In this interview that took place during the Global Pentecostal Summit, Professor Byron Klaus talks about how the centre of Pentecostalism has shifted to the Global South—Singapore included, how to built unity among churches, and his relationship with his “forever friends” Doug Petersen and Murray Dempster.
Byron Klaus, the former president of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) is a multi-hyphenate: he is a pastor, a president, a governance coach, a consultant and a mentor. He served for 20 years on the faculty and administration of Vanguard University in California, where he met Prof Doug Petersen. He was (and now is again) the vice president of Latin America Childcare (currently known as ChildHope), a child development ministry which has helped over 100,000 children in 21 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean. He has also served in the churches of California, Texas, and Illinois.
The child of two ministers, Prof Byron tried to carve a different path from his parents but ultimately obeyed God and switched from agricultural studies to pastoral studies (read the interview for the full story). Since then the Lord has taken him from pastoring and teaching to developing leaders all around the world. Prof Byron is also husband to Lois and the proud father of two daughters—one a film producer, the other a manager for a state legal office—as well as a doting grandfather and great-grandfather.
As one of the key organisers, how was the Global Pentecostal Summit for you?
You do a lot of planning, and you believe that it will go well. But when we started, we certainly did not believe that it would turn out this way. I mean, we thought that it would be much smaller. We worked hard, we planned, we did the right things, we prayed—but this has been way beyond anything we anticipated. All the sessions themselves were great; we chose good people, we expected good stuff to come, and it did.
But I think two things stood out for me: the picture of the scholars laying hands on the people [at the opening night session]. I prayed for more people that night than I prayed for in years! I was exhausted [chuckles] There was a kind of vision that was there. And then Saturday morning, Brian Stiller said something that was prophetic to the core, that really testified to me that God has His hand on this. The Summit isn’t just an event—where you say “Well, that was great”—it’s way more than that but I don’t know yet what the future holds. I just know that this event is not it’s not a standalone event. There’s something coming out of this, and I don’t know what that is. I just sense that. God has some incredible things that will not only be about City Harvest Church, but the way that City Harvest Church impacts the world.
What was the first Pentecostal Summit like in 1996? Was it like this?
No, it was much smaller. It was in San Jose, Costa Rica and we had maybe 15 scholars from all over the world. The max attendance that we had was maybe 200. When it came to the scholarly things, they were top drawer. We had some non-Pentecostal scholars there. For instance, we had Harvey Cox from Harvard, Vinay Samuel from the UK and we had [the late] José Míguez Binono, who was the foremost Protestant liberation theologian. And so the scholarly side was every bit as formidable as here. But the difference is, this is held in a local church; that was held in a language school! (laughs) In San Jose, there is a place where a lot of missionaries from various places in the world who want to learn to go to Spanish to go to, and that’s where we held it. I think that a vibrant local church does change the dynamic, and I think the kind of immediate influence that City Harvest Church has is vastly different than what it was.
What did you see from the last Summit that has changed or has improved?
It really is a sequence of three books that we have done. The first one we did was back in ‘91. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, you had sociologists doing research on Pentecostals and the growth around the world. There was a lot of focus on Latin America in particular. What we wanted to do with that book was we wanted to say, “We can speak for ourselves, we don’t need sociologists to tell us who we are, we know who we are.” So we spoke as Pentecostals. In 1996, we had matured to the point that we didn’t just want to speak for ourselves about Pentecostal things, we want to speak about things that are important to the Christian world. So you saw a change from sort of defending ourselves. (1991) to showing that we can, in a sense, contribute to everyone (1996), to recognising that the centre of Christianity is no longer in the West—it’s in the Global South (2023). So what we’re trying to do [at GPS] is to give Global South scholars a chance to speak for themselves, and those of us from the West are simply saying, “God is doing great things here. Here’s what we think is important, that would help you along that way.” We’re not in the driver’s seat anymore, but we have wisdom that maybe can help.
What brought you to that conclusion, that the centre of Christianity is now the Global South?
First of all, me missiologists and social scientists who evaluate the growth of religion worldwide, and specifically Christianity, simply say that to be true. The data proves it. You have mission scholars who study missionary movements around the world and the growth of Christianity, they’re saying it; but when you have secular sociologists say the same thing, then you know that you’re not mistaken. And if you just look at the numbers of growth—in Asia, Latin America, Africa—compared to the West. The best we [in the West] can do is stay steady. But basically, when we have growth in the West, it’s because of immigrants. The largest churches in Europe, for example, are African. The largest churches in any country in Europe are all [churches of] immigrants. And the growth in my denomination, the Assemblies of God, USA, is connected to the large immigrant communities that are part of our church.
Those are just numbers that you can easily access. We heard from Kwabena (Asamoah-Gyadu): he gave examples of churches in all over Africa with congregations of 100,000, 500,000, a million, etc. They’re building their own universities. They’re building their own hospitals. It’s the same in Latin America—the place that you see the greatest number of Pentecostals is in Brazil. But you see significant movements in Colombia, and in El Salvador, this tiny little country in Central America; in Argentina. So you can go around the world and find a version of a version of vitality anywhere you want. In the session with Joel Tejedo from the Philippines, he talked about his research on megachurches in Metro Manila. So there are very readily available bits of information that would point to the fact that Christianity’s primary influence and growth trajectory is in the Global South.
I’d like to ask you about your relationship with Prof Doug. When did you meet? How did you meet and how did you become friends?
We met first in 1984. I was a faculty member at Southern California College, which is now Vanguard University. When Doug was in a missionary in Costa Rica, he came home for a year to raise funds (We call it deputation—to raise funds), so he could go back [to continue his mission work]. At that time, he was also teaching a course at Southern California College. Our mutual friend Murray Dempster introduced us. One day I was in my office, and I was talking loudly. And Doug said to Murray, “Who in the world is that?” And Murray said, “Oh, that’s Byron, he’s a faculty member. You’ll like him.” So we’ve been friends ever since. Our kids grew up together, all that sort of thing.
Dr Brian Stiller described you, Prof Doug and Murray Dempster as a trio. I was reminded of CS Lewis, Tolkein and Charles Williams—not only are you three friends, but you inspire each other to move in this direction, and you create this thing that has come and impacted us all the way here. How do you maintain that friendship and co-labouring effort?
I think that our friendship has been built around a common effort: the common effort of books and the common interest in believing that the gospel could impact and transform entire communities. Doug’s work at that time in Latin America—I’ve worked with him for years down there, Murray did as well. I’m the latecomer to the group: Murray and Doug knew each other, growing up in Canada. Our friendship isn’t that we just liked each other and did stuff together, but we had a common goal around a book to start with, and our skills all helped make that book come together. And from that, things worked pretty good. We call each other forever friends. Each of us has had real trials in our lives—family matters, professional matters—that were painful and devastating, and we stuck together through those times. That common goal of the books, the scholarly work, and the common support we gave one another during rough times have shaped us. It isn’t like we’re texting each other about everything, but it’s about common interests, significant projects we’ve worked on together. And we have great respect and love for each other.
You know, it is a great loss. As Doug has mentioned, we think every day about Murray. Murray was just flat out the smartest of all, he’s the brilliant one. His mind works so fast. But about five years ago, he came down with a kind of disease—the result is like he has Alzheimer’s, but it isn’t. What happened to him is a series of small strokes, dozens and dozens of small strokes, and it has cut his capacity to interact. So when we talk to him, he hears everything, but he does not have the capacity to respond. And when it happens to a person who was just so quick, it’s painful. It’s very painful. We feel it every day.
When we talk to him on the phone, you have to hold up both ends of the conversation. When you’re with him in a room, he’s the same affirming sort of person. But every time, the only thing comes out of his mouth is “I love you”. Which is a wonderful thing, but it’s… So that’s our journey. Our journey is around the project around common beliefs. We did stuff together, we bound our hearts together, and we miss our brother.*
He lives in the state of Florida, on the east coast of the United States. When he retired, from being Vanguard University’s president, he went to another university down in Florida, Southeastern University, and he was on the faculty there for a few years. Some colleagues there did a festschrift—a book in honour of a colleague. So, like a dozen people wrote chapters in honour of Murray, and that book was just published. Doug and I wrote the first chapter in about our life together. So, we’ve had a public way of honouring Murray. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You can read Prof Byron and Prof Doug’s chapter here, from the book Celebrating Life In Community: Reflections In Social Ethics And The Church, Essays In Honor Of Murray W. Dempster)
You talked about Latin America Childcare. How did you get involved in that ministry?
The ministry was founded in 1963, in El Salvador, in the balcony of the church that Juan Castro now pastors. It’s a very interesting story. So a man named John Bueno was going home one night from church, and he saw this little boy selling newspapers on the street. So he thought, “I’ll just buy all those newspapers” because he knew that the boy could not go home until he’d sold everything. But then he realised that the boy would have to be back on the street the next day, selling newspapers. So he said, “What can I do?” and the only thing he knew was maybe education could help them. So he started a school in the balcony of the church that he pastored and kept it going in El Salvador for years. In the late ‘70s, Doug went to Costa Rica and he and John got together. And the ministry started going from El Salvador, to Costa Rica, all of Central America, into the Caribbean, into South America—now it’s in 20 nations. So we consider John the one who started it, and Doug is the co-founder, but Doug is the one who took it International.
So when I was there at the faculty with at SCC, we had this dream of taking our students to see this ministry. We took them on study trips to these nations in Central America to see the poverty and to see what we were trying to do. That’s how I got started, I went with one of these trips and I helped our students go. I worked with Doug about 10 years on that, working with him and fundraising and doing various things. In 1999, I left and went to Springfield, Missouri to be president of the Assemblies of God. About that time, Doug’s health broke down and he had to leave it. So he came to Vanguard, and other leadership came in to take over ChildHope. Mary Mahon is now is the president.
You’re now vice-president of ChildHope once again. What drew you back?
Well, you know, I’ve always had a great passion for the children. It’s not like “Oh, these cute little kids!” I really believe our model is very simple and it works. We go into the worst communities, and we say, “What would the kingdom of God look like if it came to this community?” And our answer to that is, “It would be a church that would preach the gospel, and it would be a school that demonstrates the gospel, connected to the church. The model is not schools, the model is churches connected to schools.
We have three basic words that describe what we do. First is education. The only thing that’s involved with Americans here is dollars. Other than that, it’s all run by nationals, locals. We say, “We’ll give you the best education.” In the areas we work, six out of 10 children do not have access to basic education, so we’re giving them an alternative. We’ll give them education which meets or exceeds the standards of that nation. We believe in compassion. Most of these kids that come to school that morning haven’t eaten anything. The issue is, if we don’t give them food they can’t learn. As nice as those things are, we believe that the only thing could change their communities or them is the transformation within through our Lord Jesus Christ. So those three words summarise why I’m still involved. So I’m the vice president and we also have a separate NGO that I direct—we’ve built an endowment, we have a micro-loan programme, it’s a more business side, a financial sort of thing that appeals to businessmen, who are not necessarily Christians but have a desire to help. We don’t necessarily use lots of Christian missionary words, but they know what we’re trying to do. I head up that.
That’s amazing. It’s hard to have a church linked to a school nowadays.
Yeah. Of course, you know, Latin America is essentially Christian. But we go into mountainous areas in countries like Guatemala and Mexico, the indigenous areas of Bolivia. They’re indigenous in the sense that the original inhabitants who are descendants of, like, the Aztec civilization, the Mayan civilization, they don’t speak Spanish. But we have to teach kids Spanish. They’re very tribal. In many cases you’re dealing with a syncretistic Catholicism. So they’ll go to a Catholic church, but then they’ll go to a witch doctor.
Your website says you are a pastor, a president, governance coach, consultant and mentor. Which of the five do you identify as the most?
I have to be honest, I do a lot of things, but I’m a governance coach. I’m also the chair of a group called the InTrust Centre for Theological Schools. What we do is we work with presidents and governance boards of theological schools. There are 250 theological schools in the US and Canada that are accredited by an accrediting agency in the US and Canada called the Association for Theological Schools. So I work with Catholics, I work with Presbyterians, I work with everyone. Because I was a president for 16 years, I would call it short term satisfaction that I can immediately download my experience to other presidents who work with board chairs. That’s probably the thing I get the greatest joy out of, in the short term.
And I will say, as with Doug, this relationship now with City Harvest is pretty special. Because of what we think we can bring to, we can place in the pathway of Pastor Kong and City Harvest Church. Now, we’re not telling anybody what to do—we can’t do that. But what we can do is, like in this conference, we can introduce them to our friends. We know everybody. And Pastor Kong—I use this word very, very carefully—he has apostolic qualities. And what I mean by apostolic is, he’s a pioneer that can go into places that are untouched by the gospel, or not fertile for the gospel. And he has a heart for that. And he has a base here of quality people, it’s the level of leadership that is here. Because Singapore is such a well-educated place. I’ve never been in a place that has leadership across the board at all levels, with that kind of maturity. Because of that, I think Doug and I both feel like there’s still a contribution we can make. It’s not about conferences, it’s about placing human and conceptual resources in front of this centre of Christian vibrancy.
In terms of my long-term impact, I think that is to see students that I’ve taught from all around the world who are in places of great influence. Everywhere I go in the world, I see graduates of the seminary where I was president for 16 years. Some of them are here at the conference—they came from Japan, came from the Philippines, came from Africa. So I have to admit that when I see them, “Well, thank You, Lord, for giving me the opportunity to have had a small part of their lives.” That happens on a regular basis.
A lot of what we heard at the conference was about unity among the churches. What do you think can be done towards that, going forward?
It’s not a strategy. It’s individual people saying, “I’m going to do this in my sphere of influence. So it isn’t like we get a committee together, and we make a plan. It’s about individual people who, as they walk through their lives, start working with other denominations. In fact, I think increasingly, we’ll have to work across religious lines around issues that are valuable to the community. And I have found that when you work on a common issue that both of you have interest in, that that becomes the focus that neutralises the obvious differences that you have. I have attempted to do that my whole life. I also have an attitude that I can learn something from every group. In some places, I’m the only Pentecostal. But I just am who I am, and people recognise that and honour that. I’ll just give you an example.
So this accrediting agency for theological schools in the US asks me to be part of a group. And the group is intentionally Catholics, mainline Protestants, some evangelicals, and I’m the only Pentecostal. The chair of the committee is a lady was Presbyterian. I just did my work, I made my contributions. About the third meeting we had, we’re ending the meeting and one of the members of the committee, then the head of the National Evangelical Association of the United States said, “Well, before we leave right now, we need to pray for Laura.” Laura is the Presbyterian lady who’s the chair. So he says, “I think we ought to pray for Laura because she’s having shoulder surgery tomorrow. If I were wanting to be prayed for I’d want to be prayed for by a Pentecostal.” So here I am in front of the Catholic priests, sisters, people don’t believe in the Bible… so I’m put on the spot. I walked up to Laura and I said, “I’m just going to pray like I would if I was in my church. I’m gonna lay my hand on your shoulder.” And to the others, I said “Why don’t you extend your hand is just a sign of solidarity with Laura here, and I’m going to pray.” And I prayed like I was in church. When I was done, I saw tears streaming down her face, I saw the nun with tears streaming down her face. As I walked out the Catholic priest said to me, “Byron, I don’t tell this to many people, but I’m charismatic.”
I’ve found that if you’ll be part of a group, you work on the project you’re assigned, you show up for the meetings, over time you don’t have to feel bad, or feel marginalised or feel lesser than. You just act like who you are.
Some people can’t do that. Because they get stuck on “You’re hanging out with Catholics. What if they go to a bar?” Well, I have gone to bars with Catholic friends. I don’t drink liquor. But the only people who have ever made fun of me for not drinking liquor are Bible-believing Christians who are supposedly liberated and can drink… When you’re with Catholics, they’re at the bar! (laughs) I’m in this group as the board chair of the Association for Theological Schools. These are all top leaders in seminaries. And there’s plenty of wine that goes around in any kind of meeting that we have, and I just ask for a Coke and that’s it. So you do that over and over and over again, and you don’t make any big deal about it. You’re there not about your differences, you’re there about your common concerns. That’s the only way I know how to do it. If we work on a common mission, and we join our hearts around things we’re both passionate about, that’s the place to start.
I have a friend who is the US president of a very large seminary in the United States. I went to his retirement, and there were Jewish rabbis. There were Mormon bishops. There were atheists. There was every kind of domination. One of the things we did in that evening is—this guy loved old hymns—we sang at least a half a dozen hymns altogether. And the Mormons were struggling, the Jews ere struggling, but they were there because they were honouring my friend. I looked at that and said, “Well, that’s my goal here: to have those friendships around things that we all care about.”
I’ll tell you one more story. So, I’m in one of these groups of all kinds of different Christian traditions. But in this group was also a Jewish rabbi. So, Catholic, mainline Protestant, liberal Jewish Rabbi, me. And we’re at this seminar on the use and misuse of the Bible in American politics and we have these lectures by different great scholars, and then we’re supposed to discuss. The Catholic didn’t say much, but the mainline Protestant guys were saying, “We’re really careful about talking about the Bible, because, you know, people really get offended. And it’s just really hard.” All of a sudden, I heard this pounding on the table. It was the Jewish rabbi, and he said, “You mean to tell me when you stand in your pulpit, you don’t believe you speak for God? I believe when I sit at my synagogue, and I offer my comments, I’m speaking for God.” I didn’t even catch myself, I said, “Amen. Brother!” to this Jewish rabbi (laughs). That’s an example of when you’re in these kinds of settings that you can learn from folks who you never dreamed could offer you something: the Jewish rabbi is correcting Christian ministers, about the authority of Scripture. But you can only do that if you stick around. When you make this kind of commitment, it’s a long commitment. It isn’t like, “I’ll do these three things. And if I don’t get results, I’ll try something else.” Keep going. Keep going.
Can you share briefly with us your salvation story? And how did you become a Pentecostal?
I was led to the Lord by my mother one night when I was 6 years old. I grew up in a home where my mom and dad were both ministers; church was my life. There was a certain sense in which I just didn’t want to go to hell! As a little kid, that was my motivation. Obviously, as an older person, I would say there’s more. But at that point, I felt it was my time to “give my heart to Jesus” and I did. My mom led me to the Lord before I went to bed one night.
How I became a Pentecostal is not so much what did, but what I learnt growing up in a Pentecostal church. I observed people being prayed for, being healed. I observed women preaching because my mom preached. I listened regularly to testimonies of God’s grace in people’s lives. I saw people delivered from alcoholism. I listened to the stories of missionaries who sacrificed their lives. So I grew up in that. And I came into Pentecostal experience at a camp for children in the summer time. I was about 10 years old. I guess you’d say, it’s a fairly predictable sort of thing. I often say to people, I have no great salvation story. My mom led me the Lord and I went to a summer camp and got baptised in the Spirit.
One of the things in that spiritual journey for me was, I grew up and my goal in life—while we lived in a big city, all both sides of the family were farmers—was to take over my grandfather’s farm. So I went to university to get a degree in agriculture. And while I was there, I really had (for me) a very radical experience. I had people that told me all my life that I was going to be just like my parents, I was going to be a pastor. And you know, as a kid, when people tell you something, you want to go the opposite direction. I saw the hard work that my parents did, the things that my parents went through, and I just didn’t want that. So my goal was take over my grandfather’s farm. But this radical experience led me to surrender to what ultimately I’m doing now. So I didn’t take over my grandfather’s farm; I switched the direction of my life to pastoral training and I became a pastor, and then a college professor and then a seminary president. And the rest is history.
Can you share that radically experience?
I attended university and during the spring break we went to Mexico—my first time outside the country. We went down to hold this revival in the city, and it was in a very poor area. We had this a bunch of benches out on this open lot and a string of lights, and we had a brother from Cuba, who came to preach, and the neighbourhood didn’t like it very much. They were throwing rocks and stuff at us. I mean, it was pretty radical. But it was at that point that the Lord really turned up the pressure on me that, “You really need to commit yourself.” And it would not have been a wrong decision for me to continue in agriculture [but] it was the best decision for me to yield to what the Lord was doing in my life. So, I got back to the university to continue my studies. And I remember, I was studying for a botany exam. I was memorising genus of philo plants for a test. And the pressure was so great that I took this big botany book, and I flung it against the wall in my room, and I put a big hole in the wall! I was so frustrated. And I said, “Well, Lord, if this is what You want, then okay.” And I called my parents and said, “You know, I think that I might have to switch directions here. I think I hear the Lord clearly.” I had a young pastor in the church I was at in university who talked me through things. I left that pursuit and went to pursuing pastoral studies and that was basically it. I had to pay the university for the hole I put in the wall! (laughs)
Is this a story you tell your children, your grandchildren and their children?
Yeah, yeah, I think I’ve told it to my older grandchildren. I told them my children, my kids.
Do you encourage them to go into ministry?
No, I, you know, with my kids, and my grandkids, that’s just not my way. I would be overjoyed. But I just feel like the Lord has to direct them. I’ve never put any pressure.