his friends in Chi Alpha and in the AG church he frequented had explained that he had probably been healed by a demon.
I am still convinced that much of the church in the West is not ready or willing to answer Shomik’s question. Somewhere we have missed something, and at a very fundamental level are still not able to answer many of the world’s very real and global questions.
A Global Movement
David E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori in Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement assert that global progressive Pentecostalism is a serious agent of social change and movement in the postmodern/global world. Their research alludes to the reality that the rapid rise of global Pentecostalism is one of the most under reported and underappreciated stories of the 20th and 21st centuries. Most Westerners still haven’t a clue of the seismic shifts occurring, too mired in their colonial (a tension of guilt and superiority) and secular mindsets. Sociologist Peter Berger however supports Miller and Yamamori, seeing Pentecostalism as one of the primary and emerging forces of global culture. Here Miller and Yamamori make the case through abundant first hand experiences and research that this global culture is highly engaged in attempting to transform their cities and nations through a connection of powerful worship and Jesus centered Holy Spirit guided spiritual power that then plays out in being the hands and love of Jesus to transform lives and possibly even entire societies. What unfolds is a diverse and complicated movement with no center or organizational structure which is truly dealing with our postmodern questions, the connection of spiritual and the physical, the problem of personal evil, the great mass of poverty and the crisis of identity, not to mention the very real world of spirits that much of the world lives with.
Much of the mainline, institutional church of the West of course has discarded these questions. They have accepted the duality of modernity, and cast off confidence in the gospel and the power of spiritual transformation to make a difference. Miller and Yamamori make the observation that: “Pentecostalism is a renewal movement. Without renewal movements, religion simply routinizes and dies as it becomes increasingly formalized.” (loc 2591) It is no secret that the church in Europe and some parts of America is in crisis. Possibly the routinization of that church has led us to fail to see the real questions and issues that people are dealing with in a global world. Perhaps we are so locked into our own myopic struggle and accommodation with secularism, consumerism, and entertainment, that we have lost some of our salt and light. Maybe we are too embarrassed to answer Shomik’s question. Perhaps this is why the poor chose Pentecostalism over the imposed structuralism of a very Western way of looking of the world in Liberation Theology.
Globalization, Global Church, Global Renewal?
For me global Pentecostalism and particularly the progressive kind, seems most to mirror Christ’s ministry and call. Focus on people. Love them, serve them, speak for those who cannot, reconcile them to God, cast out demons and evil, and preach the gospel and make disciples. Great Commission and Great Commandment living. GC Squared. Systems and structures will come and go, and there will always be injustice, but often what we mean for societal transformation is just the imposition of one new form of injustice over the older form. The call for revolution often only victimizes and consolidates one group while dehumanizing another. Global Pentecostalism holistic paradigm believes that if one heart can be transformed then so can a society. While they may not have changed the social structure of the majority world, they have only been at it for just a blink of time, yet they have transformed the micro-societies they inhabit. In the end, they may be the best hope.
In this sense, their global engagement may be a cause of renewal for the Western church as well. A call to renewal, and a call to confidence in the gospel as something that is worth preaching. A call to a reclamation of holistic ministry, and reengagement with the power of love and the Holy Spirit to transform the poor, the weak, the broken hearted, (and dare I say the rich?) not just through program and charity, but through our arms in embrace, our ears in hearing, and our lips in united praise. Global Pentecostalism just might save the Western church.