April 2006 marks the centennial of the modern Pentecostal movement, the spiritual resurgence that began as a local revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles and has since spread around the globe. Many call Pentecostalism Christianity’s most notable development of the last 100 years, and its phenomenal growth could make it the biggest church story of the next century as well.
The centennial offers an opportunity to explore one of the fastest-growing and underreported movements in Christianity. Scholars estimate that there are 10 million Pentecostals in the United States and 400 million to 600 million worldwide, or about one-quarter of the world’s Christian population. The movement is far larger outside the United States, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where Christianity is experiencing its greatest growth.
Once regarded by many, if not most, Christians as a marginal and almost embarrassing style of faith in which converts are “slain in the spirit” and adherents speak in tongues or perform miracle healings, Pentecostalism has become more mainstream in recent years. Yet this ecstatic Christian movement often remains a poorly understood phenomenon even as it exerts a major influence.
Why it matters
Pentecostalism has a cultural impact that goes well beyond its numbers because of the ethnic diversity and strong beliefs of its followers. Its swift growth, combined with the way it resonates with many cultural trends, promises to make it an increasingly significant force in public life.
Issues to explore
Who is a Pentecostal? By the classic definition, a Pentecostal is someone who has undergone a “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” usually accompanied by speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is usually either “glossolalia,” or speaking in extra-human, mystical language that requires an interpreter who is also in a state of ecstasy, or “xenoglossia” (also known as “zenolalia”), or speaking in a foreign language that the convert never knew before. Pentecostal experiences are also often accompanied by dancing and outbursts such as “holy laughing” that reflect an almost drunken joy in the spirit. Pentecostals generally emerge from the “holiness” side of historic Protestantism and can define themselves in part by their departure from traditional liturgical worship styles. Pentecostals tend to be doctrinally and culturally conservative. These boundaries can grow fuzzy, however, especially in the fluid religious landscape. The non-institutional, congregational dynamic of Pentecostalism means that Pentecostals often find homes in evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant houses of worship. Conversely, many emerging churches or traditionally evangelical denominations can take on aspects of Pentecostalism.
How many Pentecostals are there? The spiritual fluidity and individualized dynamic of Pentecostalism make it especially hard to determine precise figures. It is difficult to count all of the various Pentecostal churches and houses of worship, much less the number of regular congregants. Pentecostal churches are often uninterested in reporting their own membership figures, church demographers say. Also, the varying thresholds of what constitutes a “Pentecostal” make an accurate census problematic. Estimates of the number of Pentecostals in the United States range from 3 million to nearly 30 million. The Assemblies of God, with more than 2.3 million American members and 30 million worldwide, is considered the largest Pentecostal denomination. The Church of God in Christ claims more than 5 million members in the United States, but that figure is more than a decade old and most church-watchers believe the actual number is much lower. Adherents.com provides a good overview of the membership picture.
Relations with other Christians remain a challenge for Pentecostals, especially as the movement merges into the religious and cultural mainstream. Contrary to widespread belief, Pentecostals have profound doctrinal and cultural differences with Baptists, Methodists, fundamentalists and others who do not agree with many practices and beliefs of Pentecostals. That is evidenced by the Nov.15, 2005, decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to bar future candidates for the International Mission Board who use a “private prayer language,” that is, speaking tongues or exhibiting “any other charismatic manifestations.” That decision was made despite the fact that the board’s president, Jerry Rankin, said he has spoken in tongues for 30 years, something that was known when he was elected by the SBC in 1993. As Pentecostalism spreads into traditionally Catholic areas in Asia, Africa and especially Latin America, its popularity has created often fierce disputes with the Catholic Church, as this Dec. 15, 2005, Los Angeles Times story reports.
From the beginning, modern Pentecostalism appealed equally to whites and blacks. Today Pentecostal churches are some of the most racially mixed congregations in American religious life, and some believe Pentecostalism offers the best matrix for true racial harmony in Christianity. Pentecostalism’s diversity has grown along with its numerical growth, as thousands of Asians, Africans and Latino Americans joined its fold. The expansion of Pentecostalism internationally has also fed this diversity. White Anglo Pentecostals constitute a small minority of the global community. While diversity is a strength, it is also seen as a challenge to maintaining a cohesive identity and doctrinal base for global Pentecostalism. Women have frequently held prominent leadership positions, setting Pentecostalism apart from many other conservative traditions.
SEX, SCANDALS AND CASH
Scandals have haunted Pentecostalism almost since its beginnings, as various charismatic leaders have used their charms to procure sex and money rather than souls. They include famed 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who faked her own kidnapping and married and divorced several times; Jimmy Swaggart, whose sexual and financial improprieties led to tearful confessions; and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who divorced after a huge financial scandal. The movement’s penchant for slick television ministries and splashy fundraising drives continues to feed suspicions of hucksterism among many, even though experts say high-profile scandals have led to reforms and better oversight of ministries. Still, they say the generally unregulated, unorganized polity of Pentecostalism and the personality-driven appeal of many Pentecostal ministries can lead to abuses. Many others see Pentecostalism’s continuing embrace of the so-called prosperity gospel, which promises congregants earthly rewards for their prayers and donations, as a suspect use of the faith, at best.
SPIRITUAL, NOT RELIGIOUS
The trend toward a more “spiritual” rather than “religious” style of faith, experts say, has played to the strengths of Pentecostalism, which emphasizes an ecstatic, individual encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Consequently, one can find a variety of Pentecostal-inspired movements, such as “Charismatic Catholics,” even in the traditional, liturgy-oriented churches. Moreover, Pentecostals are more willing than many other denominations to use television and other media tools to broadcast their message, which makes them appealing to the growing numbers of unchurched young people seeking a less tradition-bound experience of faith. Experts also say the country’s demographic shift to the South and West, where Pentecostalism has always flourished, has brought more Americans than ever into contact with Pentecostal congregations. That has in turn had an impact on Pentecostals themselves, who some leaders fear are becoming a tamer and more middle-class version of the movement’s original roof-raising, working-class self.
Pentecostal preachers and politicians are gaining public influence. Preachers such as T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn are among the most popular in America. Historically, Pentecostals have not been an organized political presence and have tended to focus on individual spiritual conversion and experience rather than societal and political causes. Even as their brethren on the so-called Christian right, the Baptists and evangelicals, became more politically active, Pentecostals did not, at least in an organized fashion. Experts say that may be changing beyond the emergence of Pentecostals such as former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. They say renewed intensity over social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion and genetic engineering, are mobilizing Pentecostals. The nascent Republican Senate campaign (see February 2006 Charisma magazine article) by a prominent Pentecostal pastor in Detroit, Keith Butler, is one example (see a July 20, 2005 The Hill article).
MISSION AND BELIEFS
Pentecostals reject the dogmatism of many traditional churches, but they have often divided and subdivided among themselves over interpretations of tenets such as the definition of the Trinity. That makes it difficult to define Pentecostalism theologically. But Pentecostals tend to share a focus on outreach in order to convert unbelievers or wayward Christians, a belief in the imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus, the centrality of the Holy Spirit as the vehicle for conversion, and the power of the Holy Spirit to affect healing and bring blessings – often in a material form known as the “prosperity gospel” – to sincere petitioners.
Polls show that Pentecostals are likely to give a higher priority to religion in their life, which may amplify its public influence. A 2002 Gallup Poll showed that 86 percent of Pentecostals say that religion is “very important” in their lives – a figure higher by far than any other religious group. Pentecostals are more likely than other believers to believe that faith “can answer most of today’s problems” (88 percent), and nearly two-thirds say they attend church weekly – also the highest rate by far among Christians. (The poll is available to subscribers only.)
• In October 2006, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a 10-country survey on Pentecostals and charismatics (whom it together calls “renewalists”), covering issues of practice and belief. It found that one in four Christians are part of these movements. Read the executive summary, which links to the 233-page PDF report.
• The Azusa Street Centennial is the major Pentecostal anniversary observance and is scheduled to be held April 25-29 in Los Angeles. It will feature a raft of famous Pentecostals, led by T.D. Jakes, Paula White, Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland. The event’s web site features information on participants and historical information on the revival that birthed the modern Pentecostal movement.
• The University of Pennsylvania’s Religious Studies Department has a link to an extensive array of resources, articles, authors and experts on Pentecostalism.
• “Pneumatology: Exploring the Work of the Spirit” was the title of a November 2004 symposium sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. The conference participants offered a range of perspectives on issues related to Pentecostal spirituality
• Pentecostal publishing is a growth industry, as it is across the Christian spectrum. Pathway Press and Bridge-Logos Publishing are two examples.
• The Florida-based Strang Communications Group is a major Pentecostal media source, publishing numerous magazines, including Charisma, books and other literature and ministry aids for Pentecostals.
• The Journal of Pentecostal Theology is edited by faculty from the Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tenn.
• The Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research is a useful resource for scholars and experts.
• Encounter: Journal for Pentecostal Ministry is sponsored by the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
• Read a Jan. 1, 2006, Washington Times story, “Pentecostalists to mark centennial.”
• Read a November 2005 Charisma magazine article about plans for the Azusa Street Centennial.
• Read this February 2005 Cox News Service story, “How a humble preacher ignited the Pentecostal fire,” about the Pentecostal movement.
• Read an Aug. 25, 2002, Baltimore Sun article republished by Religion News Blog describing the growth of black megachurches and neo-Pentecostalism.
AZUSA STREET HISTORY
• The birth of the modern Pentecostal movement is generally traced to an April 18, 1906, story in the Los Angeles Daily News whose front-page headline spoke of a “Weird Babel of Tongues” from a “New Sect of Fanatics” at a former livery stable at 312 Azusa St. in downtown Los Angeles. In fact, the Azusa Street revival had been building for some weeks before it broke into the public consciousness and spread across the nation’s religious landscape. Experts also place it in the context of the periodic revivals, or Great Awakenings, that historians have identified throughout in American history. In that sense, Pentecostalism grew out of the nationwide spiritual ferment at the end of the 19th century. The Azusa Street revival lasted for three years, until 1909.
• The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society entry on Pentecostalism gives an overview of the history and issues facing Pentecostalism.
• See a timeline of the Azusa Street revival from the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
• Pentecostalism takes its name and inspiration from the original Christian Pentecost, when the New Testament says that the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in Jerusalem 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. What Christians now call Pentecost, or “the birthday of the church,” occurred on the Jewish feast of Shavuot, which the disciples were celebrating. Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, which is when tradition says Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead three days later. The Pentecost scene is related in Chapter Two of the Book of Acts of the Apostles. Like the original Pentecost, modern Pentecostalism focuses on the Holy Spirit, the third aspect of the Trinity, and on an individual, spirit-filled experience of God.
• Azusa Street’s integrated worship did not last long, and white Pentecostals tended to congregate under the banner of the Assemblies of God, while African-Americans organized under the Church of God in Christ. The two groups – which are still the largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States – did not reconcile until 1994.
• The American Religion Data Archive lists more than 60 Pentecostal denominations (click on “American Denominations” on your right and then click on “Pentecostal Family”). Some scholars have named more than 300.
• J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions organizes all religious bodies in North America into 20 families according to three common features: heritage, theology or belief, and lifestyle. Melton’s grouping of Pentecostal denominations is a useful guide to finding national and local Pentecostal leaders and congregations.
• The decentralized polity of Pentecostalism, combined with the racial and doctrinal disputes that split the movement early on, have led to an enormous variety of Pentecostal denominations and institutions, not to mention huge congregations led by a single charismatic pastor or storefront churches that rarely register on the media’s radar.
While Pentecostalism has grown and adapted to the modern world, its roots remain in grass-roots revivalism. Two large revivals are the most recent and popular manifestations of the Azusa Street tradition:
• The Toronto Blessing began with a sermon in January 1994 at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church that led congregants to laugh and jump and dance as if seized by the Holy Spirit. The phenomena continued and the Toronto Blessing went on to draw thousands of worshippers from across North America and the world before winding down after a few years.
• The Brownsville Revival, or Pensacola Outpouring, began in Pensacola, Fla., on Father’s Day 1995, with an outbreak of enthusiastic worship. The revival soon started holding services almost every night of the week, drawing hundreds of thousands of worshippers before trailing off to a current schedule of one night a week.
• Cecil M. “Mel” Robeck Jr. is a professor of church history and ecumenics and director of the David J. DuPlessis Center for Christian Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Robeck is a leading scholar and commentator on Pentecostalism and author of The Azusa Street Mission and Revival, due to be released by Thomas Nelson Publishers in March 2006. Contact 626-584-5250, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Timothy Samuel Shah is a senior fellow in religion and world affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. Shah served as research director for an international study of “Evangelical Protestantism and Democracy in the Global South” and is co-editing a four-volume series on this subject to be published by Oxford University Press in 2006. In 2005 Shah taught a course on “Pentecostalism and Globalization” for the annual summer school program at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. The course focused on Pentecostalism in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and its influence on global politics. Contact 202-419-4550, email@example.com.
• David Daniels is expert in African Pentecostalism and is chair of the March 23-25, 2006, conference “Memories of the Azusa Revival: Interrogations and Interpretations,” the 35th annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. See the conference program for speakers and sources. Daniels is professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Contact 773-947-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma Magazine, one of the leading peridiodicals of the Pentecostal community, and part of the Strang Media group that produces magazines, books, other literature and ministry aids for Pentecostals. A veteran journalist, Grady is a knowledgeable and well-respected commentator on the Pentecostal scene. Contact 407-333-0600, email@example.com.
• The Rev. Billy Wilson is executive officer for the official April 25-29, 2006, Azusa Street Centennial celebration. Wilson is based in Cleveland, Tenn., where he heads the International Ministry of Outreach program. Contact 423-559-5525 or 423-559-5500, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Allan H. Anderson is director of the Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Contact 011-44-01214-158440, email@example.com.
• Edith L. Blumhofer is director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. She has written extensively on Pentecostalism. Contact 630-752-7005, Edith.L.Blumhofer@wheaton.edu.
• Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich. In October 2005 he gave an address in New York City on the promise of Pentecostal Christianity and the need for mainline churches like his own to forge bonds with this burgeoning, global movement. The speech is reprinted in the February 2006 issue of Sojourners magazine under the title “Ready or Not” (free registration required). Contact 616-698-7071 ext. 314, firstname.lastname@example.org, or through administrative assistant Sharon VanGelderen, email@example.com.
• Grant Wacker is a professor of church history at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He specializes in the history of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and world missions and is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2003). Contact 919-660-3462, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Vinson Synan is dean of the Regent University Divinity School in Virginia Beach, Va., and a noted author of numerous studies of Pentecostalism. Contact through the divinity school, 800-723-6162 or 757-754-8243 (cell), email@example.com.
• The Rev. Charles T. Crabtree of Springfield, Mo., heads the executive board of the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America. It is an umbrella organization that grew out of the so-called “Memphis Miracle” of October 1994, in which a number of leading black and white Pentecostal leaders and communities reconciled after decades of racial division. Contact 417-862-2781, firstname.lastname@example.org. The rest of the committee is also listed.
• Harvey Cox Jr. is a religion professor at Harvard Divinity School and a leading commentator on religious trends, in particular on Pentecostals, which he examined in his book Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century (1995, Addison-Wesley Publishers). Contact 617-495-5752, email@example.com, or through his faculty assistant Carol Edwards, 617-495-4519, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Todd M. Johnson is director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Mass. The rise of Pentecostalism is a major focus of the program. Contact 978-468-7111, ToddMJohnson@globalchristianity.org.
• Edward L. Cleary is a political scientist at Providence College in Providence, R.I. He specializes in Latin America and has written widely on Pentecostalism on that continent. Cleary edited a collection of essays, Power, Politics and Pentecostals in Latin America (Westview Press, 1997). Contact 401-865-2752, email@example.com.
• R. Marie Griffith is an associate professor of religion at Princeton University in New Jersey. She has written on women in charismatic and Pentecostal movements. Contact 609-258-4515, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Cheryl J. Sanders is professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity and senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. She has written extensively on race and culture and on the holiness-Pentecostal experience in African-American religion and culture. She can discuss the tradition of community work among black churches. Contact 202-806-0632, email@example.com.
• Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2003), includes extensive discussion of the global impact of Pentecostalism. Contact 814-863-8946, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Robert W. Graves is president of the Atlanta-based Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, which was begun to foster a growing theological and intellectual development in Pentecostalism. Contact 770-516-7300, email@example.com.
• Estrelda Alexander is an associate professor of theology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., and author of a new book, The Women of Azusa Street (The Pilgrim Press, 2005), which explores the major role of women in the birth and success of Pentecostalism, especially among African-Americans. Contact through the divinity school, 800-723-6162, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• David Yamane is an assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and author of the Pentecostalism article in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Contact 336-758-3260, email@example.com.
• Nancy A. Hardesty is a religion professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. Her work on Pentecostal and Holiness Christianity includes examinations of the practice of faith healing. Contact 864-656-5364, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Laurence W. Wood is a professor of systematic theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He wrote the article “Third Wave of the Spirit, Pentecostalization of American Christianity: A Wesleyan Critique” in the 1996 Wesleyan Theological Journal. Contact 859-858-3581.
• Rosalind I. J. Hackett is a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She has written on Pentecostalism in Africa. Contact 865-974-6980, email@example.com.
• Hans A. Baer is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He specializes in African-American Pentecostalism. Contact 501-569-3173, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Jane M. Harris is an associate professor of religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. She has written on the role of Pentecostalism in political life in the South. Contact 501-450-1392, email@example.com.
• Carmelo Alvarez is an affiliate professor of church history and theology and director of Cross-Cultural Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and a member of the editorial board of The Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research. Contact 317-931-2335, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Margaret Poloma is a professor of religion at the University of Akron who wrote about miracles as supernatural/paranormal phenomenon in Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing and Reviving Pentecostalism (Alta Mira Press, 2003). She describes herself as a Pentecostal Christian who has experienced paranormal phenomena within the framework of her religion. Contact 330-972-6837 or 330-328-7860 (cell), email@example.com.
• Corwin E. Smidt is a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and an expert on the political and cultural involvement of conservative Christians, including Pentecostals. Contact 616-526-6233.
• T.D. Jakes is the leader of the Potter’s House, a 28,000-member Pentecostal church in Dallas. He is a nationally known pastor and author and will headline at the Azusa Street centennial in Los Angeles. Contact 214-333-6459.
• R. Andrew Chesnut is a history professor at the University of Houston who specializes in Latin America. He has written about the growing presence of Pentecostalism in the continent. Contact 713-743-3119, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Arlene M. Sanchez Walsh is an associate professor of Christian ministry and urban issues at the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif. She specializes in Latino Pentecostalism. Contact 626-815-5439, email@example.com.
• Thomas J. Csordas is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. Csordas studies comparative religion and cultural phenomenology and took part in the 2004 Templeton symposium on the Holy Spirit in contemporary America. Contact 858-534-4145, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Anthea Butler is a professor of religion at the department of theological studies at Bellarmine College of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a noted African-American chronicler of the Pentecostal movement. Contact 310-338-7670, email@example.com.
• Bishop Roy Dixon is president of the board of the Pacific Institute for Community Organization and pastor of Faith Chapel (Church of God in Christ) in San Diego. He oversees 30 Pentecostal congregations and is a Republican and businessman. He has worked with the San Diego Organizing Project, a PICO affiliate, for 17 years. Contact 619-266-2626, firstname.lastname@example.org.