What is the relationship between evangelism and compassion in the Church’s mission?
Historically, Pentecostals prioritized evangelism. Pentecostal missionaries believed the Spirit called and empowered them to proclaim the gospel and plant indigenous churches in cultures where Christ was not known.
Pentecostals more recently have advocated a holistic understanding of missions that puts evangelism and compassion on equal footing. This understanding of missions focuses on Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom of God, which touches on the whole of human existence — spiritual and material.
In The Missionary Spirit, Jerry Ireland argues that Pentecostals need to reclaim prioritism. He is a professor of theology and intercultural studies at the University of Valley Forge in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Africa.
It is easy to mischaracterize prioritism as advocating evangelism at the expense of compassion. That is not Ireland’s position, nor was it the position of historic Pentecostal missiology. For Ireland, prioritism is less about what should be done than about who should do what.
Ireland draws on Ralph Winter’s distinction between “modality” and “sodality” to make this point. For Winter, both “the denomination and the local congregation” are examples of a modality, while a “missions agency” or “missionary band” are examples of a sodality. Modality and sodality together constitute “the New Testament church.”
Winter’s distinction is not without controversy, but Ireland points to Acts 13 as an illustration of it. That chapter distinguishes “the church at Antioch” from “Barnabas and Saul,” whom the Antioch church “set apart” for “the work” the Spirit had called them to perform (verses 1,2). That work involved “proclaim[ing] the word of God” among Jews (verses 5,14) and Gentiles (verses 46–48). All this took place under the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit (verses 2,4,9).
For Ireland, a modality like the Antioch church has broader responsibilities than a sodality like the Paul and Barnabas missionary band. A local congregation performs both evangelism and compassion within its cultural context. Missionaries, on the other hand, cross cultures to establish indigenous churches where Christ is not known. In other words, the modality practices holism, the sodality prioritism.
Underlying this distinction about who does what is a nuanced theology of the Holy Spirit as the driving force in missions. In Acts especially, the Holy Spirit calls and empowers missionaries to cross cultural boundaries, proclaim Christ, and establish indigenous churches. Ireland points at “the missionary nature of tongues” throughout Acts and argues that glossolalia “orients the church to the nations and emphasizes its proclamational role.”
Ireland concludes The Missionary Spirit by arguing that prioritism leads to more effective compassion than holism. Too often, international compassion ministries breed dependence on Western donors rather than empowering indigenous peoples to meet their own needs in culturally appropriate, sustainable ways. Ireland argues that missionaries prioritizing evangelism and discipleship solves this problem by preparing indigenous believers to become the primary agents of compassion in their own contexts.
I have friends on both sides of the prioritism-holism debate, including Ireland and many of the Pentecostal thought leaders he critiques through this book. Because of this, I hesitate to put my thumb on the scale in favor of either position. That said, I found The Missionary Spirit to be a theologically nuanced argument for prioritism that is well worth reading.
In the end, whether you or I agree with Ireland, he is asking the right questions. As Pentecostals, are we flagging in our efforts to proclaim the gospel and plant churches in cultures where Christ is not known? And do our compassion ministries unwittingly breed dependence rather than empower indigenous peoples?
If the answer to either question is “yes,” we’ve got work to do.
Jerry M. Ireland, The Missionary Spirit: Evangelism and Social Action in Pentecostal Missiology, American Society of Missiology Series, No. 61 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021).
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