Like many North American Christians, I had my spiritual journey upended in the 1980s by an encounter with poor believers from Latin America. The exposure to Christians from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and throughout Latin America whose faith flourished despite lives filled with aching poverty and violence revealed my own spiritual neediness. The theology of liberation that came out of Latin America and other places in the Third World helped to transform Christianity in North America and converted many of us from individualistic faith to spiritually based solidarity with the poor.
Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches, by American liberation theologian Richard Shaull and Brazilian sociologist Waldo Cesar, shows that despite the waning influence of liberation theology in recent years, Latin American Christians continue to offer the rest of the church lessons of critical importance, though perhaps not those we would expect.
This book is written in two parts. The first, by Cesar, offers a sociological look at pentecostalism in Brazil, focusing on the controversial Universal Church of the Reign of God. The second section provides a theological reflection by Shaull on pentecostalism and the impact of the movement on the poor.
Pentecostalism has rapidly become the church of the poor in Latin America. Shaull and Cesar find the reason for this in the brutal effects of globalization on the poor of Latin America in the last decade. Globalization has caused severe brokenness, not just in the social order but in the lives of individuals, and has forced the impoverished to seek what Shaull and Cesar call a complete "reconstruction of human life" at its most basic levels. Thoroughly disenchanted with the solutions offered by political movements, many poor people in Latin America found their only remaining hope in God.
Pentecostals, who blame social and personal chaos on Satan, focus on a real experience of healing in Jesus for those whose lives have been destroyed by poverty and the vices that often accompany it. This is the good news of the gospel for the poor, and this powerful experience of new life offered by pentecostalism is attracting a huge following in poor countries around the world.
Unlike some progressive Christians who dismiss the pentecostal movement for its right-wing tendencies, the authors start with respect for the choices of poor people. For the authors, the fact that poor people are flocking to pentecostal congregations shows that these churches have something significant to offer that isn't readily available elsewhere.
Drawing on the liberation theology concept that the poor are in the best position to hear God, Shaull and Cesar challenge North American Christians who seek social justice to enter the spiritual arena of the pentecostals, who have become the primary source of the gospel among the impoverished. They write that it is critically important for non-pentecostal Christians to examine what contributions their own traditions can make to this movement of God and to open their churches to the opportunity to be transformed by it. The power of the pentecostal experience and its growth around the world make this movement impossible for any Christian to ignore in the 21st century.
Shaull and Cesar also challenge pentecostals, calling them to deepen their foundation in theology and church history in order to most effectively serve the poor. This is an area where traditional Protestants and Catholics have much to contribute. The authors also warn that the work of ecumenism needs much greater attention by both pentecostals and other denominations.
Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches is one of the most important books to appear in a long time. It shows that poor Latin American Christians continue to have an important spiritual lesson to offer the rest of the church. However, this lesson requires us to open both our ears and our hearts in order to hear it.
Aaron McCarroll Gallegos, an occasional pentecostal himself, is a Sojourners contributing writer who lives in Toronto.