How a grassroots revival became the second-largest Christian movement in the world.
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Under bright lights a band plays to a packed auditorium. The crowd is being worked into a frenzy, jumping around, waving their hands in the air and singing. The song ends. A preacher walks onto the stage. Already sweating, she begins her message. The crowd cheers, with shouts of “amen.” The preacher continues. One female attendee collapses into the aisle, her body jerking, writhing in a seizure-like trance. Her lips utter unintelligible words as she goes into spasms. The preacher approaches a young man in a wheelchair. She cries out for him to be healed. He leaps up, her prayer seemingly answered.
It is Sunday morning at a Pentecostal church.
In just over 100 years, Pentecostalism has grown to be the second largest Christian denomination. With 500 million followers, it is second only to Roman Catholicism.
With an emphasis on the “Holy Ghost,” speaking in tongues, a distinctive worship style, a literal biblical interpretation and energetic preaching, this controversial religion has attracted large numbers searching for religious purpose. Multi-million dollar church complexes are sprouting up around the world. The wild, animated style of worship has drawn in Catholics and Protestants alike, even attracting the nonreligious.
Why and how has this religion grown so big, so fast?
In a tiny religious school in Topeka, Kansas, near the beginning of the twentieth century, a man named Charles Fox Parham first called for a revival of God’s Spirit in the face of a Protestant world that had seemingly lost its zeal. Parham, greatly influenced by the Holiness movement (an American nineteenth century religious movement that emphasized postconversion spiritual experiences), encouraged disciples to seek God through prayer, fasting and studying the Bible, and then to wait for His blessings of the Spirit.
They soon received their answer. On January 1, 1901, Agnes Oznam was the first to speak in an “unknown tongue.” After many of Parham’s followers had similar experiences, he declared this to be the “initial evidence” of God’s Spirit. Reinvigorated, Parham and his students sought to evangelize others.
In the movement’s early years, many were attracted to the “spirit-filled” services. But those who joined often continued to fellowship in their previous church. They wanted to bring Protestants to see that the Holy Spirit was stirring up a new revival (this term is not to be confused with the tent-meeting revivals often held in the nineteenth century). These early revivalists were successful in attracting many members from the much larger Protestant and Catholic churches.
A long way from the popularity of Pentecostalism today, early renewalists were often met with resistance. Many were thrown out of their churches for their new worship style. This forced the movement to start churches of its own.
New congregations were established and the movement quickly grew. According to Parham, by 1905, there were 25,000 Pentecostals in Texas alone. Even when elements of the Pentecostal experience such as speaking in tongues, healings and exuberant worship services became routine, the denomination continued to expand. This led to another revival, and with it, a new church.
Pentecostalism gained an even wider reach in 1906 during the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles. William Seymour, also influenced by the Holiness movement and familiar with Parham’s beliefs, led a number of revivalists to transform an old building into a spiritual center where people of all backgrounds could participate. Speaking in tongues was increasingly emphasized, along with healing and prophecies related to the end time.
The term “Pentecostal” was taken from the day of Pentecost, when first-century Christians were first given the Holy Spirit, marking the beginning of the New Testament Church. Many view this denomination as a return to the roots of early Christianity. During that time, the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit seemed to be much more evident. Compared to most religious leaders today, the original apostles seemed more imbued with God’s Spirit. The fruits of Christianity appeared much more evident.
Because there is no Pentecostal world headquarters, its organizations are not linked together by a unified governing body collectively directing Pentecostal efforts. Instead, they consist of individual congregations, which do not necessarily compete with one another, but whose success depends on the group’s own efforts (as opposed to other denominations that are looked after by a “mother” church or headquarters).
Attempts to unify the denomination under one organized body were undertaken in 1947 in Zurich, Switzerland, but eventually failed. In 1948, leaders in North America also tried, but without success. Although Pentecostal churches continue to splinter today, this trend has not caused the movement to lose steam.
Instead, Pentecostalism is thriving.
Pentecostalism’s influence around the world is great. It is estimated that over 10 million Americans are Pentecostals; 5.5 million U.S. citizens attend the Church of God in Christ denomination and 2.5 million attend with an Assembly of God. The latter group is perhaps the biggest Pentecostal denomination, with 25 million members and congregations in at least 150 countries (Encyclopedia Britannica). According to the World Christian Database, 147 million Africans are either Pentecostals or charismatics (Reuters). (The charismatic movement consists of those in Protestant and Catholic churches who believe that the Pentecostal worship style and emphasis on healings and speaking in tongues should be incorporated into their churches.) Similarly, a 2006 survey conducted by the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 70% of Protestants in Kenya are Pentecostal or charismatic. The same survey also found that 60% of Nigeria is either Pentecostal or charismatic, and that roughly one-third of South Africans who live in cities profess to be one of these. This approach is also making gains in Europe and Asia.
However, Pentecostalism’s mark is most clearly seen in Latin America. This once Catholic-dominated region is now being overshadowed by Pentecostal churches, the fastest growing Protestant denominations in the Latin world. Catholic congregations are even beginning to adopt the more music-driven, concert-style services to reinvigorate flagging enthusiasm among its membership. Numerous Pentecostal denominations in Latin America boast a membership of at least one million.
The 2006 survey cited above revealed that 75% of Protestants in Latin America are Pentecostals, and nearly 30% of this region’s population consider themselves Pentecostal or charismatic. One Pentecostal-style church in Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), is now in more than 90 countries and claims to have 10 million followers. Its founder owns one of Brazil’s largest television stations, a number of newspapers and a sports team.
In the United States, Pentecostals tend to focus more on youth. The recently released film documentary Jesus Camp examined this trend. The film presents an in-depth look into how more radical Christian-right churches are focusing on the upcoming younger generation, encouraging teens to deliver sermons. Youth in Pentecostal churches are being courted by current leaders as a key element in the church’s future. They are groomed as evangelists-in-training, on a mission to “spread Jesus” and spark another spiritual revival in the West. They are told that, despite their age and inexperience, they can make a difference.
Pentecostal leaders in America are counting on the next generation to be tomorrow’s leaders, preachers and evangelists.
Much of Pentecostalism’s recent popularity can be attributed to its leaders, engaging speakers who travel the world conducting mass healing campaigns and preaching to hundreds of thousands. Crowds at their speaking engagements fill large sports arenas. When American preacher T.D. Jakes visited Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006, the service was attended by one million Kenyans (almost 1 in 30). Benny Hinn, a U.S.-based televangelist, recently traveled to Uganda for a two-day healing crusade; 40,000 adoring followers filled the national stadium. Such speakers are often treated like visiting heads of state or celebrities.
Some are pop stars. Brazil’s Padre Marcelo is an ex-physical education teacher turned charismatic Catholic priest whose albums outsell every Brazilian pop star. Other Pentecostal leaders claim to be prophets. One even claims he is Jesus Christ!
P.T. Barnum, founder of the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, once stated, “Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.” Human beings are attracted to big events, big shows, big crowds. This observation helps explain the unprecedented spread of Pentecostal churches around the world.
Excitement abounds in these churches. Many are drawn to the entertainment value of a service. A Sunday morning often resembles a rock concert rather than a church service. With large complexes, arena stadiums, bright lights, wealth, expensive cars, underground parking garages, video screens, and wildly popular, energetic preachers, recent decades have seen parishioners flocking to Pentecostal or Pentecostal-flavored churches.
It is also largely a religion based on emotion, not doctrine. The famed author and speaker Dale Carnegie once observed, “Much as we would like to think we are moved by reason, the whole world is, in fact, moved by emotion.” Emotionally-charged music plays an integral part in the Pentecostal service, designed to give followers a “spiritual experience,” taking them to a higher plane of worship. On any given Sunday, music often receives more focus than the actual message.
Another draw is people’s curiosity surrounding the mystery of tongues. Those who have not seen or experienced it are invariably fascinated. Some attend to see “what the hype is about.”
Pentecostals believe that a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” should be sought. This is when, after conversion, a baptism of the “Holy Ghost” takes place and a believer acquires gifts such as the ability to prophesy or heal. This “baptism” is supposedly accompanied by the manifestation of speaking in tongues.
(While the Bible makes clear that all true Christians have the Holy Spirit, does this involve “tongues”? What are the fruits of God’s Spirit? To discover the truth about this subject, and what is truly behind this strange occurrence, read our booklet Understanding Tongues. You will be shocked by what you learn.)
In many ways, Pentecostalism is the ultimate “people’s religion.” It has something for everyone. Adherents are welcomed to “come as they are.” Often, Pentecostal messages speak to the needs of the disenfranchised and the poor. Many come to these services seeking hope.
Allan Anderson, the Professor of Global Pentecostal Studies at England’s Birmingham University, put it this way: “The success of Pentecostalism is the focus on people’s problems in this life. In countries where people are living on the breadline, Pentecostalism gives hope” (Reuters).
Another obvious appeal is the movement’s doctrine of wealth. Energetic preachers urge people to trust God to bless them. Adherents are taught that if one has enough faith, God will bless him with a new car, bigger house or a raise at work. Amazingly, a preacher at UCKG in Soweto, South Africa, said this about God’s will for their lives: “God doesn’t want you to be poor and ashamed—he wants you to drive a new car” (ibid).
Not surprisingly, the message was well received by the crowd.
There is also the issue of healing. The church’s “prosperity gospel” teaches that whether one is healed is connected to the size of their contributions to the church. Of course, this teaching would attract anyone, religious or not. Everyone desires prosperity and success. But these promises are not always fulfilled. After donating large sums of money to their Pentecostal church, some members not only remain sick but are left destitute. (To fully understand why and how God heals read The Truth About Healing.)
All of the above factors have resulted in Pentecostalism’s widespread popularity. But is the denomination’s globe-girdling size and over-the-top style of worship proof of where God is working?
With mass “healings,” speaking in tongues, energetic services, emotionally charged messages and a focus on prophecy, many see the fruits of Pentecostal churches and conclude, “God must be here.”
Jesus Christ said He would build His Church (Matt. 16:18)—not churches. How do the divided and constantly splintering Pentecostal churches fit into this plain statement about Christ’s Church? Is it divided? Is it an amorphous blob of disconnected, disagreeing and competing churches? Where is the Church Christ said He would build and protect—and how can you know if you have found it?
If you are interested in learning where God is truly working, read Where Is God’s Church?