Why are Pentecostals so successful at missions?
Although only just over 100 years old, the evidence of the remarkable growth of Pentecostalism is clear and mission is fundamental to that fact, writes Dr Keith Warrington.
Originally, it involved the movement of missionaries from the West, but now, Pentecostals are evangelising their own nation’s diaspora.
This ‘mission in reverse’ is resulting in Western nationals coming to Jesus as a result of the evangelism of those who represent countries that were themselves the object of missionary activity in the past. At the same time, non-Western Pentecostals are becoming more determined in their mission activity. So, Pentecostals are successful in mission – and for a number of reasons.
The commissions of Jesus
Firstly, Pentecostals take seriously the commissions of Jesus where he commanded his disciples to evangelise the world.
Because of the assumption that this mandate of mission was to be accompanied by the power that was available to Jesus in his mission, there has been a similar expectation of success.
The role of the Holy Spirit
Pentecostals believe that the Spirit is an empowering resource. Many non-Pentecostal missionaries had limited expectations to see the Spirit working supernaturally in their mission activities and instead focused, very beneficially, on medical and educational institutions as well as church planting. However, Pentecostal missionaries anticipated supernatural healing and were also aware of the role of the demonic.
Often, evangelical missionaries condemned animistic practices but failed to offer an alternative way of dealing with people’s problems in order to fill the vacuum left behind after animistic practices had been abandoned. Pentecostals, because of their awareness of the dynamic Spirit, exhibited a confidence sometimes lacking in non-Pentecostals, which was effective in overcoming any sense of inadequacy and powerlessness felt by new believers who had left behind their previous practices and beliefs.
Signs and wonders are anticipated by Pentecostals in mission, enabling them to present the supremacy of Jesus powerfully and authenticate the gospel. Healing and exorcism are often important elements of their evangelism, resulting in significant numbers of people coming to Jesus as they witness the reality of God in their midst.
This has opened the doors to the gospel especially where medical aid is limited. Pentecostal evangelism is, at best, supernatural evangelism.
A theology without the presence of the dynamic Spirit can become rationalistic and not expectant of the miraculous; it can be blind to the supernatural, be it good or evil. Pentecostals who combine a biblical framework with an appreciation of the role of the Spirit can provide a more appropriate context for discerning supernatural phenomena whilst also anticipating divinely inspired manifestations of the Spirit.
The worldview of Pentecostals was (and still is) similar to those to whom the gospel was/is presented. The emphasis on supernatural phenomena has meant that Pentecostals have been more aware of the emphasis on the spirit world in many societies in which they have ministered.
Because Pentecostals are aware of supernatural phenomena, they are often better placed to engage with people who have similar worldviews.
Early non-Pentecostal missionaries to Africa taught that beliefs in spirit forces were merely superstitious while, at the same time, they identified the devil and demons as being the forces behind such phenomena. This had the effect of strengthening the beliefs of the people in the potency of these evil forces but did not offer an alternative that would offer protection from them. The concept of a ‘power encounter’ is familiar to Pentecostals and pagans alike, and Pentecostal missionaries must never lose that emphasis.
The place of experience in the non-Western world is also foundational to Pentecostal spirituality. Pentecostals assume that authentic spirituality has an experiential dimension, and this is present in their evangelism and worship which is often dynamic and exuberant.
The spontaneity of Pentecostal worship, with its emphasis on oral expressions of praise and dynamic preaching, has resulted in Pentecostalism more easily being accommodated into a range of different settings than a more liturgically based spirituality might allow.
Similarly, the Pentecostal emphasis on encouraging all participants to engage with God personally has further enhanced the attractiveness of Pentecostal spirituality. However, this also poses a great danger in that experience as the determinator of authentic spirituality can lead to vacuous faith.
However, at best, the emphasis on the possibility of an experience with God that will touch the emotions of people is powerful. Consequently, the place of personal testimony and the presentation of the gospel in popular language including narrative and story, appealing to the emotions as well as the mind, are important features.
A theology of power, where success is always assumed, needs to be balanced by a theology of weakness, best reflected in the cross. The excesses of the prosperity gospel, the phenomenon of the mega-star leader and overly triumphalistic spirituality are issues to be guarded against. Pentecostals need to guard against offering a style of worship that encourages immediate gratification.
The experiential nature of Pentecostal mission, especially in the past, has resulted in an absence of a clear theology of mission. This needs attention with an emphasis on developing training programmes that include the major components of the Spirit and the Bible in order that churches might mature.
At the same time, there is a danger that in training leaders, training centres may become formal instead of dynamic, and the training and the teachers may be more concerned with orthodoxy rather than openness to the Spirit. Encountering God in the training process is of central importance.
There is a need to ensure that ‘power encounters’ must be associated with ‘truth encounters’ in which the initial reception to the greater power of Jesus is developed into a committed allegiance to Jesus, categorised by personal spiritual and ethical transformation. Similarly, issues like healing and exorcism need careful reflection. Not all disorder is demonic and not all illnesses will result in healing.
The reasons for the latter are often not due to a lack of faith nor lack of prayer nor are they the work of the devil – the will of God is the priority and that differs from person to person.
Pentecostals have much to offer in mission – they need to learn from their history and take advantage of their strengths.
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