This post is the second entry in a series by Dr. Rick Waldrop. In this series he explores the relationship between Pentecostalism and the global poor. New posts every Friday! Series Links: First Things, History and Contexts

From the multifaceted, multinational and multicultural genesis of the distinct but oftentimes related Pentecostal revivals around the turn of the 20th century, historical data, without a doubt, will prove a clear intimate relationship between the poor and the emerging Pentecostal movements. There are so many examples that we will have to be very selective. I would want to be cautious, however, in making a claim that the relationship between Pentecostals and the poor is strictly exclusive of other socio-economic classes of people who may not fit neatly into those we describe as impoverished.

For example, history is quite clear that there have always been those of other classes who have joined or come to be a part of the movement from other Christian traditions, or who were converted to Christian faith from other social classes. These records show that at times these ministers from other established churches or denominations would come into the Pentecostal movement as a result of their own experience of Spirit baptism. And with the ongoing development of the movement, especially the Global North, Pentecostal churches have grown and become quite comfortable—too comfortable some would say—among the middle and upper classes of Europe and North America, and to a lesser degree on other continents.

Pentecostalism Among the Global Masses

In any case, the argument can be made, with clear statistical support, that the majority of Pentecostals are still poor in the Majority World where the vast majority of Pentecostals reside today. That would mean that, globally, Pentecostals are strongest among the impoverished masses. In other words, the majority of Pentecostals today are poor. One North American researcher, Philip Jenkins states it as follows: “African and Latin American Christians are people for whom the New Testament Beatitudes have a direct relevance inconceivable for most Christians in Northern societies. When Jesus told the ‘poor’ they were blessed, the word used does not imply relative deprivation, it means total poverty, or destitution. The great majority of Southern Christians (and increasingly of all Christians) really are the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, even the dehumanized. India has a perfect translation for Jesus’ word in the term Dalit, literally “crushed” or “oppressed”[1].

In Latin America, according to Mexican Pentecostal historian, Daniel Chiquete[2], the first adherents of the Pentecostal movement lived, with their contemporary counterparts, the shared situations of sickness, unemployment, illiteracy, and lack of housing. This condition of material poverty seemed to be the common denominator among most or all Pentecostals in the early and subsequent stages of its development.

Although I am not as familiar with Pentecostalism on other continents, I believe that Latin America, more than any other place, has been where larger numbers of Pentecostals have come to terms consciously with their privileged place among the poor. One continental collective of national Pentecostal leaders, CEPLA (Comisión Evangélica Pentecostal Latinoamericana), was very active during the late 1900s in organizing a series of “Encounters” (Encuentros) dealing with a variety of issues directly relating to Pentecostal commitment to and with the poor. The result of one such encounter was an edited volume, in English, Pentecostalism and Liberation: A Latin American Experience[3]. Other Pentecostal denominations such as the Church of God and the Assemblies of God, in their various national or regional groupings, have also intentionally tried to come to terms with the meaning of their relationship and praxis among the poor. For example, in December, 1985, the Latin American educational leadership of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) organized a consultation in Puerto Rico to discuss the import of “Liberation Theology” for the work of the churches. The findings of this consultation were published by the Centro Evangélico Latinoamericano de Estudios Pastorales (CELEP) in their journal PASTORALIA[4].  More recently, other mature Pentecostal voices, mostly from Latin America[5] have joined the chorus of pastors, educators and denominational leaders, all showing the way forward toward a renewed understanding and commitment of the Pentecostal churches as seeing themselves as communities among, with, of, for and by the poor.

In reference to the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles (1906-1913), Pentecostal historian, Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., writes that an “important aspect of the Azusa Street Mission and revival is that it continues to serve as an example for its outreach to the marginalized—the poor, women, and people of color”… and that “[o]ne of Pastor Seymour’s favorite biblical texts was Luke 4:18-19”[6]. William Seymour (1870-1922) was the African-American leader of the Azusa Street revival. According to one chronicler[7], Seymour was born in Louisiana, the oldest son of ex-slaves, and lived in abject poverty. Left with one eye and a scared face as a result of a childhood illness, he nevertheless rose to prominence as the founder and catalyst of the U.S. based Pentecostal movement with unparalleled global missionary influence.

Similar stories of poverty can be told of other branches of U.S. Pentecostalism, especially in the Appalachian South, where the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) was birthed among poor white farmers and marginalized mountain folk[8].

According to scholars, Ogbu Kalu and Allan Anderson[9], African Pentecostalism is so heterogeneous so that it is impossible to contain it within rigid conventional definitions. However, poverty is the constant reality of life more so than on any other continent. It is in this context of extreme poverty that Pentecostal or Pentecostal-like churches have flourished. Anderson attributes the growth of these churches, in part, to their ability to “fulfill African aspirations, with roots in a marginalized and underprivileged society struggling to find dignity and identity in the face of brutal colonialism and oppression”[10]. Today, Africa represents the continent where Christian churches are both the largest numerically and the poorest. According to Anderson and others, in most countries of Africa, Pentecostal churches represent the majority of  Protestant Christians.

Asian Pentecostals are extremely culturally and contextually diverse as well. From Chinese house churches, Indian churches of the urban slums or of Dalit origins in Kerala, to Korean and Indonesian megachurches, the complexity of Pentecostalism is truly mind-boggling. From India comes a new volumeby Ivan Satyavrata[11] in which he chronicles what he calls “the Pentecostal tradition of social engagement”, taking his cue from Miller and Yamamori’s edited volume [12]. Satyavrata’s argument is that Indian Pentecostalism has a long history of engagement with the poor beginning with its indigenous roots in the Mukti Mission led by social reformer, Pandita Ramabai, and Minnie Abrams followed later by a Pentecostal revival movement in Kolkata led by missionaries, Alfred and Lilian Garr, from the Azusa Street mission. Here, Allan Anderson sheds additional light: “Pentecostals in various parts of the world have always had various programs of social action, ever since the involvement of Ramabai’s Mukti Mission in India in the early 1900s or the work of Lilian Thrasher among orphans in Egypt from 1911. Early Pentecostals were involved in socio-political criticism, including opposition to war, capitalism and racial discrimination. African American Pentecostals have been in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Throughout the world today Pentecostals are involved in practical ways caring for the poor and the destitute, those often “unwanted” by the larger society” [13].

Pentecostal Reduction

With the above rather “optimistic” overview of the organic, symbiotic, and dynamic relationship between Pentecostals and the poor, it is also necessary to point out some glaring exceptions and  inadequacies. First, as a Pentecostal missionary from North America, I must clearly state that, as a general rule, the gospel taken from the North to the rest of the world has too often been limited in scope to the spiritual dimension of human existence. This truncated version of the gospel was given to and accepted by U.S. Pentecostals around the mid 1900s from our Fundamentalist counterparts who had fought to keep the gospel pure from “liberal” and “modernist” influences, as they understood it, earlier in the century. For one reason or another—perhaps due to the need for ecclesiastical and theological acceptability at the time— most Pentecostals in the U.S. bought into the Fundamentialist narrative and, together with the strange bedfellow of Dispensational eschatology, Pentecostal mission from North America was reduced primarily to “preaching the gospel and saving souls to go to heaven”[14]. In this way, all but the most basic kinds of social service were frowned upon if not dismissed or prohibited. This was true in the case of most North American Pentecostal mission boards with few notable exceptions.

It must also be said that, in the worst of cases, North American missionaries and mission boards (Pentecostals and others) have been imperialistic in terms of their culture and politics as they have historically and uncritically sided with the policies of the U.S. government. In the case of Latin America, as in other places, by the 1960s through the 1980s the specter of Communism and Liberation Theology was being taunted by U.S.-based missionaries as an excuse for further prohibiting more advanced kinds of social service, especially those of the more activist or politically-engaged varieties. This set the stage for conflict between national Pentecostal churches, missionaries, North American denominations and sending agencies. Many national Pentecostal churches came out solidly in favor the more wholistic understanding of mission even when it necessitated a rupture with the North American organizations representing paternalistic mission models and practices. Thankfully, many of us survived the conflicts with a few wounds and scars to prove it[15] and now we are attempting to move into an era of increased understanding and acceptance of the integrity of mission with the clear conviction of God’s special love for the poor—even as many North American Pentecostal churches struggle to maintain their identity over against the prevailing influences of nationalism and neoliberal capitalism under the political pressures exerted by the so-called Religious Right and exacerbated further by the policies of the administration of President Donald Trump.

From these historical and contextual points of reference we will now move to some key theological emphasis that ungird the relationship between Pentecostals and the poor.

[1] Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press,  2002, p. 216.

[2] See Daniel Chiquete, Escritos a tiempo y fuera de tiempo: Sobre espiritualidad, Bíblia y cultura en vísperas del primer centenario del pentecostalismo. CEEP Ediciones, 2008, p. 33.

[3] See Carmelo Álvarez, ed., Pentecostalismo y liberación: Una experiencia latinoamericana. Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones, 1992.

[4] Centro Evangélico de Estudios Pastorales, Pastoralia: Pentecostalismo y teología de la liberación 7 (1985).

[5] For example, see Darío López Rodríguez’ signature titles (mostly in Spanish), such as Pentecostalismo y misión integral: Teología del Espíritu, teología de la vida (Pentecostalism and Integral Mission: Theology of the Spirit, Theology of Life) Ediciones Puma, 2008 and La propuesta política del reino de Dios: Estudios bíblicos sobre iglesia, sociedad y estado (The Political Proposal of the Reign of God: Biblical Studies on Church, Society and State), Ediciones Puma, 2009; Néstor Medina and Sammy Alfaro, eds., Pentecostals and Charismatics in Latin America and Latino Communities. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015;  David Mesquiati de Oliveira, org. Pentecostalismos e transformação social (Pentecostalisms and Social Transformation). Red Latinoamericana de Estudios Pentecostales,  2013; Douglas Petersen, Not by Might, nor by Power: A Pentecostal Theology of Social Concern in Latin America. Regnum, 1996. 

[6] See Cecil M. Roebeck, Jr., The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement. Thomas Nelson, 2006, p. 13.

[7] See Rufous G.W. Sanders, William Joseph Seymour: Black Father of the 20th Century Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement. Xulon Press, 2003.

[8] For example, see R.C. Robins, A.J. Tomilson: Plainsfolk Modernist. Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 33-34.

[9] See Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008 and Allan Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[10] Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, p. 122.

[11] See Ivan Satvayrata, Pentecostals and the Poor: Reflections from the Indian Context. Asia Pacific Theological Seminary Press, 2017. pp. 2-18.

[12] Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. University of California Press, 2007.

[13] Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, 276-277.

[14] For an excellent critical analysis this topic, see Cheryl Bridges Johns’ 1993 presidential address to the Society of Pentecostal Studies, published as “The Adolescence of Pentecostalism: In Search of a Legitimate Sectarian Identity”, in Pnuema 17 (1995), pp. 3-17.

[15] See Rodney A. Coeller’s Ph.D. dissertation (American University, 2012), Beyond the Borders: Radicalized Evangelical Missionaries in Central America from the 1950s through the 1980s, in which he chronicles the conflictive nature of the relationships between North American evangelical missionary sending agencies and seven related missionary couples, including parts of my history with Church of God World Missions.

Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.

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Rick Waldrop

Author: Rick Waldrop

Dr. Richard E. Waldrop and his wife, Janice M. Waldrop, have served as career missionaries and educators with the Church of God (Cleveland) World Missions. They have served for 40 years (1976-2016) at different posts in five countries, including Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador and the USA. Today, they lead the Shalom Project, an organization aimed at providing holistic mission education and empowerment.

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[…] between Pentecostalism and the global poor. New posts every Friday! Series Links: First Things, History and Contexts, People of the Book, The Option of the Poor, Social Action, Challenges and […]


[…] explores the relationship between Pentecostalism and the global poor. Series Links: First Things, History and Contexts, People of the Book, The Option of the Poor, Social Action, Challenges and Developments, Final […]