Exploration and Conquest
Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh
Throughout its history, Pentecostalism has remained rather consistent in terms of missions. While some ideas about cultural contextualization and local autonomy have reformed what was once a very paternalistic activity, Pentecostals historically have viewed terms such as "conquest," "empire," and "persecution" as spiritual terms. Conquering the world for Jesus was and is the goal of all mission activity. Creating God's kingdom on earth through conversion is thought to be an acceptable form of "empire building." Persecution for the sake of preaching the gospel is considered to be inevitable, therefore it is not something to be afraid of.
For many early Pentecostals, conquering the world for Jesus, along with religious conversion, meant converting them from what were viewed as deficient cultural traits. What has changed to some degree is the extent to which Pentecostal missionaries lay the blame for their persecution on the "pagan" religions that share the country with them. The language of "saving" a people from the "darkness" of unbelief still exists, but it has become nuanced language supporting the exclusivity of Pentecostalism, without the coarse references to other religions.
For example, Native Americans were once viewed by most Pentecostal denominations as an exotic "home mission" (missions targeting racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S.). Their rituals and belief system were described as "pagan." Missionaries to Native Americans were not expected to be versed in the culture or language of the particular tribe; in fact, missionaries to Native Americans were often picked from other minority groups, assuming that Latinos, for example, would have something in common with Native Americans and therefore be able to communicate the Gospel to them more effectively.
Some of the first missionaries to the Aleut natives of Alaska were Mexican American converts sent from Los Angeles in the 1950s. Today, among Foursquare Native American churches, there is growing acceptance and promotion of the "contextualization" method of missions, where the idea is not to subvert the existing cultural and ritual practices but to use them for evangelistic purposes. For example, burning of sage and smudging of ashes-often in full native dress-are part of nearly all Foursquare native services. This is not to suggest that contextualization is now the norm among Pentecostal missions; there is still fierce resistance to this method in the largest denomination, the Assemblies of God, which views contextualization as little more than an accepted form of syncretism.
One of the prime movers of the sustained missions movements over the last half-century has been the imperative of fulfilling what many interpret as the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:19-20) to convert the nations. Coupled with a renewed sense that the prophecy from Joel 2:28-29 is being fulfilled, Pentecostal missionaries since the 1970s have begun to fan out to nations that have not traditionally been Christian, especially the so-called 10/40 window-a term that refers to a band of countries between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator, stretching from the middle east, northern Africa, India, and China.
Evangelical missions organizations, such as "Voice of the Martyrs" (VOM), serve as information hubs for missionaries in this area. Operating much like Amnesty International, VOM reports on the continued harassment and imprisonment of Christian missionaries around the world. This continued persecution of missionaries sustains the martyrology of Pentecostals, who today are imprisoned in countries across that 10/40 line. They also sometimes face expulsion, such as in Belarus, because of a tightening of the rules governing religious minorities in the former Soviet Union. Most notable here are the nationalities of the missionaries, many of whom are Korean, Chinese, and indigenous groups who are spreading the Pentecostal message outside of their own cultural and language groups. The "reverse missions" phenomenon has brought about a radical shift in the identity of missionaries. While missions were dominated by white westerners for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries, in less than fifty years, Koreans have become the second largest missions-sending group in the world (after Americans).