This post is the fourth 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, People of the Book, The Option of the Poor

Most Pentecostals would see worship as the center of their experience of “life in the Spirit” but this should be understood much more broadly than regular Sunday or weekly church services. Steven J. Land, in his seminal work [1], argues quite convincingly that the gestalt of Pentecostal identity is the shared experience of Pentecostal spirituality, which includes not only the liturgy of a worship service but, more importantly, the personal and shared experience with God at many different levels. For the poor, this shared experience is of vital importance since it is infused with communal concerns for a broad range of issues and practices, most with very positive effects. These include healing practices, fasting, sacraments (sometimes expanded to include foot-washing or the use of natural elements such as water, for cleansing rituals in the case of some African Instituted Churches) smudging, or drumming circles in the case of some contextualized North American indigenous Pentecostals[2], dynamic narrative preaching, singing and drama, altar services (tarrying), street evangelism, mutual aid, spiritual retreats, testimony services, and corporate concert, and personal prayer, all-night prayer meetings (vigilias),  to name a few.

Pentecostal spirituality is so fluid and adaptable as to be easily assimilated into diverse cultural contexts, from the “cold Northlands” of Canada and Scandinavia and the more “quietist” Pentecostals there to the many “underground” small groups of believers in Vietnam, China and in some Muslim contexts across North Africa and the Middle East, and on to the “hot” tropical lowlands of the Caribbean and Latin American coastlands where Pentecostals worship to the beats of salsa, merengue, bachata, norteño, reggae, or whatever their preferred musical genre may be. Even under austere Communist rule in Romania, Pentecostals were able to adapt and even flourish although forced to practically have an unseen and unheard presence. So much so, that after Communist rule was lifted, a prohibition against applause, or the clapping or raising of hands continued in some churches, such was the extreme degree of its’ inculturation. 

The Favored Poor and Pentecostal Agency

If we consider the scope of the foundation of support that these kinds of practices provide for the poor, we may be able to begin to appreciate the meaning and value it has. Opportunities for self-expression abound. Those who are considered to be “nobodies” in this world suddenly recuperate a sense of dignity and worth as they stand together to sing, to preach, to serve as ushers, deacons, or to work with the children or young people, and to literally find themselves, their Spirit-given gifts, and their individual place of service in the wider community of church and the Kingdom of God.

In terms of pedagogy, Pentecostal educator Cheryl Bridges Johns [3] and others, have critically examined  Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed[4]and have been able to tease out some of the nuances of the more informal or non-formal way of knowing that many poor Pentecostals have most naturally used to strengthen their understanding of Scripture and the meaning of discipleship in the Christian life. In this way, Darío López also writes of the connection between Pentecostal discipleship, spirituality, and celebration in terms of the fiesta of the Spirit[5]. At best, it is jubilant and life-living experience, but also it is an alternative way of doing theology and means of shaping Pentecostals’ life in the Spirit, especially in contexts where many Pentecostal believers still have limited access to formal education. Herein lies the great value of the oral nature of primal Pentecostalism. Hollenweger wrote about the Black Oral Root of Pentecostalism but then expanded on that title and that root to include a number of global Pentecostal expressions[6]. All of this points to the favored status of the poor among Pentecostal churches that sing, shout, dance, dramatize, and preach their theology.

Practice: Healing

Since space is limited, we will mention only two or three additional issues that seem to be of universal import in the constellation of Pentecostal practices. Healing would certainly be toward the top of the list of Pentecostal praxes, and here I use the term praxis advisedly. We not only pray for the sick publicly and privately, sometimes sacramentally anointing them with oil, but we also learn to reflect critically on those experiences. What happens when someone is not healed or when someone dies of the disease from which we had prayed for their healing? Miracles do happen but certainly not always and not as frequently as we would like. The poor have looked to the Divine Healer for deliverance when they seem to have absolutely no other options and certainly no money for or access to medical help, and on many occasions, they have been healed! Other forms of healing have also been incorporated into Pentecostal practice, such as Healing Homes and more recently, medical clinics, hospitals, and other services for the poor and needy. Historical theologian, Kimberly Ervin Alexander, has contributed a well-researched volume dealing with subject of Pentecostal healing but limited primarily to the North American context[7].

Practice: Tongues

Some apparent Pentecostal distinctives that may be more difficult to comprehend are the phenomena of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and other related ecstatic experiences such as certain states of unconsciousness or, perhaps, subconsciousness, dreams, visions, physical and emotional outbursts, etc. While many North American classical Pentecostal denominations have maintained that Spirit baptism is always accompanied by glossolalia (as in the case of those Acts passages mentioned earlier), the reality in the Pentecostal rank and file is quite different. In fact, some non-North American Pentecostal groups (i.e. Chilean) have never held to this “initial evidence” doctrine while many other Pentecostal bodies around the world no longer hold, formally or informally, to this teaching. Although I am not aware of any global research or study on this issue, Pentecostal believers are made up of those who speak in tongues, some often, occasionally, or rarely, or those who never do. 

Many years ago, I remember a rather informal survey being conducted in Guatemala by one leader of the Iglesia de Dios Evangelio Completo (Cleveland, Tennessee affiliate) with the dire result (for that leader) that a low percentage of those surveyed had ever spoken in tongues. The leader then went on a campaign to promote more experiences of Spirit-baptism but I never was able to ascertain any of the exact results. However, it should be clearly stated that many Pentecostal believers do speak in tongues and many others, especially the poor, are more open to experience what they consider to be supernatural phenomena such as visions, dreams and other physical or emotional manifestations of their relationship with God through the Spirit. My experience has shown that Africans and African-American Pentecostals, and Christians in general, seem to have a cultural “predisposition” toward speaking in tongues and other “Spirit-induced” types of religious behaviors.  Many of these can be understood as means of direct communication with God in ways that sometimes bypass the “normal” processes of human reasoning through altered, or alternative, states of consciousness. Of course, these experiences are not strictly unique to Pentecostal Christians or even to Christians in general, as they have been reported or recorded on many occasions in cultures, especially non-Western ones, that are more in tune to spiritual and supernatural influences and worldviews.

Practice: Evangelization

If worship is understood to be the center of life in the Spirit for Pentecostals, then mission and evangelization would be considered to be the dynamic cutting edge of Pentecostal experience. Pentecostal churches have multiplied very rapidly throughout the 20th century, especially among the poor. Interestingly, it seems that Pentecostal churches are not now growing and expanding as rapidly in the Global North where Pentecostalism has become a more prominent feature in European and Euro-American middle- class societies. The inverse is true in the Global South where, on one hand, Pentecostal churches have retained their vibrant and passionate evangelistic zeal and, on the other, where the poor continue to flock to those churches in large numbers. This early missionary impulse of spreading the fires of Pentecost, about which Allan Anderson wrote[8], has continued to be a hallmark of the movement globally.

Some, perhaps in a triumphalistic way, would say that Pentecostalism has become the greatest missionary force in the history of Christianity. Many contemporary observers of Christianity[9] believe that Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity now represents the largest family of believers in the world after Roman Catholicism. To the extent that this may be true, it is certainly due to the huge numbers of poor that have embraced Christian faith in these churches and have become the protagonists the movement. I suppose I will never forget that in Guatemala in the late 1970s, the Iglesia de Dios Evangelio Completo was growing so rapidly and spontaneously that even the leaders (overseers, bishops) could not keep track of its expansion. Wherever peasants or indigenous believers would migrate to work in the markets or the coffee plantations, or if they were displaced or migrate to the larger cities, they would naturally share their Pentecostal faith and many times raise up village and barrio groups of believers later to be formally organized into “local churches”.

The Poor Opted for Pentecostalism

How can all of this be explained? It has perhaps become something of a simplistic quip or cliché, but the observation has been made by several authors[10] that in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, while liberation theology there developed its “preferential option for the poor”, the poor opted for the Pentecostal churches.

Samuel Escobar explains this in the following terms:

 “From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries the Roman Catholic Church provided ideological justification for a system that enslaved minorities and kept dominating elites in power. After independence in the nineteenth century, the church opposed modernizing groups who, in turn, welcomed Protestant churches with the promise of more democratic influences. The Cold War brought tensions and divisions, but also dreams of utopias. Globalization has brought painful realities to this rapidly urbanizing continent. Attempting to address the new reality, Catholic bishops at Medellin voiced “a preferential option for the poor.” Pentecostalism became the new, growing face of Protestantism in Latin America. In spite of the fact that the Catholic Church made an intentional option for the poor, the poor opted for the Pentecostal churches. A major reason for this lay in its presentation of the Christian message within the culture of poverty. The result is a movement that empowers the poor to improve their own lives. A serious weakness in this new Christianity, however, is the tendency of those adherents who gain political power to repeat earlier patterns of corruption and self-enrichment. As a consequence it fails to transform corrupt social and political structures. Catholic and Protestant Christians must come to terms with their disunity and rivalry for the sake of Christian witness[11].

Samuel Escobar

[1] See Steven J. Land’s groundbreaking work, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom. CPT Press, 2010.

[2] For theory and praxis related to the Christian/Pentecostal contextual indigenous movement in North America, see  Casey Church, Holy Smoke: The Contextual Use of Native American Ritual and Ceremony. Cherohala Press, 2017; Randy S. Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012; and Corky Alexander, Native American Pentecost: Praxis, Contextualization, Transformation. Cherohala Press, 2012.

[3] See Cheryl Bridges Johns, early work, Pentecostal Formation: A Pedagogy among the Oppressed. CPT Press,  1970.

[4] This was the mid-20th century critique of the traditional “banking” or schooling model of education as seen in the acclaimed classic, Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 2000.

[5] Futher explicated in Darío López Rodríguez’ La fiesta del Espíritu: Espiritualidad y celebración pentecostal. Ediciones Puma, 2006.

[6] See Walter Hollenweger’s expanded section on “The Oral Root of Pentecostalism”, in Pentecostalism : Origins and Developments Worldwide. Hendrikson Publishers, 1997, pp. 18-141.

[7] See Kimberly Ervin Alexander, Pentecostal Healing: Models in Theology and Practice. Deo Publishing, 2006.

[8] See Allan Anderson’s Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism. Orbis, 2007.

[9] See , for example, Philip Jenkin’s more recent work, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South.Oxford University Press, 2006, and Todd M Johnson’s “Counting Pentecostals Worldwide”, in Pneuma 36.2 (2014).

[10]Perhaps one unlikely source would be Gideon Van der Watt, “…’but the poor opted for the Evangelicals—Evangelicals, Poverity and Prosperity”, in Acta Theologica, suppl. 16 (2012).

[11] Samuel Escobar, “Latin American Christians in the New Christianity”, International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2006, pp. 579-602..

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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