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From the September, 2008 issue of Touchstone


The Spirit Factor by Lance Nixon

The Spirit Factor

Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement
by Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori
University of California Press, 2007
(261 pages, $24.95, paperback)

reviewed by Lance Nixon

Their initial methodology for studying global Christianity’s impact on society was simple: Focus on fast-growing, indigenous, self-supporting churches in the developing world engaged in significant social ministry. So Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori asked 400 mission experts, denominational executives, and other informed people to nominate such churches.

The results took them by surprise: 85 percent of the churches nominated were Pentecostal or Charismatic.

Progressive Ministries

That might not come as such a surprise, though, to those who know that there are a great many Pentecostals in the world. The authors cite British sociologist David Martin’s estimate of a quarter of a billion people, as well as the more generous estimate of 500 million sometimes tossed about. The easy rule of thumb is that Pentecostals now make up the largest Christian “tradition” outside of Roman Catholicism.

Global Pentecostalism is the result of four years’ work in which the two authors visited 20 countries, recorded and transcribed more than 300 interviews with local church leaders, and filmed about 70 hours of video. (The book includes a DVD with interviews and scenes of Pentecostal worship from around the world.)

The ministries they studied included feeding, clothing, and sheltering people; programs for drug rehabilitation, job training, and HIV/AIDS prevention; microenterprise loans; visiting prisoners and supporting their families; family reunification; pregnancy counseling; ministries to prostitutes; medical and dental services; educating children and housing street children and orphans; and counteracting racial prejudice and other forms of discrimination.

The list does not fit the way many people think of Pentecostals, or, in fact, with the way many Pentecostals think of themselves. That is because Miller and Yamamori—self-described as a “liberal Episcopalian of long standing” and a “noncharismatic Evangelical,” respectively—created their own term for the subset they chose to study: “Progressive Pentecostals.” Emerging in the 1990s, this movement “reflects the increasing maturity of Pentecostalism as it develops from being an otherworldly sect to a dominant force in reshaping global Christianity.”

Pentecostalism can be sliced any number of ways, and the authors’ divisions work as well as any. Building in part on the work of others, they discuss several main “expressions” of Pentecostalism: classical Pentecostalism; indigenous Pentecostal denominations with no connection to North America; independent Neo-Pentecostal churches that resist becoming denominations; the charismatic renewal movements; and a group they call “proto-charismatic Christians,” individuals who don’t belong to Pentecostal churches but embrace aspects of Pentecostalism.

Within these groups the authors discern four emphases (they note that the boundaries are blurry): legalistic and otherworldly; prosperity gospel or “health-and-wealth”; “integral” or “holistic” (the group on whom they focus their attention); and “routinized.”

Classical Pentecostals “emphasize conversion as their only mission to the community,” while “prosperity gospel” Pentecostals focus on faith healing and prosperity “without connecting their Christian faith to socially beneficial programs in their communities.” Others, whom they exclude without further comment, “have aligned themselves with right-wing repressive governments”—a reference I think to Central American Pentecostalism.

The authors see integral Pentecostalism as the movement’s cutting edge, “resisting the legalism and routinization of classical Pentecostalism, pushing forward in highly indigenous ways and playing the most important role in advancing Progressive Pentecostalism forward.”

Filling the Breach

They decided to study their subset because, “given the moribund status of the Social Gospel movement and the declining influence of Liberation Theology, there is a breach to be filled, and our thesis is that this vacuum might potentially be occupied, at least in part, by Progressive Pentecostals.” Its views, they argue, “are fundamental to the creation of a democratic government, and therefore, at the very least Pentecostalism is preparing good citizens who may exercise their vote in ways that reflect egalitarian values.”

Yet they note that Progressive Pentecostals are vastly different from adherents of Liberation Theology or the Social Gospel movement. With some exceptions they are relatively nonpolitical, and they are not trying to reform social structures or government policies but “to build from the ground up an alternative social reality” characterized by the “fairly subversive” notions that human beings are made in the image of God, have dignity, and have equality in God’s sight. They seek “a balanced approach to evangelism and social action that is modeled after Jesus’ example of not only preaching about the coming kingdom of God but also ministering to the physical needs of the people he encountered.”

Yamamori and Miller argue that Pentecostalism affects society in at least three ways, one they consider negative and two positive. They don’t ignore the possibility that it blunts the pain of poverty and human rights violations by promising a better eternity, yet they also suggest that Pentecostalism can help individuals and families through the “social uplift” factor—the idea that Pentecostals have a competitive economic advantage over others because of their moral stance against alcohol, drugs, gambling, infidelity, and so on.

Pentecostalism’s focus on human rights and its conviction that everyone is made in the image of God is the source of its third social effect. “Pentecostalism is a religion of the people; everyone has the right to interpret scripture. . . . Believers have direct access to God, not needing a mediator, and everyone has a role within the body of Christ, regardless of social class, ethnicity, and family lineage,” they write.

The social and political implications of these theological views are quite radical. They establish the basis for democratic rule in which all persons are equal, in which each person has a right to cast a vote as a member of the community, and in which established authorities can be questioned as one claims the right to personal interpretations of scripture.

Joyous Ascetics

The book touches only briefly on Pentecostalism’s relation to capitalism and democracy, but the authors do take up Max Weber’s influential study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which divided believers into Otherworldly Mystics, Otherworldly Ascetics, Inner-Worldly Mystics, and Inner-Worldly Ascetics.

Early Pentecostalism had been “rather mystical and otherworldly,” but it moved “in a somewhat more ascetic direction,” even becoming legalistic and imposing “organizational restraints on the free expression of the Holy Spirit.” Prosperity Gospel Pentecostals are “more inner-worldly, wanting their payoff now rather than postponing it until the next life,” yet they exhibit a strong element of mysticism in their belief in the supernatural, especially in regard to healing and divine intervention. Fitting more than one type, “Progressive Pentecostals might be identified as Joyous Inner-Worldly Mystics who nevertheless practice a rather ascetic lifestyle.”

The heart of the book is devoted to descriptions of the actual cases in which Pentecostal churches are addressing problems across the world: poverty in Cairo, street children in Nairobi, drug addiction in Hong Kong. Of course, they are not alone, and not always pre-eminent; the authors suggest that Roman Catholics are better at addressing the AIDS epidemic, for example, and they wonder why Pentecostals are not more involved in prison ministries.

The authors make clear that not all Pentecostal efforts to engage their communities’ problems are successful. But even failure, they argue, fits nicely in the worldview of Pentecostal churches. They were impressed by the churches’

simultaneous emphasis on risk taking and humility. . . . In fact, some of the people we interviewed even commented on how these failures pruned their egos and reminded them that it was not their project or program; rather it depended on a power higher than themselves.

The “S Factor”

The fact that Pentecostals are becoming active on social issues raises the question of whether their doing so is a sign of secularization, i.e., that they are doing good deeds because they can no longer believe in the mystical encounters with God that their tradition celebrates. “But this explanation is cynical,” the authors conclude, and “simply does not reflect the way Progressive Pentecostals think about their moral obligations as Christians.”

They frequently cite scripture to justify their actions—so they must be continuing to read the Bible. They surround their activities with prayer, which is something that secularized Pentecostals might easily skip in the rush to do the work of ministry. And in their strongest argument against the secularization hypothesis, they frequently say that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to them about their social involvements in the community.

Though they don’t do more than touch on the possibility, Yamamori and Miller say observers cannot discount “the S factor”: that is, that it is the Holy Spirit who is directing these new Pentecostals in their efforts to imitate Christ.

A former newspaper reporter, Lance Nixon is an information editor at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he and his wife Ruth homeschool their five children.

Lance Nixon is an information editor at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he and his wife Ruth homeschool their five children.

“The Spirit Factor” first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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