Vision for Society
Written by: Arlene Sanchez WalshOne of the best summaries of what Pentecostals want for society is quite simply that they want everyone to become Pentecostal, or at least Christian, though they recognize that the pluralism that surrounds them is not likely to go away. What Pentecostals want is to "win the world for Jesus," as it were, "one person at a time." This has been called the "personal influence strategy," where Pentecostals believe they will slowly re-make the world and bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth by incrementally adding to the number of people who become Christians, change their lives, live like Christ, and revolutionalize society. For Pentecostals, the global growth of the movement is itself validation that their strategy is working.
For other Pentecostals, who have decided to incorporate other visions, their method for transforming society is not overt evangelism, but rather working outside the confines of many of their denominations. These Pentecostals tend to be of a more progressive political bent, with greater interest in things such as pacifism, social justice, and other progressive causes, and they have often had to move beyond their denominations. For groups such as the Latino Leadership Circle (LLC) and the Pentecostals/Charismatics for Peace and Justice (PCPJ), their very young histories (both were founded less than ten years ago) says much about how strong the personal influence strategy remains within Pentecostalism. One might ask why this is: Why is this vision for society so individualistic? Or is it? One might also ask of these two progressive Pentecostal parachurch ministries how close they are to broadening that vision?
Pentecostal visions of society are rooted in particular theological views, and the dominant stream among most Pentecostals, historically and today, has been the views that favor evangelism. Since Pentecostalism was born as an eschatological movement, the remnants of that theology tend to lead one to try to bring about a vision for society focused on salvation rather than social engagement. Alternative Pentecostal visions of society, such as the social justice and education emphasis of the LLC, operate best outside the confines of denominations, since the goal of most churches in those denominations is evangelism, not social justice; these groups coalesce around mutually agreed upon goals, share a sense of Pentecostal heritage and a reformist impulse.
Former and current Pentecostals, upset over the lack of a focused social justice agenda in Pentecostalism, formed the LLC in 2004. Viewing itself as a political as well as spiritual organization, the LLC is unique because it is one of very few Latino/a Pentecostal organizations that exist outside the confines of a denomination. Not bound by a particular set of beliefs, the LLC operates as an advocacy group for issues important to the Latino/a community. Because the desire of the organization is to value both its faith tradition and the ethnicity of its membership, the LLC is one of very few entities, other than the historic black Pentecostal churches, that emphasize racial/ethnic identity as something that requires acknowledgment.
Historically and today, Pentecostals have desired to erase the idea of racial and ethnic identity as being important in the life of a believer, using the oft-quoted Pauline dictum of being "neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:38) to dissuade people from making their identity divisive issue in church life. The irony here is that racial and ethnic divisions are what often drive groups like the LLC to form outside of the denominations, whereas many mainstream Pentecostals do not see a rationale for such groups to exist in church settings unless they are explicitly for the purpose of bridging language barriers and preaching the Gospel more effectively. LLC exists so that the other issues beyond evangelism can be addressed; it, and other organizations like it, helps fill that vacuum that exists in Pentecostalism regarding a broad vision for a (multicultural) society.
The PCPJ formed in 2001 as a response to the lack of effective advocacy of progressive political agendas emanating from most Pentecostal and charismatic denominations. The relative newness of this organization is not an indication that these pacifist and social justice elements have absent from Pentecostalism since its inception; these elements have been present, but there have not been sustained articulations of this agenda in an organized way outside of particular denominations' own commitments to not serving in wartime.
For example, a small Oneness denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ, has a statement squarely in line with the PCPJ's position on bearing arms (for the most part they are against this). The Pentecostal Assemblies, though, does not adopt the anti-militaristic strains of the PCPJ. The Pentecostal Assemblies does not believe that conscientious objectors who have contempt for the laws by protesting or being "disloyal" are following the right course. Their articles of faith state: "The church has no more place for cowards than has the nations." Also, the Pentecostal Assemblies has something that the PCPJ does not have-a strong sense of its Holiness mandate that it still maintains in its articles of faith. The PCPJ's mission and purpose statement do not have anything to say about personal holiness issues, but rather view that sense of piety as playing out externally in terms of ethical behavior toward others, especially in matters of social justice. It may be the case that if the PCPJ were a denomination, or a church, it would inevitably have to codify its sense of piety in terms that would be more traditional and possibly more acceptable to the broader Pentecostal community.
The distinction here is crucial in how Pentecostals form their vision of society, for there is no such thing as a single vision, but multiple visions that are influenced by one's social and cultural stations in life. Like the LLC, the PCPJ has had to go outside of its established church and denominational settings to create a different vision of society because the Pentecostal establishment still adheres largely to the "personal influence strategy" where evangelism, conversion, and The Christian life seem to be the vision for a society free of conflict and hatred, and where proclaiming reconciliation and forgiveness is the summation of Christian virtues.