The Third Ripple: Deeper and Wider Mission Engagement

Pentecostals must move to the third ripple of mission
engagement, where they take on the social issues of the day.

This article will deal with a third area of Pentecostal mission, a deeper and more strategic level of social engagement and beyond (click here for the first two ripples). This level of mission engagement often aims at “justice” in social, economic, political, racial, and environmental areas. “Reconciliation” is another term used for this sphere of mission engagement, which includes ecumenism, peace initiatives, and environmental stewardship. Although the third level takes place on the same social level as the “care” and “service” of the second level, this will require a quantum leap in Pentecostal mission thinking and practice.

This section presents both a concrete setting as a launch point and challenging questions for Pentecostal mission engagement. This issue deserves deep reflection by insiders (Pentecostals) and outsiders (friends of Pentecostals).

Two Kenyan Stories
My first visit to Nairobi exposed me to three types of Pentecostal congregations.

The first congregation was on the outskirts of Nairobi. It was full of urban poor and rural immigrants. Its construction-in-progress sanctuary seemed to suggest its growth, spontaneity, and creative responses to emerging circumstances, as seen in creative, impromptu moves of their dynamic worship. The primary interest of the worshippers seemed to be focused on daily survival and God’s enablement to live today and tomorrow. My admonition in mission did not excite them very much.

The second congregation was at the heart of the city. It was full of youth and young adults who appeared to be mostly professionals. This energetic congregation was in stark contrast with the first one I ministered to just an hour earlier. Undoubtedly middle-class, the worship was presented professionally (evidently coming from the first-class musicians, singers, and dancers and the first-class audio and lighting facilities). My unplanned message was on the Azusa Street story and its missionary call. The pastor’s humble request for me to pray his church would obey the great missionary calling in turn humbled me.

My friends and I apologetically excused ourselves as a samba dance presentation brought the whole congregation into another height of excitement in worship.

The third congregation was a more “settled” Pentecostal church in an exclusive, middle-class, residential area known for its active mission engagements, including gospel outreach and social service. I did not participate in their worship, as by the time we passed by the area, people began to jam the parking lot and nearby streets.

A casual look at its demography contrasted with the highly-charged youth congregation on the other side of the city. The presence of many children suggested a wider age distribution. Also, the presence of vehicles in the overflowing parking lot and the nearby streets, and the way people dressed, strongly revealed a better social and economic level of the congregation. This church also had the best building among the three.

Although the churches may be different, and the people may worship in different ways, there is no question Kenya has experienced a surge of Charismatic Christianity, both in urban and rural communities. This is not limited to Pentecostal denominations, African initiated churches, and independent Charismatic groups. New expressions of spirituality and worship (which some argue to be rooted in African religiosity) are increasingly found in the historic churches as well. Pentecostal Christianity has been shifting African religious demography. I returned home genuinely impressed.

An entirely different scene was presented less than a month later in the aftermath of the December 2007 Kenyan general election. I do not need to go into the painful details of political, social, and now racial, conflict. The situation can be analyzed in many ways, but it also poses some challenging questions to Christians.

First, how could this robust economy and peaceful society be shattered overnight by a political tilt? If the majority of Kenyans are Christians—and a good number of them evangelical and Spirit-filled—one cannot deny that church-goers must have participated in the destruction of their neighbours’ lives, including fellow Christians. Second, if this is the case, then how do one’s social values quickly override his or her spiritual commitment? My own focus has been on how the growing “spiritual capital” of the country has played so little a role in the face of this social unrest. I am not trying to suggest that growing Christianity was expected to prevent such social conflict. Social dynamic is extremely complex. However, it is natural to expect that the growing spiritual “capital” should have promoted more kingdom signs in the society.

Encouraging Pentecostals Toward Engagement with Social Issues
What are some guiding thoughts to encourage already “progressive” Pentecostals to engage deeper and broader with social issues and beyond? Three points:

  1. The success and sustenance of much of the micro-mission engagement (or the second ripple) depends on the stability of the macro-level structure, although the spiritual dimension (evangelized souls) may continue to remain unchanged. For example, many cases of social and economic upward mobility are extremely vulnerable to social stability. Here lies the essential nature of this level of mission engagement, and Pentecostals have to move beyond the first two levels of mission activities.
  2. The unique “Pentecostal” approach to this mission engagement begins with the assessment of Pentecostal mission resources. Several studies, as briefly mentioned above, inform us of Pentecostalism’s unique resources. However, two stand out: (a) the dynamism coming from the unique Pentecostal spirituality and experience with the “divine” and (2) its sheer number of adherents, which can easily turn into a political resource. The empowerment missiology of Pentecostalism also has extraordinary potential to mobilize massive numbers of front-mission practitioners among its laity.
  3. The importance of the “down to up” or “from individual to community” movement. This “people’s movement” comes with strong motivation and relevance; it includes a real-life setting in their mission engagement. Equally noted is the “from inside out” movement: the inner or spiritual change becomes the fundamental basis of changes in physical, behavioral, family, and community.

In fact, the Pentecostal approach toward deeper mission engagement should employ these unique Pentecostal mission resources. This will make its mission contribution distinctly Pentecostal.

Moving Toward a Deeper Level of Mission this Side of Heaven
So how can Pentecostals continue to strengthen the dynamic growth in church, mission, and influence, while renewing this powerful movement with the more intentional goal of mission? How can the powerful mission force, which has prepared people for heaven so well, be made equally powerful in the deeper level of mission? Or to put the question differently, why are the Pentecostals so miserably ill-prepared for life this side of heaven, especially in the face of macro-scale challenges (be it social unrest, ethnic conflicts, corruption, oppressive political system, economic injustice, church divisions, or environmental degradation)?

Why is the characteristic dynamism of Pentecostals confined or trapped in the spiritual sphere? Three points:

  1. Pentecostals, like their evangelical cousins, need to seriously revisit their understanding of mission. Pentecostals never lack in missionary activities. In fact, they are “sold out to mission” as the exponential growth attests. Since this is true, the disconnection may be blamed on the kind of theological orientation of mission that prevails among believers as well as leadership. A narrowly-defined concept of mission is now hurting the overgrown Church. The “rescue souls” mode is not going to serve the highly complex life of today. Mission engagement now stretches from soul-saving to earth-saving for the next generation.
  2. Pentecostal missiology is characterized by its emphasis on “power” or “empowerment.” There have been two issues related to power. The first is the early Pentecostals’ narrow understanding of power. Based on Acts 1:8, the “power” was generally understood as a spiritual one (i.e., power to overcome evil, heal, or prophecy). This narrow view has been gradually corrected and expanded, not through an intentional theological revision, but more intuitively and circumstantially, to include non-spiritual components such as economic advancement. Another example is found where some Pentecostals begin to turn the swelling size of their Pentecostal constituencies into political capital. Some leaders now run for public office. If a sound theological guidance is not provided, this will follow the path of the prosperity gospel. The second issue is the weakest part of “power”—corruptibility. As the old saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt.” Unfortunately, Pentecostals do not lack examples to prove this, as we have seen enough charismatic “stars” fall. Thus, every power requires serious regulation and guidance. This is why the Pentecostal theological task is more pressing than other less-powerful groups. The seduction of power is so great that Pentecostals must develop an equally rigorous theology of power, so that power will be wielded for God’s mission, not for a person’s wishes.
  3. A change in outlook concerning leadership is needed. The height of wonderful charismatic leadership also comes with a long shadow. Often, organizational power is in the hand of the leader of a congregation. Therefore, leadership plays a decisive role not only in causing good growth and mission expansion, but also in threatening its very existence, not to mention its mission. One large African indigenous church has been going through a leadership crisis, and its vibrant church life and mission has been critically affected by this. Leadership is a complex phenomenon and a good theological treaty will not be sufficient to resolve the issue. Culture, social dynamism, and changes in social life are to be studied carefully.

This study has only touched the surface of many urgent and important issues. I invite Pentecostal mission thinkers and practitioners from every part of the world to join in this important discussion.

In speaking about the ripples, it is important to further explore that the ripple does not come from a one-time drop of a stone into a lake. Rather, the ripples are created by an underwater spring which constantly provides energy to create the ripples. This analogy teaches two important lessons:

First, the unique Pentecostal spirituality is the springhead of the mission dynamism and ethos. Pentecostals need to acquire an historical and ecumenical sense that its theological and spiritual tradition is a unique gift of God to the global Church and to the world.

Second, Pentecostals should be careful not to “graduate” from their “primal” form of spirituality as they begin to attain social and ecclesial respectability. We have some painful historical lessons of spiritual renewal movements which later turned into sophisticated ecclesial forms by acquiring all the academic and social amenities. They lost what once made them unique.

The ripple analogy further suggests the interrelatedness of the ripples. One ripple (e.g., the evangelism thrust with spiritual fervor) resources the next one (individual behaviors and values and family life), while the latter informs the former by providing resources for theological reflection and revision. With the rise of the southern Pentecostal communions, creativity of Pentecostal mission will expand while equally formidable challenges are discovered. After all, the journey of Pentecostal mission is not much different from what its evangelical cousins are struggling with in mission engagement. This makes mission a kingdom business.

Dr. Wonsuk Ma is a Korean Pentecostal who served in the Philippines from 1979 to 2006 as a theological educator and church planter among tribal areas of the northern Philippines. He is executive director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in Oxford, UK.