THE PENTECOSTAL GOSPEL AND THIRD WORLD CULTURES

by

Dr Allan H Anderson

School of Mission and World Christianity

Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham B29 6LQ, England

 

           Orality, Gospel and Pentecostal Identity

The expansion of the Pentecostal “full gospel” in the 20th Century can be attributed, at least partially, to cultural factors, such as the movement’s roots in African-based slave religion in the United States. Walter Hollenweger sees the “oral structures” of the origins of Pentecostalism, like Christianity itself, to be the reason for its initial growth, and not in any “particular Pentecostal doctrine”, presumably like “initial evidence”. He sees the characteristics of these African American structures to be oral liturgy, narrative theology and witness, reconciliatory and participant community, the inclusion of visions and dreams in worship, and understanding the relationship between the body and the mind revealed in healing by prayer and liturgical dance.[1] These are predominantly cultural features, which were evident in the leadership of William Joseph Seymour, whose “spirituality lay in his past”, and whose Pentecostal experience meant more than mere speaking in tongues, and included loving in the face of hateful racism. For Hollenweger, the debate about the choice of founding father “is not an historical but a theological one”. Charles F Parham represents a “narrow ideology” and an emphasis on “the religious experience of speaking in tongues”, whereas Seymour represents “the reconciling Pentecostal experience” and “a congregation where everybody is a potential contributor to the liturgy”. Seymour’s Pentecostalism is “the oral missionary movement, with spiritual power to overcome racism and chauvinism”.[2] Hollenweger elaborates on these oral structures in Pentecostal music and liturgy, pointing out that spontaneity and enthusiasm, rather than leading to an absence of liturgy, produce flexible oral liturgies memorised by the Pentecostal congregation. The most important element of these liturgies is “the active participation of every member in the congregation”.[3] Pentecostal liturgy has social and revolutionary implications, in that it empowers marginalised people. It takes as acceptable what ordinary people have in the worship of God and thus overcomes “the real barriers of race, social status, and education”.[4]

Hollenweger’s insights demonstrate that the influence of the Azusa Street revival upon early Pentecostalism, and the Pentecostal emphasis on “freedom in the Spirit” rendered the movement inherently flexible in different cultural and social contexts. All this made the transplanting of its central tenets in the Third World more easily assimilated. The “dynamic expansion of Chilean Pentecostalism”, writes Juan Sepúlveda, is to be found in its ability “to translate the Protestant message into the forms of expression of the local popular culture”.[5] Harvey Cox declares that “the great strength of the pentecostal impulse” lies in “its power to combine, its aptitude for the language, the music, the cultural artefacts, the religious tropes... of the setting in which it lives”.[6] This was quite different from the prevailing mission ethos. Many older missionary churches arose in western contexts of set liturgies, theologies, highly educated and professional clergy, and patterns of church structures and leadership with strongly centralised control. This often contributed to the feeling in the Third World that these churches were “foreign”, and that people first had to become Westerners before becoming Christians. In contrast, the Pentecostal emphasis on immediate personal experience of God’s power by his Spirit was more intuitive and emotional, and it recognised charismatic leadership and indigenous church patterns wherever they arose. In most cases, leadership was not kept long in the hands of western missionaries, and the proportion of missionaries to church members was usually much lower than that of older missions. Preaching a message that promised solutions for present felt needs like sickness and the fear of evil spirits, Pentecostal missionaries (who were most often local people) were heeded and their “full gospel” readily accepted by ordinary people. Churches were rapidly planted in indigenous cultures, and each culture took on its own different expression of Pentecostalism. Sepúlveda’s analysis of Chilean Pentecostalism suggests a “broader definition” of the term “Pentecostal” based on the spiritual freedom of Pentecostal pneumatology that emphasises its ability to “incarnate” the gospel in different cultural forms. This contrasts with the white US American classical Pentecostal fixed and limited definition, which differs from Chilean Pentecostalism on several significant fronts.[7] Similarly, the African Indigenous Churches are mostly churches of a pentecostal type that have contextualised and indigenised Christianity in Africa. They are “the African expression of the worldwide pentecostal movement” because of both their Pentecostal style and their origins.[8] Pentecostalism in East Asia too is clearly quite different from western “classical” Pentecostalism. The debate about the meaning of “Pentecostal” and “Pentecostalism” must surely take into account that it is a definition that cannot easily be prescribed. The term “pentecostal” can refer to a wide variety of movements scattered throughout the world, ranging from the fundamentalist and white middle class “mega-churches” to indigenous movements in the Third World that have so adapted to their cultural and religious contexts that some western Pentecostals doubt their qualifications as “Christian”, never mind “Pentecostal”. Gary McGee speaks of those whose “classification garners together a bewildering array of indigenous churches reflecting varying degrees of syncretism along with classical Pentecostal and Charismatic constituencies” and who are “loading the terms … with this much diversity”. He implies that such groups as Zionists in Southern Africa, Kimbanguists in Central Africa and Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad should not be termed ‘pentecostal’ at all.[9] It is clear that McGee’s reluctance to broaden the definition stems from his identification of the classical Pentecostal movement with North American conservative evangelicalism. Robert Mapes Anderson has pointed out that whereas classical Pentecostals in North America usually define themselves in terms of the doctrine of “initial evidence”, the pentecostal movement is more correctly seen in a much broader context as a movement concerned primarily with the experience of the working of the Holy Spirit and the practice of spiritual gifts.[10] I have also argued elsewhere for the inclusion of African “pentecostal-type” churches as genuinely pentecostal movements,[11] and the same could be argued for many indigenous Pentecostal churches all over the Third World. In Third World Pentecostalism, experience and practice are usually far more important than dogma. Pentecostalism today is in any case both fundamentally and dominantly a Third World phenomenon. In spite of its significant growth in North America, less than a quarter of its members in the world today are white, and this proportion continues to decrease.[12]

 

Indigenisation and Melvin L Hodges

Indigenisation has been a principle hotly debated and little understood. Sometimes an attempt is made by well-meaning foreign missionaries to create a “supra cultural” or “universal” church which in reality is a glorification of the missionaries’ own culture. The “gospel” is therefore confused with “culture”, it has been “colonialised” and a spurious “Christian culture” is offered in place of a genuine Christian message. One of the outstanding features of Pentecostals in the Third World is their religious creativity and spontaneously indigenous character, a characteristic held as an ideal by western missions for over a century. The “three self” formula for indigenisation was automatically and effortlessly achieved by many Pentecostal movements long before this goal was realised by older western mission churches. Melvin L Hodges, former US Assemblies of God missionary in Central America, was able to chronicle that fact in a remarkable way. Hodges wrote The Indigenous Church in 1953, probably the only one of its kind in Pentecostal circles at the time. In this widely influential book written for fellow Assemblies of God missionaries, Hodges articulated what had always been at the heart of Pentecostal growth in different cultural contexts. He said that the aim of all mission activity was to build an “indigenous New Testament church” that followed “New Testament methods”. He said that the church itself (and not the evangelist) was “God’s agent for evangelism”, and that the role of the cross-cultural missionary was to ensure that a church became self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. [13] He thus enthusiastically embraced and enlarged Anderson and Venn’s “three self” policy of church planting, the main theme of his book, but he also introduced an emphasis on indigenisation that was lacking in earlier works on the subject. The foundation for this to happen was the Holy Spirit:

There is no place on earth where, if the gospel seed be properly planted, it will not produce an indigenous church. The Holy Spirit can work in one country as well as in another. To proceed on the assumption that the infant church in any  land must always be cared for and provided for by the mother mission is an unconscious insult to the people that we endeavour to serve, and is evidence of a lack of faith in God and in the power of the gospel.[14]

This was really prophetic talk in the early fifties, and has had a profound impact on the growth of the Assemblies of God ever since. But churches are not guaranteed to become really indigenous by attaining “three selfhood”, unless the “three selfs” are no longer patterned on foreign forms of being church and unless those churches are grounded in the thought patterns and symbolism of the popular culture.

Hodges pointed out that early pentecostal preachers in the United States were “every day laborers” to whom God gave “ministries and gifts of the Spirit”, and he asks poignantly:  “Do we disbelieve in His power to work in this manner among other races and in other lands?”.[15] Hodges’ unique Pentecostal perspective stated that “New Testament methods” is ineffective without “New Testament power”. The foundation for Pentecostal mission and the reason for its continued expansion is the “personal filling of the Holy Spirit” who gives gifts of ministry to untold thousands of indigenous “common people”, creating active, vibrantly expanding and indigenous churches all over the world.[16]

Through this commitment to indigenisation, says José Míguez Bonino, Pentecostals have “tuned in with the language, concerns and hopes of the people”. But he points out that the fact of present-day globalisation means that international missionaries are in danger of carrying the “transnational” mentality (encouraged in some mission schools) and of remaining “foreign to a deeper indigenization”. This is dangerous because “it may subordinate the spontaneous, outgoing, dynamic force of the people of God to the strategies of those who know and can or think and do”.

 

Culture and Proclamation

One significant historical fact may have eluded Hodges’ far-reaching insights, and that is that thriving Pentecostal “indigenous churches” were established in many parts of the Third World without the help of “foreign missionaries” at all. These churches were founded in innovative mission initiatives unprecedented in the history of mission, motivated by a compelling need to preach and even more significantly, to experience a new message of the power of the Spirit. Harvey Cox suggests two vitally important and underlying factors, that “for any religion to grow in today’s world it must possess two capabilities”. First, “it must be able to include and transform at least certain elements of preexisting religions which still retain a strong grip on the cultural subconscious”. Secondly, “it must also equip people to live in rapidly changing societies”. He finds these two “key ingredients” in Pentecostalism.[17] The inevitable question to be asked in assessing Pentecostalism in Asia, Africa and Latin America is to what extent is this an indigenous Christianity that has adapted to and transformed its cultural and religious environment, or is it a foreign, western import? I think that Pentecostalism in the Third World is more obviously an indigenous cultural adaptation than a foreign imposition. For example, several writers suggest that Korean Pentecostalism has succeeded because it has combined Christianity with what Harvey Cox calls “huge chunks of indigenous Korean shamanism”.[18] Whether this is conscious syncretism or the influence of the “aura” of shamanism and the joint acknowledgement of the world of spirits is debatable. Similarly, the dominant conservative Protestant Christianity with its strict moral law finds fertile ground in peoples whose cultures are influenced by Confucianism, as is clearly the case in Korean and Chinese societies.[19] Korean Pentecostal leaders, however, emphatically deny that there is any admixture of shamanism or Confucianism in their Pentecostalism, and like pentecostals all over the world, they see shamanism as something to be rejected.[20] But a senior minister in Yoido Full Gospel Church, Lee Young Hoon, points out that shamanism influenced Korean Christianity and “made it easy for Koreans to accept the Christian God and the spiritual world”.  Shamanism’s “emphasis on the present and on material blessings” made these major concerns for Korean Christianity, and this was also the emphasis of Korean Buddhism.[21] It may be appropriate to consider Korean Pentecostalism as a culturally indigenous form of Korean Christianity interacting with shamanism, just as African Pentecostalism is in constant interaction with the African spirit world, and as Latin American Pentecostalism encounters folk Catholicism and Brazilian spiritism. Those who censure Korean Pentecostals for their alleged “shamanism” often fail to see that the parallels with ancient religions and cultures in their practices are also continuous with the Biblical revelation of the gospel. Furthermore, Pentecostals usually define their practices by reference to the Bible and not to traditional religions. They see their activities as creative adaptations to the local cultural context. At the same time, East Asian pentecostals might need to have a greater appreciation for the rich diversity of their cultural and religious past. Demonising the cultural and religious past does not help explain the present attraction of Pentecostalism to Oriental peoples, even though it might help in the religious competition that is a feature of pluralist societies. Harvey Cox sees the largely unconscious interaction of Pentecostalism with indigenous religions as “helping people recover vital elements in their culture that are threatened by modernization”.[22] Pentecostals throughout the Third World have found in their own context, both culturally and Biblically acceptable alternatives to and adaptations from the practices of their traditional religions and are seeking to provide answers to the needs inherent there. Any religion that does not offer at least the same benefits as the old religion does will probably be unattractive. Christianity, particularly in its Pentecostal emphasis on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, purports to offer more than the traditional religions did. In Africa, Pentecostal-like movements manifested in thousands of indigenous churches have changed the face of Christianity there, simply because they have proclaimed a holistic gospel of salvation that includes deliverance from all types of oppression like sickness, sorcery, evil spirits and poverty. This has met the needs of Africans more fundamentally than the rather spiritualised and intellectualised gospel that was mostly the legacy of European and North American missionaries. The good news in the Third World, Pentecostal preachers declare, is that God meets all the needs of believers, including their spiritual salvation, physical healing, and other material needs. The phenomenon of mass urbanisation in the Third World results in Pentecostal churches providing places of spiritual security and personal communities for people unsettled by rapid social change. The more relevant the church in the Third World becomes to its cultural and social context, the more prepared it will be to serve the wider society.

All the widely differing pentecostal movements have important common features: they proclaim and celebrate a salvation (or “healing”) that encompasses all of life’s experiences and afflictions, and they offer an empowerment which provides a sense of dignity and a coping mechanism for life, and all this drives their messengers forward into a unique mission. Their mission was to share this all-embracing message with as many people as possible, and to accomplish this, indigenous Pentecostal missionaries travelled far and wide. The astonishing journeys in 1914 of the famous Liberian prophet William Wade Harris throughout the Ivory Coast to western Ghana, has been described as “the most remarkable evangelical campaign Africa has ever witnessed”, resulting in tens of thousands of conversions to Christianity.[23] The Indonesian revival was marked by indigenous missionary teams led by Pak Elias and others, who crossed land and sea to spread their powerful message. Indigenous pentecostal evangelists in China like Barnabas Zhang travelled the length and breadth of that vast country and even into neighbouring ones. These and many thousands of indigenous preachers have emphasised the manifestation of divine power through healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal phenomena. The message proclaimed by these charismatic preachers of receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to meet human needs was welcome in indigenous societies where a lack of power was keenly felt on a daily basis. The growth of Pentecostalism in the Third World must be seen primarily as the result of this proclamation rather than as a reaction to western missions.[24] Nevertheless, because western cultural forms of Christianity were often regarded as superficial and out of touch with many realities of indigenous life, it was necessary for a new indigenous and culturally relevant Christianity to arise in each context.

Healing and protection from evil are among the most prominent features of the Pentecostal “full gospel” and are probably the most important part of their evangelism and church recruitment. In the Third World, the problems of disease and evil affect the whole community and are not simply a private domain relegated to individual pastoral care. As Cox observes, African Pentecostals “provide a setting in which the African conviction that spirituality and healing belong together is dramatically enacted.”[25] Third World indigenous communities were, to a large extent, health-orientated communities and in their traditional religions, rituals for healing and protection are prominent. Indigenous Pentecostals responded to what they experienced as a void left by a rationalistic western form of Christianity which had unwittingly initiated what was tantamount to the destruction of indigenous spiritual values. Pentecostals declared a message that reclaimed ancient Biblical traditions of healing and protection from evil and demonstrated the practical effects of these traditions. Thus, Pentecostalism went a long way towards meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people in the Third World, offering solutions to life's problems and ways to cope in a threatening and hostile world.[26]

 

Religions and Syncretism

Missiology in its attempt to apply scientific principles to human cultures and languages has sometimes assumed that there is a pure “Message” free of cultural constraints, and that when the “purity” of the gospel is affected in some way by cultural adaptations, the result is “syncretism”. This word is often used in a negative way to suggest that the “gospel” has somehow been corrupted by the culture. But as Sepúlveda points out, “the concern for preserving the ‘purity’ of the Gospel has always been stronger than the desire to incarnate (or ‘inculturate’) the Gospel in a particular situation”. He says, “we cannot grasp any meaning without the help of our precious cultural categories”, and so “‘purity’ is not given to us. Some sort of syncretism is inevitable.”[27] Therefore, Pentecostalism, like Christianity everywhere, is inherently “syncretistic”. Because of the new message of the gospel proclaimed by Pentecostals, however, a selective rejection of some cultural practices such as witchcraft, magic and ancestor rituals as a means of solving problems takes place. Western missionaries had also rejected these rituals, but for quite different reasons: whereas they saw these practices as ignorant superstitions to be systematically obliterated by education, indigenous missionaries saw them as real social malevolence that were manifestations of evil spirits and sorcery, and they proclaimed a more radical solution. In this they appealed to the Bible, and created what Hastings suggests amounted in the African context to “a sort of biblical-African alliance” against the more rationalistic and inflexible western Christianity.[28] The appropriation and proclamation of the gospel by indigenous preachers was couched in cultural thought forms and religious experiences with which ordinary people were already familiar. Some of the largest prophet-healing churches in Africa, such as the Kimbanguists and the Christ Apostolic Church, rejected key indigenous beliefs and practices like polygamy and the use of “fetishes” (power-laden charms). The syncretising tendencies are seen in the rituals and symbols adapted from both the western Christian and the indigenous religious traditions (and sometimes completely new ones) which are introduced in Third World Pentecostal churches. Usually these have local relevance and include enthusiastic participation by members and lively worship. Sepúlveda sees the ability of Pentecostalism to indigenise Christianity as a process of its incarnation in local cultures:

The rediscovery of pneumatology by modern Pentecostalism has to do mainly with the spiritual freedom to “incarnate” the gospel anew into the diverse cultures: to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit is to believe that God can and wants to speak to peoples today through cultural mediations other than those of Western Christianity. Being pentecostal would mean to affirm such spiritual freedom.[29]

Elsewhere, what Sepúlveda calls “Creole Pentecostalism” is “very much rooted in the mestizo culture of the peasants and the poorest inhabitants of the cities”, and that this fact differentiates this form of Pentecostalism from “historical Protestantism” as well as from other Pentecostal churches “of missionary origin, which show a major cultural dependence on their countries of origin”.[30] Pentecostal missions from the West are not exempt from this danger.

Pentecostals in the Third World proclaim a pragmatic gospel that seeks to address practical needs like sickness, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, evil spirits and sorcery. In varying degrees and in their many and varied forms, and precisely because of their inherent flexibility, these Pentecostals attain an authentically indigenous character which enables them to offer answers to some of the fundamental questions asked in their own context. A sympathetic approach to local culture and the retention of certain cultural practices are undoubtedly major reasons for their attraction, especially for those millions overwhelmed by urbanisation with its transition from a personal rural society to an impersonal urban one. At the same time, the Pentecostals confront old views by declaring what they are convinced is a more powerful protection against sorcery and a more effective healing from sickness than either the existing churches or the traditional rituals had offered. Healing, guidance, protection from evil, and success and prosperity are some of the practical benefits offered to faithful members of Pentecostal churches. Although Pentecostals do not have all the right answers or are to be emulated in all respects, the enormous and unparalleled contribution made by Third World Pentecostals entirely on their own to alter the face of world Christianity irrevocably must be acknowledged. In doing so, the universal church is immeasurably enriched in its ongoing task of proclaiming the gospel of Christ by proclamation and demonstration from every culture to every culture.

© 1999 Dr Allan H Anderson

[1] Some of the insights offered in this paper are found in Allan H Anderson & Walter J Hollenweger (eds.), Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition. (JPTSup, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, forthcoming, 1999).

[2] Walter J Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), 23.

[3] Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 269-271.

[4] Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 274-275.

[5] In Anderson & Hollenweger, Pentecostals after a Century.

[6] Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (London: Cassell, 1996), 259.

[7] In Anderson & Hollenweger, Pentecostals after a Century.

[8] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 246; Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 52.

[9] Gary McGee, “Pentecostal Missiology: Moving beyond triumphalism to face the issues”, Pneuma 16:2 (1994), 276-77.

[10] Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1979), 4.

[11] Allan H Anderson, Bazalwane: African Pentecostals in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1992), 2-6.

[12] Steven J Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (JPTSup. 1, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 21.

[13] Melvin L Hodges, The Indigenous Church (Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1953), 10-12, 22.

[14] Hodges, The Indigenous Church, 14.

[15] Hodges, The Indigenous Church, 18-21.

[16] Hodges, The Indigenous Church, 132.

[17] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 219.

[18] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 222.

[19] David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 140-1.

[20] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 224.

[21] Lee Young Hoon 1996. “The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea: Its Historical and Doctrinal Development”. PhD thesis, Temple University, 19-20, 25. Later, Lee (205) says that “Cho’s Holy Spirit movement has made the most of the shamanistic background”, but that Cho “tries not to be syncretized with shamanism” by his “sticking to the principles of the Bible”.

[22] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 228.

[23] Adrian Hastings, A History of African Christianity 1950-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 67.

[24] Hastings, A History, 69.

[25] Cox, Fire from Heaven,  247.

[26] Allan H Anderson & Samuel Otwang, Tumelo: The Faith of African Pentecostals in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1993), 32.

[27] Juan Sepúlveda, “To overcome the fear of syncretism: a Latin American perspective”, in Mission Matters, eds. L Price, J Sepúlveda & G Smith (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1997), 167.

[28] Adrian Hastings, The Church in Africa, 1450-1950. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 529.

 

[29] In Anderson & Hollenweger, Pentecostals after a Century.

[30] Sepúlveda, “To overcome the fear of syncretism”, 158.