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Pentecostalism May Have Done More for Africa Than All Aid Organizations Combined

Pentecostals worship at a church in Nigeria.
Pentecostals worship at a church in Nigeria. | (PHOTO: REUTERS/JESSICA RINALDI)

The vast majority of Pentecostals and Charismatics around the world deeply care about social work and poverty alleviation. Research even indicates that Pentecostalism is the largest movement for social justice that has ever existed.

Pentecostal studies are booming. While it used to be the case that Spirit-filled Christians stayed out of academia and scholars viewed the movement as a bit too much "out there", this is not the case today.

Pentecostal scholars like Amos Yong and Craig Keener are leading experts in their respective fields and there is a massive academic interest in why Pentecostalism has grown so fast and how it impacts society. The social sciences are no longer ignoring how 600 million Spirit-filled believers shape the world.

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Five years ago, Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa was released. This anthology, edited by Dena Freeman at London School of Economics, argued that Pentecostalism possibly has done more for development and poverty alleviation than all international aid organizations combined.

Yes, you read that correctly. Freeman writes:

"Pentecostal churches are often rather more effective change agents than are development NGOs...they are exceptionally effective at bringing about personal transformation and empowerment, they provide the moral legitimacy for a set of behaviour changes that would otherwise clash with local values, and they radically reconstruct families and communities to support these new values and new behaviours. Without these types of social is difficult for economic change and development to take place."

This thesis is in line with what sociologists Donald Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori discovered a few years earlier. They launched a research project to investigate churches in developing countries that had active social programs to help vulnerable people. When they had explored the terrain, they discovered that 80% of these churches were Pentecostal-charismatic.

They chose to shift their research focus on why this is the case, which led to the book Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. There, they coined the term "Progressive Pentecostal," meaning a Spirit-filled believer who is engaged socially with their local community to help others (without necessarily being theologically progressive). Last year, I spoke to Donald Miller on how prevalent this phenomenon is. He replied:

"Progressive Pentecostalism is more prominent in developing countries than it is in the Western world. The emphasis on the prosperity gospel overshadows the emergent phenomenon of Progressive Pentecostalism, although these two emphases are not mutually exclusive. For example, sometimes prosperity gospel preachers give members the courage to dream beyond their current circumstances, and this vision becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which Pentecostalism gives dignity to women and people who are poor, telling them that they are made in the image of God and therefore have rights, both personal and political."

He also stated that the idea that Pentecostals focus more on salvation than social transformation was a false dichotomy. "We encountered many Pentecostal and charismatic congregations that were engaged with their local community, addressing issues related to poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, corruption, etc."

As politicians and activists eagerly debate how to solve the global poverty crisis, it seems like the Holy Spirit is already doing his fair share of the work.

Micael Grenholm is the editor-in-chief for Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice, and the author of the forthcoming book Charismactivism.

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