In its short history (slightly more than one hundred years) Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity has not only grown, but has made a significant contribution to Christian mission. At the time of the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which presented a master roadmap to world evangelization “in our [their] generation,” the movement was only four years old (if we count from the 1906 Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, California, USA).
It is not surprising that no mention was made in Edinburgh to this deeply controversial group. Nor is it surprising that there was no delegate at the conference to represent this new form of Christianity. A century later, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity claims about half a billion adherents worldwide. And it does not show any signs of slowing. The movement is here to stay—or more accurately, “to travel”—for quite some time.
Our task in this study is to highlight the two spheres and stages of Pentecostal mission development. As each is related to others, an analogy of two ripples, or two concentric circles, is used. In my companion article we will explore a third area on deeper and wider mission engagement.
Here, “Pentecostal” (or “Pentecostalism”) is used in a generic way to encompass the growing branch of modern Christianity that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in their belief and experience. Such conviction includes supernatural manifestations, such as healings and miracles, of God’s presence and power. Pentecostals are often identified by their dynamic and participatory worship and mission commitment. This form of Christianity is often subdivided into three groups:
- Classical (often denominational) Pentecostals,
- Charismatics or Neo-Pentecostals (often found in established churches or independent congregations), and
- Neo-Charismatics, which include many forms of indigenous churches, post-denominational churches, and many other expressions of Charismatic Christianity.
Pentecostal mission has demonstrated its genius in two specific areas of mission engagement and they roughly correspond with the development of the Pentecostal movement itself.
The First Ripple: The Other Side of Heaven
The first stage of the Pentecostal movement is found in its global expansion, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Armed with and compelled by eschatological urgency and a Spirit-filled sense of missionary calling, the expansion of Pentecostal Christianity through missionary activities is unprecedented.
Several Pentecostal mission scholars have provided useful characterizations of their mission force. Allan Anderson,1 for example, lists six characteristics:
- pneumatocentric mission, highlighting the role of the Holy Spirit in mission,
- dynamic mission praxis with zeal and commitment,
- evangelism as the central mission thrust,
- contextualization of leadership or development of local leadership as early as possible,
- mobilization in mission where everyone is called and empowered for witness, and
- contextual missiology with creativity in packaging the gospel to be relevant to the local cultural and social setting.
In a 2007 article,2 I portrayed the Pentecostal mission forces as “the poor now fired up.” Their marginality in various settings has made them fittingly “poor” in every sense. They are even marginalized by other churches. They are characterized by:
- their deep zeal and commitment (exemplified by “one-way ticket missionaries” of the early days of the movement),
- everyone’s involvement in mission by its democratized theology of mission and ministry (or their belief in the “prophethood of all believers”),
- mission with healing and miracles,
- a priority of inner change and evangelism with other ministries such as “care,” ultimately contributing to evangelism,
- empowerment missiology with implication not only to the church, missionaries, and the new recipient lands, and
- their unique ecumenical potential as demonstrated in the Azusa Street Mission with its ecumenical and interracial congregation and leadership.
Pentecostals have been more practitioners than reflectors; thus, there is far more “fruit” of their mission engagement than literature about their history. Many reports have acclaimed the exponential growth of this movement. Equally impressive is the movement’s unusual ability to engage with the context (social and cultural) to create forms of Christianity that are dynamic and engaging. This sheer size and dynamism has turned its churches, particularly those in the Global South, into a powerful mission force “from South to South” as well as “reversed mission to the West.”
Theologically, classical Pentecostals provided leadership and a theological basis for this mission thrust. Highly motivated by the unique empowerment theology for witness—and further fueled by eschatological urgency of the return of the Lord—evangelism was the most logical consequence. The continuing mission energy and commitment in spite of the unfulfilled eschatological “prophecies” proves that the main motivation for Pentecostal mission lies in its unique pneumatological missiology rather than the eschatological drive.
The Second Ripple: This Side of the Heaven
From the 1960s, the movement expanded its influence and experienced a significant transformation in its mission engagement. The rise of the Charismatic or Neo-Pentecostal movement brought Pentecostalism to the Christianity mainstream as the spiritual dynamic spread through the established denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church. It also spread among the social mainstream as the middle class embraced the “religion of the poor.”
This period also witnessed the quick disappearance of eschatological expectations among Pentecostal minds and pulpits. At the same time, Pentecostalism began to grow into significance in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The spread of the controversial “prosperity gospel” also contributed to the development of the “southern” Pentecostal spread. That is when some social scientists began to notice Pentecostal’s unique contribution to the social and economic upward mobility of its members. This interest has been increasing and the recent publication of Donald Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori’s four-year research project3 is a good example of this.
In mission settings, care for those in need is a strong part of Pentecostal mission practice. Specific approaches include orphanages, feeding programs, vocational schools, medical clinics, and educational programs. Even social contexts hostile toward open evangelism have led Pentecostals in some countries to develop drug rehabilitation centres, children’s homes, and elderly homes.
Recently, a new breed of Pentecostal churches, particularly in the Global South, has taken social service as seriously; Miller and Yamamori call them “progressive Pentecostals.” It is worth noting that such churches are increasing in the southern continents as their social contexts demand churches to provide a more proactive response to social issues. The uniqueness of the “progressive Pentecostals” is characterized by a down-to-top and “one-person-at-a-time” approach.
This second stage of Pentecostal mission has resulted in social and economic upward mobility. Many studies have focused on the correlation between one’s spiritual experience and behavior change, which inevitably creates a ripple effect from personal life to family and community life. Although there is a risk of privatization of religious experience and a self-centred or material-centred “prosperity gospel,” studies have proven the critical role of an inner or spiritual change to one’s social life and economic activities.
Pentecostals, including “progressives,” are expected to continue to push their mission envelope to include social issues of the life “this side of the heaven,” or “life before death.” Pentecostal scholars have a daunting task to provide a solid theology that is distinctly Pentecostal in various social contexts around the world.
1. Anderson, Allan. 2005. “Towards a Pentecostal Missiology for the Majority World,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 8:1, 28-47.
2. Ma, Wonsuk. 2007. “When the Poor Are Fired Up: The Role of Pneumatology in Pentecostal-Charismatic Mission,” Transformation 24:1, 28-34.
3. Miller, Donald E. and Tetsunao Yamamori. 2007. Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. Berkeley, California, USA: University of California Press.