For more than a century, a central aspect of Assemblies of God (AG) missions has been a commitment to planting indigenous churches and training local leaders.
Alice Evaline Luce (1873–1955), an Anglican-turned-Pentecostal missionary, led the AG to adopt this indigenous church principle as its official missions strategy in 1921.
AG missionary Melvin Hodges and others later popularized the missional approach, but Luce’s pioneering work laid the foundation. It is no exaggeration to say Luce played a pivotal role in the Fellowship’s global growth.
Born in England, Luce was the oldest of 13 children. She accepted Christ as Savior at age 10 and felt drawn to Christian ministry as a youth.
Her father, a vicar of an evangelical Anglican parish, taught Luce biblical Hebrew and Greek, cultivated her spiritual and intellectual development, and prepared her for a lifetime of teaching.
Luce attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College and later studied theology and nursing.
Keswick Convention helped shape the theology of Luce and a number of other early AG leaders. The annual interdenominational gathering of evangelicals in England promoted practical biblical teaching and emphasized the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying and empowering work.
In 1896, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) appointed Luce to serve as a missionary in India. There, Luce taught in a Christian high school and evangelized women in harems.
During her ministry in India, Luce heard about the emergence of the Pentecostal movement. Hoping to learn more, she visited two Indian women who had received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Luce became convinced their experience was biblical, and she received the baptism in the Holy Spirit around 1910.
Minnie Abrams, a Baptist missionary to India, was also baptized in the Holy Spirit and become an early Pentecostal missiologist. Abrams and Luce became close friends. While on vacation together in 1912, both women contracted malaria.
Abrams died later that year. Luce survived but returned to England to recuperate.
In 1913, CMS sent Luce to do secretarial work in Canada, which she could perform while still battling bouts of malaria. While there, Luce sensed God directing her to work among the refugees from the Mexican Revolution living along the U.S. southern border.
After resigning from the CMS on medical grounds, Luce moved to Texas in 1914. There she became acquainted with pioneer AG missionaries Henry C. Ball, Sunshine Marshall, Mack M. Pinson, and Lloyd Baker, who were already ministering to Mexican refugees.
The newly formed Assemblies of God matched Luce’s theology, Pentecostal experience, and passion for missions. In 1915, she transferred her ordination to the AG.
Luce and Marshall spent two years in Mexico but had to return to the United States because of the Mexican Revolution. Luce then moved to Los Angeles, where she began evangelizing the Latino community.
Realizing building strong, lasting Latino churches would require training Latino believers for the ministry, Luce founded San Diego’s Berean Bible Institute in 1926. She served there until her death in 1955. The school later became Latin American Bible Institute and relocated to La Puente, California.
According to historian Gary McGee, Luce made a significant impact on the AG in three ways. First, she developed a Bible institute model that trained young people to minister to their own people.
Second, Luce was an influential writer. She wrote Spanish- and English-language theological books and created the curriculum for her school. Luce’s writings were used in other Bible institutes and were widely read.
Finally, McGee pointed to Luce’s missions strategy. Luce articulated her missiology in a series of three articles, titled “Paul’s Missionary Methods.” This series appeared in the Pentecostal Evangel during January and February 1921.
In these articles, Luce wrote that the apostle Paul prescribed an indigenous church model — with churches that were self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing.
Importantly, this indigenous church principle differed from the philosophy of most mainline Christian missions agencies, which had paternalistic practices and equated westernization with Christianization. According to Luce, Paul preached Christ, not culture.
The Pentecostal Evangel editor commended Luce as “an experienced missionary” who wrote the articles “with the express purpose of helping our Pentecostal missionaries to get a clear vision of Paul’s methods of evangelization.” The editor also affirmed the centrality of missions in the young Pentecostal movement: “The Pentecostal people are peculiarly missionary, and the growth of the Pentecostal movement is due largely to this missionary spirit.”
Luce’s articles represented the first exposition of indigenous church principles in the Pentecostal Evangel.
Drawing on Anglican missionary Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (1912), Luce added a Pentecostal view of New Testament evangelism, arguing the power and demonstration of the Holy Spirit should accompany apostolic methods.
“When we go forth to preach the Full Gospel, are we going to expect an experience like that of the denominational missionaries,” Luce asked readers, “or shall we look for the signs to follow?”
Luce emphasized the importance of humility in missions work. The picture of New Testament ministry, she wrote, is found in the servanthood of Christ, rather than in methods that prioritized education and building institutions following Western models. Luce called on missionaries “in ever-increasing humility to depend absolutely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Suggesting the unconverted can detect whether a missionary has a sense of cultural or racial superiority, Luce insisted paternalism by missionaries impedes the furtherance of the gospel. She encouraged missionaries to instill in young ministers a deep spirituality and sense of God’s call, and to turn over churches to leaders based on their spiritual maturity rather than their mastery of Western methods.
Significantly, Luce warned against conflating Christianity with a particular culture or nation. When India rejected British colonial rule, Luce noted, many Indians rejected Christianity because they viewed it as “a white man’s religion.”
Luce stressed the “universality” of the Christian message, and the necessity to “train native workers to evangelize their own countries, for they are the only ones who will ever accomplish it, and they have many advantages over the foreigner.”
In the preface to Luce’s 1921 Pentecostal Evangel articles, the editor said indigenous church principles were applicable not just overseas, but also “to every town and community and district in the homeland.”
In September 1921, the General Council adopted a statement on its commitment to “New Testament Methods,” based on Luce’s articles supporting indigenous church principles published earlier that year.
Luce’s perspective on missions helped shape the thinking of key AG missions leaders, including Henry C. Ball, Ralph D. Williams, Melvin D. Hodges, and Noel Perkin.
Today, Luce’s legacy continues in AG missiology and Latino Pentecostalism. The Assemblies of God, which still embraces the indigenous church principle, is one of the largest families of churches in the Christian tradition, with nearly 70 million adherents in self-governing, indigenous national fellowships around the world. In the U.S., nearly a quarter of AG adherents are Latino.
Through her service and scholarship, Luce contributed immeasurably to the ongoing work of making disciples of all nations.
This article originally appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Influence magazine. Used with permission.