Pentecostalism: Why Evangelicals Should Pay Attention

I wrote this little peace for a missiology class I took and I got pretty good feedback. I thought I would paste it hear to see what you all think. I’m considering taking this a step further, doing a through synthesis of the Pentecostal contribution to modern Christianity and the Missio Dei. *Note: it is lengthy.


As I have spent time at a largely reformed, Presbyterian seminary, I have often heard individuals speak rather negatively about the Pentecostal charismatic movement. The backlash is usually directed at the movement’s theological framework, and as a result the movement as a whole is easily dismissed. With over 523 million reported Pentecostal/charismatic believers, this movement is something that deserves legitimate consideration.[1] The intent of this paper is not to give an apologetic for the theological framework for the Pentecostal movement, but to appreciate the theology of mission that is so very present in this movement. William Seymour, leader of the Azusa Street Mission and perhaps the founder of the modern day Pentecostal movement, said these words that are at the very heart of Pentecostal missions, “Do not go from this meeting and talk about tongues, but try to get people saved”.[2] As I have come to understand, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement was not so much of a new theological endeavor (although there was new theological developments associated with the movement), it was widely a missionary endeavor. The call to missions that these people who had undergone a “baptism of the Spirit” was phenomenal. In this essay, I hope to explain and distinguish between the Missio Dei (the mission of God) and Pentecostal missions borrowing from Bosch, Jennings, and Fee, moving on to discuss Pentecostal mission theology, and how in light of the paradigm shifts, we should respond as evangelicals (reformed or otherwise) to the movement of God through these missions.

 2.       Mission and Missions

David Bosch writes, “Mission is God’s turning to the world in respect of creation, care, redemption, and consummation. Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the Church is viewed as an instrument for that mission”. [3] This is Missio Dei truncated. God the Almighty One, Father of all creation set his son as coroneted King over all things, who will lead his people (the Israelites) in a mission that will not only have a lasting effect on the people (Jew and Gentile), but all of creation (global mission).  As we read through the OT, especially the prophets, we can easily see how the Messiah ushers in this new move of global mission. Global mission from the beginning of creation, has always been God’s purpose and plan, however limited to Israel it might have seemed. Israel was the chosen people. They were supposed to be representatives, images of God to the world, so that the nations of the earth might come to the full knowledge of the Almighty God.  Israel led, now Christ leads. Gordon Fee writes, “Our global mission, therefore is deeply woven into the biblical understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection for all people, as that understanding is rooted first of all in the teaching of Jesus himself. His giving his own life “for many” means for the “great and numberless many”, who will hear it as good news and respond with repentance. The proclamation of that good news, of course, is what the ongoing mission of the church is all about”.[4]  This has great implications to the missions of the Pentecostal movement.

Where mission is a global move of God through the church, missions is specific to how the church responds to God’s mission.[5] It is the actions- the doing that believers do knowing that we (gentiles) have now been included as participants in God’s mission with Jesus at the helm of the ship. The Pentecostal movement certainly understood this. From the very beginning, when the “fire first fell” from the Azusa Street Mission, Pentecostalism has been identified in relationship to missions.

 3.       Pentecostal Missions

The historical paradigm of Pentecostal missions is summed up in Seymour’s quote, “Try to get people saved”. William Seymour, a black holiness preacher is often accredited to the modern development of Pentecostalism. However most historians, including Vinson Synan, notes that Seymour was trained under the direction of Charles Parham who founded Bethel Bible School in Topeka, KS. It was Parham who first developed the theological argument that the tongues were the initial evidence of being baptized in the Spirit.[6] Seymour became a student of Parham, and adopted his theology carrying it eventually to Los Angeles. Parham, and subsequently Seymour (for a time), taught that the tongue was a known language, unknown to the speaker who was filled with the Holy Spirit.

For Parham, and initially Seymour, this theological distinction had great implications to global missions. Now people could go do global mission and not take the time to learn languages or cultures, because the Holy Spirit would give them the language they needed to use. Synan writes of one of Parham’s worship services, “during these meetings, the students [of Bethel Bible School] spoke in twenty-one known languages, including Swedish, Russian, Bulgarian, Japanese, Norwegian, French, Hungarian, Italian, and Spanish. According to Parham, none of his students had studied any of these languages and they were all confirmed by authentic speakers”.[7] Now there are obviously some theological and practical issues related to this. However, as I said, I am not writing to defend a theology, but we must appreciate this. Seymour embraced this idea. It is reported that missionaries we sent away in masses, some in less than a few minutes from receiving their credentials and confirmation from Seymour and his other elders.

Cecil M. Robeck writes a wonderfully eloquent book regarding the specifics of global missions in various countries that these missionaries were sent to, and how the fire of God fell on the people there. Unfortunately, I don’t have the room to dive into the rich historical global missions that the Pentecostal movement has experienced. But suffice it to say, God’s hand was certainly upon the movement.[8]

4.       Mission Theology

There is something very good about the Pentecostal movement. It is the largest protestant denomination in the world, yet most evangelical don’t consider it a significant movement. What is God doing? I think the answer can be found examining the movement’s mission theology. The Pentecostal theology of mission has centered around three fundamental aspects: the centrality of the Word and Spirit, Pentecostal eschatology (urgency), and the Pentecostal sense of destiny.

Author after author emphasize the Spirit’s work of empowerment to do evangelism. It is the driving force, the motivation for doing evangelistic work. Pentecostals are so deeply committed to the teaching found in Acts. God has really poured out his Spirit and given believers the power to go into the world and preach the gospel. Evangelism is the central musicological thrust.[9] We should not miss the rich implications here. To say that one is committed to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those it is poured entails “the antecedent commitment to Jesus’ work in inaugurating the kingdom”.[10] A Spirit empowered mission perpetuates Jesus’ mission. This is a very good thing!

This takes us right in to the next aspect- eschatology. Jesus Christ has ushered in his eschatological kingdom, though not fully revealed yet. As members of the church- people who have been privileged to serve in God’s global mission- we have a responsibility to the eschatological kingdom. “From an eschatological perspective, the mission of the church is to witness to the truth that the kingdom of God which still belongs to the future has broken into the present age in Jesus Christ and continues into the world through the Holy Spirit”.[11] In light of this, Pentecostal mission theology says we should live in a certain way. In a kingdom where God reigns, all normative moral structures are changed. Shalom is established. We live in a new redemptive society where enemies become brothers, strangers become neighbors, injustice gets rectified, etc. “Radical strategy” was the term used to identify early Pentecostal mission activity. Pentecostal’s urgency regarding the coming of the eschaton resulted in them favoring the use of kerygmatic proclamation (preaching), and church planting as strategic missions focus. The idea was, by the Holy Spirit, to establish churches were people will be saved through gospel proclamation and experience the shalom of God before Jesus returns.

Out of the three points given, I think I may have the hardest time with this last one regarding divine destiny. The final point to Pentecostal mission theology is God’s divine appointment. Many early Pentecostal would agree that the movement was no ordinary movement, but it was called forth by a divine appointment from God. They saw themselves as God’s instrument to the world, a special group. Having such close theological connection to the early believers of Acts, they believed they were the climax of two thousand years of Church history. This sense of destiny, as one writer writes, “Filled them with an assurance that overcame persecution and early rejection”.[12] This is a good thing, I suppose. It always kept the motivation and progress moving forward. These things sort of shaped the early theology of mission, and as a result established a paradigm that would last for nearly 100 years.

5.       A New Paradigm Shift

We are now entering into the second millennium of the Pentecostal movement. Some things have changed, as a result, in recent years. What should be most obvious is the whole idea of eschatological urgency that shaped the early years of the movement has now begun to fade. Without that urgency to “get people saved”, what happens? In recent years, the movement has moved to globalization. With the center of the Christian church now moving to the southern hemisphere in the indigenous, and the southern world (third world), issues regarding political participation, citizenship, gender relations, and economic morality, are now on the radar of the Pentecostal movement. Social justice concerns and compassionate ministries are now sweeping across all of Pentecostalism.

As I mentioned, there is a special influx of social concern happening in the southern hemisphere- Latin America, Brazil, and Chile. Pentecostal missions are responsible for reforming education and agribusiness (business of agricultural production) in and around Latin America, and they have really highlighted for the world the disenfranchised communities of these countries.[13]   While there is lots of activity in the southern world, North America has had its fair share of Pentecostal social concern. Two of the largest evangelistic movements that America has seen in years have been spearheaded by Pentecostal groups. Convoy of Hope, based in Springfield MO, and the Dream Center Movement out of Los Angeles are headed by Pentecostals. Convoy of Hope, according to Christianity Today, has served over 43 million people in more than 100 countries, and given away over $227 million in food and needed supplies. “This movement has joined forces with churches, businesses, and government agencies to carry out the Convoy mission”.[14] Over 88,000 children receive assistance from Convoy’s feeding initiatives in El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. Convoy of Hope is also considered a reliable “first responder” organization in disaster relief efforts. Convoy has responded to the recent natural disasters in Japan, Missouri, and Alabama.

The Dream Center is a Los Angeles based movement that is driven by volunteers to provide mobile hunger relief and medical programs, residential rehabilitation programs for teens and adults, a shelter for victims of human trafficking, transitional housing for homeless families, foster care intervention programs, job skills training, life skills counseling, basic education, and Bible studies just to name a few. St. Louis is blessed to have an independently operated Dream Center in our community! All of this was a result of the social concern of the Pentecostal movement.

In recent year, the demographic of Pentecostalism is changing studies show that by year 2050, the minority community (African American, Hispanic, and Asian) will become the new majority in western Pentecostalism. With the changing ethnicities, we get different concerns. The priorities of the ethnic Pentecostal community are issues of life, biblical marriage, education, sex trafficking, immigration reform, poverty alleviation- these things matter!

6.       Why Should We Pay Attention?

It is obvious that God has his hand upon this movement. It would be sinful, and at the very least ignorant to write this movement off as something that should never have happened. In God’s sovereignty, he has allowed it to exist and it is clear that it is impacting the world in a mighty way. No other movement has been as successful at evangelism to the unchurched as the Pentecostal movement. As far as I am concerned, they are participating in the Missio Dei as God has designated them to. What are we to do? I’m not calling for a conversion to Pentecostalism. But I am calling for evangelical to see Pentecostal theology with a missiological hermeneutic. I think that is initially how it was intended, however far it has gotten off track in recent study. Let us come along side of our charismatic brothers and sisters, knowing that God uses other vessels, but his one mission is always sure. And let us rejoice, always looking to Jesus, knowing that he has chosen us, and our feeble missions, to advance his global mission.

[1] Lord, Andy. Network Church a Pentecostal Ecclesiology Shaped by Mission. Leiden: BRILL, 2012. Print.

[2] McClung, Grant. Azusa Street & Beyond. 2nd ed. Alachua, Fla.: Bridge-Logos, 2012. Print.

[3] Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming mission: paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991. Print.

[4] Fee, Gordon. Called & empowered: global mission in Pentecostal perspective. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991. Print.

[5] J Nelson Jennings, God the Real Superpower (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2007), 19.

[6] Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901-2001 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 43.

[7] Ibid. 44

[8] See Cecil M. Robeck and Jr, The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: the Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), for a more in-depth look at the history of global mission as it relates to respective areas of the world.

[9] Anderson, Allen, Azusa Street and Beyond (Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2005), 173-174.

[10] Murray W. Dempster, Called and Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective, Reprint ed. (Peabody, MA: Baker Academic, 1991), 23.

[11] Ibid. 24

[12] McClung, Grant, Azusa Street and Beyond (Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2005), 84.

[13] Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: the New Face of Christian Social Engagement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[14] Crosby, Robert. A New Kind of Pentecostal. Christianity Today, August 2011, Vol. 55, No. 8, Pg. 50

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