“Progressive Pentecostalism”? (Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement– By Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori)


Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori . Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement . Berkeley : University of California Press , 2007 .

The research on which this book is based spanned four years. The authors traveled to 20 countries on four continents, interviewing church leaders, attending Pentecostal services and visiting some of the social programs that have been developed in these areas by Pentecostals or those associated with Pentecostal churches. These include everything from medical assistance and development work to orphanages and drug rehabilitation centers.

Both authors are affiliated with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. Miller is a professor of religion and sociology, and Yamamori is former President of Food for the Hungry, a church-based international relief and development organization. It should be noted that the research was funded by Howard Ahmanson Jr., a conservative evangelical philanthropist whose other funding efforts include, most recently, support for Proposition 8 in California, banning gay marriage. In 2005, Ahmanson and his wife, Roberta, were named by Time magazine as among the 25 most influential evangelicals, and given the title “The Financiers.”

The central question around which the research is organized is, “Can Pentecostalism have a transformative effect beyond the level of the individual?” The changes conversion bring about in a person's life have long been recognized, and include everything from conquering alcohol and drug addiction to upward mobility. But when it comes to societal transformation, social scientists have long viewed Pentecostalism as a world-rejecting opiate that masks structures of inequality and sustains the status quo. Miller and Yamamori coin the phrase “progressive Pentecostalism” to describe what they encountered in the sites they visited in the developing world. Unlike legalistic or otherworldly Pentecostal varieties, or even the “health and wealth” Prosperity Gospel churches, the progressives adhere to a “holistic” gospel concerned with the social needs of the local community and work to develop organizations and structures to address these problems. Yet Miller and Yamamori still concede that progressives do not generally seek to challenge structural inequality or indeed enter the political arena. Liberation Theology, which has long served as Pentecostalism's foil in scholarly discussions of religious movements, especially in Latin America, advocated a “frontal assault” on corrupt political institutions, say the authors. Progressive Pentecostalism by contrast, emphasizes harmony, a “quiet revolution” that will result from growing new leaders with strong moral values. This they call a “trickle up” model of social change. Evidently, in their estimation, this model has more potential for success, and they quote an informant who said, “Liberation Theology opted for the poor at the same time that the poor were opting for Pentecostalism” (p. 215).

The book is written in a readable style, generally informative and well-balanced. The authors always keep in sight (and seem quite sympathetic to) the essential features of the Pentecostal experience, faith and worship, and attempt to understand the social programs as extensions of the religious dimension, rather than something apart. Because of the “Cook's tour” nature of the research, however (each site visit lasted between a week and 10 days), the case reports are somewhat shallow in nature, and occasionally read like fund-raising letters from an international aid charity. Another drawback is that there is little attempt to separate out truly indigenous social programs from those that exist as the result of missionary or other foreign influence.

There is an accompanying DVD, shot entirely by Miller while conducting the research for the book, which does give a sense of the immediacy of fieldwork among Pentecostals. Lacking narration, subtitles, and in many places, any translation at all, the DVD is primarily an illustration for the book, and not really a useful classroom resource.

Finally, the marginalization of women in the book was frustrating. The very last two pages of the book, before the conclusion, are devoted to “the Role of Women.” Yet the authors note that many of the most exceptional Pentecostal social programs they studied were founded by women. Rather than embedding this fact in a systematic analysis of gender that would shed light on the question of women's attraction to Pentecostalism, they pointedly detach these “social entrepreneurs” as they call them from their gender, instead crediting each individual's “creativity and drive” (p. 209). In other words, in their estimation, it is not women who are responsible for these social programs, but simply exceptional people.

The book succeeds where it challenges stereotypes about Pentecostalism, recognizing that it is no longer a fringe movement but “an emergent force within World Christianity.” The authors also deserve credit for understanding the responsiveness of Pentecostalism to locality and the way it is shaped by culture. Yet, although the central premise of the book provides grist for ongoing debate about the transformative implications of Pentecostalism worldwide, much more methodologically rigorous and grounded research will be required before the category “Progressive Pentecostalism” becomes a convincing and useful one.