I recently received an article sent to me by a colleague concerning the state of the Pentecostal Church in South Africa. The title seemed intriguing, and I thought I would give it a read. I have seen the name of the author, Elle Hardy, in numerous articles in the past and thought I would read what she wrote. It seems like Elle has built quite a career that thrives on the messiness of the evangelical Church world. From Hillsong to Pentecostalism as a whole and authoring a book titled; “Beyond Belief How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World” (which is on my reading list) I wondered what she will remark about in her outline. I have written an article that shows a similar concern a few years back that can be accessed by clicking on the following link.
To my surprise, there were opinions I wholeheartedly agree with, and I share a genuine concern for what the article is trying to address. There are just a few things that we need to put in perspective as look at what was written. The article can be accessed here.
I was please that the author recognized, like many concerned Pentecostals, that there have been “extreme practices” and that this was only limited to “a group of young preachers.” I would agree that this is so, and unfortunately, there have been a few people found in the swoon of these gimmicks. I would also agree that this was “a uniquely modern, extreme, South African expression of Pentecostal Christianity.” In the very next statement, the author cautions us that Pentecostal Christianity “is… the fastest growing religion on earth.” The article assumed correctly that this is not the general expression of the faith nor are these practices normative in the Pentecostal tradition. And yes, Christianity is growing in Africa.
The author then changes gears and says that this “new Pentecostalism” is assumed to be the faith of the World’s working poor. How does she know that? There is no empirical data given that backs this statement up. In fact, research has shown that “Christianity is not totally involved in the fundamental human needs of the community” in South Africa writes Balthazar N. Yenga. In sub-Saharan Africa, it falls predominantly on the government to provide some relief to the poorest of the poor. I do know of numerous Pentecostal Churches that are deeply involved in social upliftment and working amongst the poorest of the poor. But the assumption is created in this article that the motivation and driving force behind all of Pentecostalism seems to be greed.
The author then seems to jump to the rest of Pentecostalism cautioning that “by 2050, a billion people — or one in ten of us — will be inside the tent.” There is no doubt that Pentecostal Christianity will grow, especially in Africa, but that does not mean that that which the author pointed out as a fringe anomaly will become the norm in the greater whole. Neither are there any conclusive facts given that this will be the overall temperament of the Pentecostalism of the future. This is merely speculative. Another leap is then made when the author suggests that “the prosperity gospel is an uncomfortable answer to a world that worships money every day, only usually without all of the ceremony. It becomes a fortification simultaneously against and within the material world.” I think a better question would have been to ask if Pentecostalism is synonymous with the prosperity gospel? The fact is that all Churches preach on finances as it is part of the human experience.
I know of a Church that aims to teach its congregants how to be financially wise. The Bible is a book that is deeply concerned with your financial well-being, not because it is a sham, but because we live in a world that is governed by a financial system. The problem is that speaking about good financial practices has become synonymous with preaching a prosperity Gospel. This is simply false, but I do believe that any Church must aim to equip its congregants to be wise stewards and cheerful givers not just for the Church’s sake, but for the people’s sake! I am also not sure what the religious persuasion of the author is, but it should be noted that religious belief, in general, seems to exert an overall positive influence on communities, especially in encouraged communities. “Religions… can sometimes play an important role in the lives of poor people to help them understand themselves and interpret the world around them, their social and economic position, and their immediate society” writes Gottfried Schweiger. The author even agrees that there are some positives that come from Pentecostal communities that seem to be evident. She writes;
“Research has found that people who come from poverty, or cycles of violence and addiction, have greater chances of escaping that world if they join an evangelical church — the so-called “self-fulfilling prophecy” of God’s favor being shown in material well-being.” Even though we are grateful that some people can break the cycle of poverty and violence, the Church is mandated with so much more. To save lost souls! Any good Pastor knows that pragmatism is not a sign for truth. We thank God for being able to be a part of some forms of alleviation but we know that the end goal is getting the lost saved and the oppressed set free. The author ends with two final statements; “Pentecostalism and right-populism are singing from the same hymn sheet.” I would like to see more data on this, but we should ask ourselves why it is only these Churches that seem to have an influence on the political world? Even better, why would government turn to these Churches? Is it because these Churches sequester the voice of the masses or is it because there is an understanding that any healthy government reflects the affections of its people? The author seems to answer this for us.
“Pentecostalism offers direct access to spiritual, social, and material nourishment in a world that denies the world’s poor of all three. Naturally, there’s a growing number of Pentecostal churches catering to the rich and middle classes too. After all, they know that upward mobility is tenuous — and anyone who gets ahead needs a miracle to stay there.” I have seen Churches planting and extending their reach into lower-income communities at their expense.
(1) not all Pentecostal Churches practice the extremes mentioned in this article. Yes, we can affirm with the article that; “Pentecostalism [believes you must be] first born again, accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and then filled with the Holy Spirit, receiving gifts which include miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. Many Pentecostals don’t adopt the label, but their Spirit-led or Charismatic practice…” (Italics added)
Yes, we do affirm that people should repent, believe, and turn away from their sins to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Rom.10:9, 1 Joh.1:9, Acts 3:19). We do believe in the ongoing work and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts1:8), proportioning and giving gifts as He will (1 Cor.12:11). We do believe Christ gifted the Church with various gifts to further His Kingdom here on earth (1 Cor.12:7-10) and we do believe the Church should be led by the Spirit of God (Rom.8:14).
(2) Not all leaders go into ministry to solicit funds from vulnerable people. “All car salesmen are con artists”, “All Nigerians are drug dealers”, and “All Churches are in it for the money.” Sadly, at one stage or another, all of us have heard these types of horrendous generalizations. All of these are simply false. I know of Pastors that are in places where there is a lot of pain and suffering. I know of Pastors that are in places where there is a lot of blessing. Paul (Phil.4:11-13) says, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
(3) Pentecostal Churches can add value to a global context. Richard Shaull writes;
”For Pentecostals in different parts of the world, “freedom in the Spirit” allows them to formulate, often unconsciously, a social theology that has meaning for people in different life situations. This is one of the most important features of Pentecostal theology that is often overlooked. Theology is far more than writing, academic theology—it is also to be found in the preaching, worship, and social activities of churches that have contextualized Christianity in such a way as to make it really meaningful to ordinary people and very helpful to those who are poor and needy.”
I do believe that Pentecostals have already added a lot of values to communities all over the world, and will still do so in years to come.
 A good example of this is Encounter Church, Centurion, which planted a Church in Krugersdorp which would not seem to be a wise financial decision. Nevertheless, they did so because they wanted to be obedient to where God had called them.