High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.
The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5 percent of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every 12 people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.
The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best-known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I facilitated for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.
In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.
Certainly most speakers focused on unleashing the power of God’s Holy Spirit in the ongoing transformation of hearts and lives, and on offering spiritual encouragement for the demanding challenges of ministry. But some striking messages opened doorways into the transformation of injustices in the world.
Billy Wilson, for instance, is one of the more influential persons in the Pentecostal world, and he recently became president of Oral Roberts University. In his address, Wilson urged Pentecostals to pay attention to more than just the first four verses of Acts 2, and he went on to show how the whole chapter shows the church responding to concrete social needs. Deeply concerned with empowering a younger generation, Billy Wilson maintained that they have been “graced” with a passion for justice in the earth. These future leaders desire to do ministry that integrates this practical dimension of faith.
Among a series of workshops, I went to one focused on Pentecostalism, social engagement, and justice. There, Ivan Satyavrata, who heads an Assemblies of God ministry in Kolkata (Calcutta), India presented a talk titled, “Power to the Poor: The Pentecostal Tradition of Social Engagement.” Part of his thesis was that “the extraordinary success of the Pentecostal movement is largely due to its reach to those on the periphery of society.”
Satyavrata argued persuasively from history that early Pentecostalism had a deep, intentional social outreach embedded within its ministries. While fear of the “Social Gospel” in the twentieth century hindered theological articulation of these commitments, concrete social engagement that socially and economically empowers the marginalized is a feature of much Pentecostal ministry found around the world today. In talking with Ivan, we discovered that we had drawn on some of the same sociological studies of this question. He was delighted to get a copy of my book, and I’m sure we’ll have more contact in the future.
On the last day, Glenn Burris Jr. spoke powerfully on the theme of extending God’s mercy. Burris is President of The Foursquare Church, which has nearly 7,000 licensed ministers and congregations both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Drawing upon Isaiah 58 and Micah 6:8, Burris spoke passionately on what it means to offer God’s mercy to others, and he called for “mobilizing the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” In ending his talk, Glen Burris asked the music group to return and sing again “Hosanna,” from Hillsong, focusing on this line: “Break my heart with what breaks Yours.”
It’s this call for Spirit-filled responses to what breaks God’s heart that can propel Pentecostals into growing social engagement around issues of injustice, often experienced first hand in the lives of those on the margins of society who frequently seek God in Pentecostal congregations.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson was general secretary of the Reformed Church in America for 17 years, and has been part of Sojourners’ ministry since its inception. This blog first appeared in EerdWord. From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the non-Western Church has just been released by Eerdmans Publishing.