To get into the minds of today’s Pentecostals, visit a classroom of ministers in training, 20-somethings getting their first taste of practical ministry. Recently I posed several questions to a large group of them in one of my practicum classes: What are the changes going on among North American Pentecostal believers and Pentecostal churches today? In what ways does the new generation of Pentecostals differ from earlier generations? In what ways is it similar?
The first response was immediate. A young student named Emily said, “For years, Pentecostals had an inferiority complex. They felt as if they were the weird uncle of modern Christianity, as if they were not quite accepted by peer denominations. Today it is different. Pentecostal churches have become more accepted and now are part of mainstream Christianity. That may be good—in some ways, not so good.”
Indeed, Pentecostalism in North America has come a long way. It has moved from a faith to and of the disenfranchised to one that is recognized if not fully accepted across the board among evangelicals. From the movement’s origins among a few adherents in the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906), Pentecostalism grew to some 12 million adherents by 1970, and now incorporates some 600 million worldwide in its various expressions, a fourth of all Christendom. David Barrett’s monumental World Christian Encyclopedia states that in 1900, only seven-tenths of 1 percent of Christians were Pentecostal; today, approximately 25 percent are.
Another theme emerged in my classroom. As a student named Ross put it, “There is a new Pentecostalism emerging, a more meditative movement, a more social justice movement, more concerned about the outside of the church rather than [what goes on] inside.”
Ministry practitioners, denominational leaders, and scholars whom I have talked to have noted three prominent trends in North American Pentecostalism: a marked decrease in speaking in tongues in public worship; fresh developments in Pentecostal eschatology; and a broader engagement in compassionate ministry and social concern.
All three trends deserve comment, but I want to highlight the last trend: On numerous fronts and in an increasing number of ways, Pentecostals are engaging in compassionate ministries and social change.
A Different Kind of Awakening
“There is a huge awakening for social concern today,” says noted Pentecostal leader Jack Hayford, “especially from age 30 and down. It is profoundly present, and it is a welcomed renewal.”
But, says Hayford, this isn’t the first time Pentecostalism has seen such a groundswell of compassionate ministry. Hayford, a leader in the Foursquare Church, cites the hugely successful “commissary ministry” of Pentecostal revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson: “It touched millions during the Depression. It has significantly marked our movement. It spread over the first half of the 20th century.” McPherson’s compassionate work was carried out from the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles and through numerous “lighthouses” that sprung up across the nation.
Still, for many years North American Pentecostals were gunshy about using terms like “social concern” and “social justice.” Some feared losing a spiritual edge by embracing the “social gospel,” identified with Walter Rauschenbusch and mainline theology. Many worried that a social justice emphasis would undermine the message of salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition, some felt the idea was too politically volatile and smacked of socialism.