Saturday, July 19, 2008

Progressive Pentecostalism

I very much enjoyed reading USC sociologist of religion Donald E. Miller's Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. Miller traveled the world checking out pentecostal churches that do holistic ministry in their communities and thus make systemic differences and see social transformation. It's interesting to read Miller the objective sociologist as he comments on these powerful Jesus-like ministries. He says they have the "S Factor," by which he means the Holy Spirit.

The "S Factor" is "the acknowledgment that there may be “something more” than humanly generated activity in Pentecostalism. Perhaps Pentecostals connect, on occasion, with a reality that is not observable. Perhaps social transformation is not solely explainable by human factors.” (4)

Miller coins the term "Progressive Pentecostalism." This form of pentecostal Christianity does not stop at physical and emotional manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but understands such manifestations as a Spirit-empowerment to effect personal and social transformation.

Progressive Pentecostalism is non-political. “PPs are not trying to reform social structures or challenge government policies so much as they are attempting to build from the ground up an alternative social reality... They are teaching their members that they are made in the image of God; that all people have dignity and are equal in God’s sight; and that therefore they have rights – whether they are poor, women, or children... They are typically trying to build the Kingdom of God one person at a time.” (5)

For Miller sociological tools are not enough to fully explain what is going on in Progressive Pentecostalism. He writes: “Functional explanations do not account for the whole of religion, however valuable these theories may be in helping us to understand the role religion plays in human life. On occasion, and in some instances, the possibility exists that we are encountering something outside of ourselves. This “something more” is what Christians call God and what Pentecostals identify and interpret as being the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.” (13)

There are a growing number of PPs. They “have begin to model their behavior after a Jesus who both preached about the coming kingdom and healed people and ministered to their social needs.” (30)

These Christians differ from "Prosperity Gospel" preachers. Miller writes: “It is unlikely that churches emphasizing the Prosperity Gospel of health and wealth will be genuine agents of change within their communities. Too frequently they put most of their energy into producing crusades, tent revivals, and healing meetings and have little time left for addressing the practical social needs of members of their local community.” (31)

Throughout the book Miller provides many examples of PPs who take Jesus' words on Matthew 25 seriously and seek to live them out. The results are radical and profound. How profound? Miller writes: “In fact, we believe that Pentecostalism may potentially be a subversive political force, especially within autocratic governments that centralize authority within a single omnipotent ruler who claims a godlike status.” (34)

In PP-ism we have, arguably, the full gospel. “The assumption underlying holistic ministry is that it is important to divorce moral and spiritual needs from physical and economic needs. The two are inextricably linked.” (62) “A programmatic focus on conversion is not adequate to help people make their way out of poverty.” (63)

As Miller studied these PP churches, he saw worship leaders and pastors and people on their knees before God in prayer and in humility and in brokenness.

Miller the sociologist asked the question: “Is there a connection between this form of worship and the creation of a civil society? What if senators and presidents bowed before God the way these people were doing, confessing their sins, calling on God for help and inspiration to perform their civic duties?”

“Absent from the conversation of the Pentecostals we interviewed was therapeutic rhetoric regarding finding one’s personal path to self-realization and happiness. The notion of fulfillment was framed entirely differently. Tue happiness is to be found in following God’s will. When one’s priorities are aligned with God’s intentions, then worldly signs of success fade from insignificance.” (149)

So, instead of "my best life now" PPs follow Jesus and spend their lives in redemptive acts that bring the "least of these" out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

A final note. Current internet evangelistic atheists harangue that "religion is intrinsically evil.' Richard Dawkins has famously warned us that a parent who teaches "religion" to their child is guilty of "child abuse." Miller's study provides a powerful answer to such naivete in example and after example after example of Jesus-followers who sacrifice worldly fame and glory for the sake of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth.