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Interview by Timothy Sato

The S Factor

A conversation about Pentecostalism with Donald E. Miller.

Donald E. Miller is Firestone Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California and executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, which launched the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative in 2009. He is the author, co-author, or editor of nine books, including Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation, with Richard Flory (2008); Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, with Ted Yamamori (2007); Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope (2003); and Reinventing American Protestantism (1997).

In the November/December 2002 issue of Books & Culture, Timothy Sato interviewed Don Miller about his ongoing study of Global Pentecostalism. Much work has been done since then, and it seemed liked a good time to take up the conversation again. (For more information about the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, visit usc.edu/pcri.)

How has your understanding of Pentecostalism changed over time as you have been engaged in research around the world?

At some point early on in the project, I felt that I made a turn in my own interpretation of what I was witnessing, from potentially writing a book that could have been debunking, maybe even cynical at points, to wanting to try to explain why Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in the world. That was based on what I felt were extremely authentic individuals that we were encountering—not just clergy, but hundreds of lay persons as well. And seeing how the lives of individuals were being transformed, not just religiously, but economically, physically. I think that one thing that continually impressed me was the vision of Pentecostals—and that they were often able to go against all odds to realize these visions. To see that this was not hype; these were people who were putting their own lives on the line, who were getting their hands dirty in the slums of Cairo or in the townships of South Africa.

At a purely personal, spiritual level, it had a profound effect on me. My worldview actually changed in the process of the project, and I became much more open to the possibility that there are dimensions of reality that we normally exclude from a Western, scientific, Enlightenment perspective.

Obviously, there were times when I felt there was manipulation going on, particularly in some of the "prosperity gospel" churches that we visited, even though we didn't actually study them. There were other instances where one could have a purely naturalistic explanation of something. But in the last chapter of Global Pentecostalism, picking up a hint from the opening chapter, Ted Yamamori and I write about something called "the S factor," the Spirit with a capital S. We make the argument that if you exclude the Spirit from religion, and particularly Pentecostal religion, it may be difficult to explain many of the things that occur, or at least you have to go through mental gymnastics to explain certain phenomena. This is not to exclude the role of social class, the role of race and ethnicity, the role of culture more generally, because these are factors that shape every experience. But there is this other dimension that needs to be considered.

Are Pentecostal congregations participating in development work in their communities?

These congregations are starting to understand that you need to address issues in a more systemic manner, inspired, perhaps, by their contact with various NGOs. I believe that there is another possible factor. In the last decade or so, many non-Pentecostal evangelicals have developed a much stronger consciousness of the Christian's obligation to be a transformative agent in the world, and not just focus on conversion. There is a very permeable boundary between Pentecostals and evangelicals, who are oftentimes in conversation with each other, who meet each other at conferences and the like. Pentecostals may have been somewhat slower to develop an awareness of the holistic gospel than evangelicals, at least evangelicals in the United States. But when you look globally, Pentecostals in the developing world are actually practicing the holistic gospel more fully than their counterparts in the United States. So it will be intriguing to see what results from this shift in the locus of Christianity to the southern hemisphere; perhaps there will be a reverse missionary movement, with the developing world being the laboratory in which new forms of social ministry are created, and then exported back to the "developed" world.

Is Pentecostalism both "indigenizing" and shaped by external influences such as the prosperity gospel?

Pentecostalism is a very complex phenomenon that has many different elements to it. The element that oftentimes gets featured in cover magazine articles is the prosperity gospel. It usually is portrayed in a negative way because the prosperity gospel does have its "magical" and destructive elements. The point is that the prosperity gospel, while it is a fast-growing element within Pentecostalism, is only one element. Our book focused on another element, namely fast-growing Pentecostal churches with strong social ministries.

Having said that, there is a certain element of the prosperity gospel that is oftentimes overlooked in negative critiques: the appeal of the prosperity gospel is to people who are poor and without hope. Prosperity gospel preachers give people hope; they give them a vision for changing their lives. The negative side of the prosperity gospel is that it is sometimes founded solely on the magical belief that if you donate to this ministry, you will be rewarded a hundred times over. On the other hand, if you are giving people hope, and if the solution does not produce change, there is the possibility that these individuals who have had their consciousness raised will turn to other alternatives, such as political means of changing their life circumstances. Sometimes these prosperity gospel preachers give sound advice because they tell individuals how to multiply their flock of sheep, of goats, of chickens, and save money. One could cynically say that they are doing this purely out of self-interest—to enable people to give even more—but often the preachers are teaching their people the very rudiments of capitalism, giving them an opportunity to change their lives decisively for the better. Furthermore, by avoiding alcohol, gambling, womanizing, and other such taboos, extremely poor people may eventually have surplus capital that they can in turn use to give better education to their children and provide better healthcare for their families, and all this, in turn, may lead to upward social mobility.

On the broader issue of import/export, it is true that there are some celebrity television evangelists from the United States who are watched in developing countries, but it's equally true that the root of the prosperity gospel is not solely American exports. I think that's giving Americans too much credit. There are a number of individuals within the developing world who develop very large churches and they have absolutely no connection to a Benny Hinn or to other Western evangelists. We need to think of Pentecostalism in the 21st century as something that is oftentimes indigenous; there are numerous denominations that are not affiliated with missionary exports, and there are many Pentecostal churches that are part of what might be called the neo-Pentecostal movement, break-offs from more institutionalized denominational forms. At the same time, it's also true that a lot of these clergy, particularly in large churches, are connected with people all over the world. I remember sitting in the office of a pastor in Singapore who had just been emailing with someone in Latin America. I think that what we're seeing with Pentecostalism is a kind of globalization that may be much more dynamic in terms of crossing international boundaries even than what is found among the Anglicans and other more traditional denominational bodies.

Global Pentecostalism includes descriptions of cathartic prayer, ecstatic worship, and other forms of "full-body" engaged worship, but you see such worship as offering not only release but also empowerment. Can you say more about this?

Many scholars studying religion, because of their Marxist, psychoanalytic, or other deprivation theory leanings, can only see the compensatory elements of Pentecostal worship. But in my experience, this worship is something that empowers people and doesn't simply compensate. An even more nuanced interpretation might be that in order for people to be empowered, they need, in fact, to be comforted. So, by compensation I mean feeling that someone, namely God, is caring for you, that you can trust that your life has a destiny and purpose that is beyond your own imagination. Dynamic worship, singing, all-night prayer meetings, and fasting: these are things that give a power and discipline to one's vision and enable people to attempt the seemingly impossible. That's why I don't see Pentecostalism as only otherworldly. It has an otherworldly dimension; these are people who fervently believe in the return of Christ. They believe in heaven and eternal damnation. But, at the same time, they look at the example of Jesus and see that this was someone who cared about the needs of people in the present, and went about feeding and healing people. I think that an older element, an excessively "otherworldly" element of Pentecostalism, has actually truncated the gospel, or at least that's what people we interviewed said. Progressive Pentecostals look in a more holistic way at both the teachings and the practice of the founder of their religion.

Many of the inspirational stories of social ministries in Global Pentecostalism are about women.

One thing that struck me was that although most of these congregations are led by men, many of the social ministries are led by women. That's why women play such a prominent role in this book. Many of these large, growing churches have a strong visionary male leader at the helm, but beyond that the leadership is extremely decentralized, especially among cell groups, and many groups are led by women. There is nothing to keep women from being as imaginative as men in terms of responding to human need and creating a program around that. A lot of these ministries are led by women who find extremely important roles within these ministries. That's not to say that men aren't involved in them; they are, but wisely, the senior pastors are quite willing to give away the ministry to lay people. If women happen to be providing leadership, so be it.

Timothy Sato is communications director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

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