Johnson Writes About Pentecostals Ministering in Bad Prisons

Andrew JohnsonAndrew Johnson. 2017. If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Confession time. I came to Christ through the testimony of a young and violent gang leader, Nicky Cruz, who came to Christ himself in the middle of a gang fight. His conversion took place in response to an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) mission in New York City.[1] Thus, the convergence of Pentecostalism and witness to violent young men played a key role in my own faith journey[2] so when I learned about Andrew Johnson’s book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro,[3] I immediately ordered a copy.


Johnson writes:

“Prison Pentecostalism represents a hidden but important part of the Pentecostal movement that has swept through Rio de Janeiro and much of Brazil over the past three decades. This book responds to a simple research question, ‘Why is Pentecostalism so widely practiced inside Rio de Janeiro’s prisons and jails?’” (4)

To find out, Johnson, a sociologist, spent two weeks living inside several jails in Rio de Janeiro and interviewed numerous prisoners and former prisoners. He observes:

“the prison churches not only survive but also thrive in this difficult space … because in many ways they resemble the prison gangs in structure and function. Both gang and prison church claim part of the prison as their own, each implements and enforces a set of rules for their members, and each provides a strong identity to participants and offers them protection and community.” (10-11)

What is perhaps most surprising is the level of respect afforded pastors among the poor generally, prisoners, and even the narco-gangs to the point that:

“gangs generally allow members to leave if they join a Pentecostal church as long as their conversion and subsequent [religious] practice are deemed genuine.” (10; 77).

This option is all the more striking because gang membership generally requires an oath of allegiance until death (“hasta la morgue”; 77), much like the MAFIA in North America. Similar rules and relationships with the Pentecostal churches have also been reported for Central American gangs, like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13; 76-77)[4].

Pentecostals and Gangs

Obviously, the pastors and their church neither condone nor excuse violence or drug use. The support for prisoners in jail under the most inhumane conditions speaks loudly against the attitude that gang members are sub-human, “killable people” (“seres matáves”). Killable people in Rio de Janeiro are generally poor, unemployed, descendants of slaves who live in the “favelas” and who “Brazilians do not cry for” (39-61).

When Pentecostal pastors show up at the prison gates weekly with volunteers to provide food, clothing, medical supplies, and encouragement to prisoners packed so tightly that some must sleep standing up, they get noticed even if they preach against the very things that the gangs stand for—narcotics, sex trafficking, and violence. The respect that they earn is rooted in offering the prisoners something very basic—human dignity (85).

Pentecostals and Political Action

Although Pentecostal pastors are often maligned for not engaging in political action, Johnson writes:

“When the pastors embraced rapists, prayed with murderers, sang worship songs with drug dealers, and treated all the inmates as people endowed with inherent worth, they were participating in an activity that subverted the social order.” (165)

He coined the phrase “politics of presence” to describe how they have changed the dynamics of prison life and raised the awareness of the brutality of prison life when they preached back home in their congregations (143-166).


Andrew Johnson’s book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, is a striking work. Clearly, his research transformed his own attitude about Pentecostals and reading it transformed mine. It is hard to be neutral about brutality, even if it takes place a world away and among people that are hard to love. This is a book likely to be talked widely for a long time. Read it if you dare.


Peterson, Eugene H. 2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperOne.

Wilkerson, David. 1962. The Cross and the Switchblade. Pyramid Communications.


[1]As an adult working in Hispanic ministry, I learned that Nicky Cruz was both Puerto Rican and a lifelong evangelist (Wilkerson).

[2]Although I then joined a Presbyterian church, one might describe me as a lifelong Presbycostal, a term that I first heard from Eugene Peterson (217).



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Tennant Highlights Five Gifts

Carolyn Tennant, Catch the Wind of the SpiritCarolyn Tennant. 2016. Catch the Wind of the Spirit: How the 5 Ministry Gifts Can Transform Your Church. Springfield: Vital Resources.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Statistical estimates show that Pentecostals (including Charismatics) are one of the fastest growing Christian groups. Their growth through evangelism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America swamps that of North American and Western European Christian groups that appear to be in decline.[1] While such statistics can explain what has happened, theology is required to explain why.


In her book, Catch the Wind of the Spirit, Carolyn Tennant points in an interesting direction, writing:

“Catch the Wind of the Spirit grew out of the context of need and emanated from a deep study of Ephesians 4. After pondering the five ministry gifts for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our emphasis has been all wrong. The vast majority of teaching on this has focused on church leadership. I’m firmly convinced, however, that God is focused upon the ministry currents that each person is supposed to oversee. He means for the whole church to get involved.” (5)

Currents Demonstrate God’s Power

Tennant focuses on “currents” as a concept in the electrical sense, where God himself provides the power that flows through believers to accomplish his will for our lives and the lives of those we come into contact with. The “currents” of evangelist, teacher, pastor, prophet, and apostle (6-7) are in view here and are certainly not titles of church leaders in the manner that she uses them. Clearly, Tennant’s focus on the work of the Holy Spirit, as suggested by her title, marks her as a Pentecostal.

Tennant cites an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” (16) She then begins her exposition with a curious analogy for being led by the spirit offered by the early Celtic church. Celtic monks would sail in coracles, small boats shaped like a walnut, taking neither a rudder not paddles, but allowing the wind to blow them where it may: “believing that God would take them where they were supposed to go to share the gospel.” (9) The idea of current is also analogous to flow of water as it, much like the wind, carries a coracle along.

Ephesians 4

The key verses in Tennant’s exegesis are:

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service…” (Eph 4:11-12 NAU) [2]

Tennant highlights the verb, gave, making the point that these currents inform the ministry of the entire church; they are not titles given to leaders set apart from the body of the church to undertaken these currents independent of the church (26-27).

Structure of the Book

Tennant structures the chapters of her book around five pairs of discussions. In each discussion, she first introduces a chapter on a current; then she follows that current with a discussion of the leadership role that focuses on that current. In the first pair, she writes about the “Powerful Wooing Current”, then discusses the role of an Evangelist. The second pair starts with the “Radical Forming Current” and is followed by a discussion of the Teacher. These five pairs therefore outline ten chapters with summary material before and after for a total of fourteen chapters.

Example of The Radical Forming Current

Because my own ministry focuses on teaching, Tennant fascinated me with her outline of sixteen different roles where teaching was the primary focus. They are: counselor, mentor, life coach, facilitator, luncheon discussion, training leaders, leading a new converts class, blogging, leading workshops, leading Sunday school, leading retreats, youth ministry, facilitating small groups, Bible quizzes, leading a men’s or women’s group, developing curriculum, and teaching seminary students (78-79). Tennant admits that her listing is incomplete, yet she shows that teaching goes beyond Sunday school. A lot of teaching takes place, for example, in a thoughtful sermon.


Carolyn Tennant[3] is an adjunct professor at the Assembly of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri and professor emerita from North Central University in Minneapolis. Her doctorate is in Educational Administration and Supervision, University of Colorado at Boulder. Carolyn Tennant’s Catch the Wind of the Spirit highlights the work of the Holy Spirit. This is through the Christian church from a Pentecostal perspective based on an exegesis of Ephesians 4. Because the Pentecostal church has grown rapidly over the past century, we might be led to believe that it has done a better job of balancing the five gifts of the spirit than other Christian groups.


[1] Status of Global Christianity, 2017, in the Context of 1900–2050. Summary Data Abstracted from: Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds. World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed October 2016),

[2] The underlying Greek manuscripts offer no punctuation, but scholars have offered their best guess and the English translation offers a second guess.

[3] @CaTennant

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McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 3

Twilight_review_05042015Alister McGrath. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay. (Goto part 1; goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because human beings cannot live without hope, nihilism itself points to God. As Freud himself admits, we were created to worship God!  In effect, atheism contains the seeds of its own destruction. The paradox of Christianity is that the cross has become a symbol of hope [1].

McGrath’s argument for the twilight of atheism is found in chapter 7 where he notes an unexpected resurgence of religion. He starts with his own experience as a former atheist and 5 additional points:

  1. The intellectual argument against God has stalled,
  2. Suffering in the world is an argument for God, not against God,
  3. Atheism lacks imagination,
  4. Renewed interest in the spiritual, and
  5. The remarkable growth of Pentecostalism (6-7).

Each of these points deserves discussion.

The Intellectual Argument Against God Has Stalled. McGrath writes:

“the philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence…The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.” (179-180)

Part of the appeal of atheism was that it was logical consistent and, presumably, based on scientific reasoning while Christianity was not.  McGrath writes:

“the arguments of Feuerback, Marx, and Freud really offer little more than post hoc rationalization of atheism, showing that this position, once presupposed, can make sense of things.  None of the three approaches, despite what their proponents claim, is any longer seen as a rigorously evidence-based, empirical approach that commands support on scientific grounds” (182).

If atheistic arguments require as much faith as those supporting the existence of God, then observers need to make their decision based on something other than logic.  In fact, McGrath observes an interesting parallel between the atheist arguments against God and the classical arguments for God’s existence set forth by Thomas Aquinas (181).  Once this parallel is acknowledged, it is clear that the atheist argument is no stronger than the argument for faith.

Suffering In The World Is An Argument For God, Not Against God. The classical argument against God is a question.  How can an all-powerful, benevolent God allow pain and suffering?  Either God is not all powerful or he is not benevolent.

While this is a good question, McGrath asks: who planned the Holocaust  and who slammed the doors shut on gas chambers? (183)  If the new gods of modernity and postmodernity are so good, why is the past two hundred years so full of genocide and murder?  By contrast, the God of the Bible is a god who suffers alongside his people—“who bears our sin, pain, and anguish.” (184)  The modern experiment, while attractive in theory, has utterly failed in practice and we now know from personal experience what happens when human beings start to think of themselves as gods.

If the logical argument whether to accept the atheist or the Christian religion is a draw, then the practical experience of the modern era clearly favors Christianity, not atheism.  The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, not to keep people out.

Atheism Lacks Imagination.  McGrath writes:  “Atheism invited humanity to imagine a world without God.” (188)  John Lennon even wrote a song, Imagine—nothing left to kill or die for, on this theme before he was murdered (173). Yet, no one needed to image a world without God anymore—they need only look at the history of the Soviet Union.  And the more people learned about it, the less they liked what they saw (187).  Those with the most imagination, artists and musicians, often found themselves sent to prison camps—the gulags of Siberia. Meanwhile, Christian writers, artists, and musicians continue to flourish (1986).

Renewed Interest In The Spiritual. The fathers of atheism predicted that the world would outgrow the infantile illusions of religion, but in fact the opposite has occurred.  In no place is this more true that in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and Russia itself (189).

The Remarkable Growth Of Pentecostalism.  The Pentecostal movement started as a revival in Los Angeles in 1906 but now accounts for about a half billion believers (193-195).  McGrath sees 2 factors accounting for the popularity of Pentecostalism:

  1. “Pentecostalism stresses the direct, immediate experience of God and avoids the dry and cerebral forms of Christianity.” and
  1. “The Movement uses a language and form of communication that enables it to bridge cultural gaps effectively.” (195).

McGrath sees Pentecostalism as the single, most significant alternative to Roman Catholicism and as the “new Marxism” of the third world.  That honor used to go to the churches of the Protestant Reformation who seemed to have lost their sense of the sacred and have become significantly secularized (195-197).  McGrath contrasts the dry rationalism of protestants—theological correctness whether left or right— to the living faith of the Pentecostals (214-215) [1].

All good things must come to an end.

McGrath ends with a lengthy account of the life and exploits of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  Madalyn is best known for her lawsuit in 1960-63 to end prayer in U.S. public schools (248).  She went on to found the society called American Atheists from which she apparently stole an enormous sum of money (253).  What is less well known is that her son, William J. Murray, on whose behalf her lawsuit was filed, grew up to become a believer, a writer, a Baptist minister and an advocate for return of prayer to public schools (248) [2].  What could be more ironic?

Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism is a wonderful book and a great read.


[1] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV).  Also see: Jesus:  Joy in Sorrow (

[2] McGrath writes: “How can God’s existence be doubted, when God is such a powerful reality in our lives? And how can God’s relevance be doubted, when God inspires us to care for the poor, heal the sick, and work for the dispossessed?” (216)



William J. Murray. 1995. Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools. William Morrow & Company.

William J. Murray. 2000. My Life Without God: The Rest of the Story. Harvest House Publishers.

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Dayton: Remembering the Story of Pentecostalism

Dayton_06302014Donald W. Dayton [1].  2004.  Theological Roots of Pentecostalism. Metuchen NJ:  Hendrickson Publishers [2].

I stumbled on to Theological Roots of Pentecostalism during a visit to Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC [3] in 2006. Donald Dayton received an award from the faculty that day and he preached in the chapel on the many faces of Wesley. Later, I bought copies of this book and another of his books, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.

Theological Roots of Pentecostalism appealed to me because I had recently become acquainted with a Pentecostal mission evangelizing Muslims. I was intrigued by the different style of worship and by the dedication of the evangelists that I met who were Pentecostals. I wanted to learn more about them.

Dayton raises 4 points that were insightful.

  1. The Four Square gospel is very different. He describes a Pentecostal as someone who sees Christ as savior, Baptizer of the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming King (173). A typical Presbyterian confesses Christ only as Lord and Savior.
  2. The Pentecostal reads the books of Luke and Acts with special interest (especially Acts 2). The hermeneutic used is devotional (23). Essentially, each verse should be read as if the words “in my life” were appended to it.
  3. The discussion of the Latter Rain movement was thought provoking. The basic idea is that the gifts of the spirit were especially prominent during the the Apostolic period and would also reappear in the latter days. The reference to Joel 2:28—And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29 ESV)—the recent active participation of women in ministry is accordingly taken to be a sign of the Second Coming of Christ.
  4. Dayton links the switch among American evangelicals from Post-millennial to Pre-millennial eschatology to a profound discouragement with following the Civil War. The approaching end was signaled, not by progress, but by decline (163). This transition is important in explaining the attitude towards evangelism and service that we see today. Those waiting to be raptured (beamed up) have less incentive to promote reform than those preparing the world to receive the coming King.

Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the Pentecostal movement which many people date to the 1906 revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California [4].  The Pentecostal movement began with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which touched all races, ethnic groups, and genders from its inception and it has spread worldwide.  If it were not for the Pentecostal movement, the number of Christians in the world would have declined in the 20th century, much like their numbers have in the United States.

I enjoyed this book. Its take away points are likely to color my view of Pentecostals for a long time. I would recommend it to Christians curious about Pentecostalism and interested in the history of religion in America.


[1] Professor emeritus, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (




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