- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

By religious standards, Pentecostalism is young. The movement took off a little more than 100 years ago, when an itinerant preacher named William J. Seymour began preaching in a store-front church in a dilapidated neighborhood in Los Angeles. Lack of storied history has not been an impediment to the movement’s popularity, however. Christian renewalists, an umbrella term that includes Pentecostals and charismatics, number more than 500 million worldwide and are approximately one quarter of all Christians, according to the World Christian Database.

In the United States, Pentecostals make up 5 percent of the population and charismatics are 18 percent, according to a recent survey of Pentecostal in ten countries, organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In other countries, however, renewalists constitute a considerably larger portion of the population. In Brazil, 49 percent of the population is renewalist, and in Kenya it is 56 percent.

Pentecostalism emphasizes an immediacy of experience that excites its practitioners in ways that more traditional, staid religious services do not. The movement has flourished not in spite of its lack of hierarchical structure, but in many ways because of it. The lack of an international governing authority makes establishing a church relatively easy, leading to a proliferation of smaller congregations, with which approximately 80 percent of Pentecostals are affiliated.

Since the Seymour days, what people have most frequently associated with Pentecostals is the belief that the Holy Spirit descends on average people, manifested by speaking in tongues or divine healing. In addition to the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals also believe in the Rapture — that when the end of the world arrives, the faithful will be saved.

In all 10 countries covered by the Pew survey, Pentecostals believe much more frequently than other Christians that scriptures are to be taken literally as the sacred word of God. They also attend church more often than other Christian groups — in the United States and India, 80 percent or more went at least once a week.

Another reason for the growth of Pentecostalism is the movement’s effective proselytizing. Strong majorities of Pentecostals in all 10 countries in the Pew survey believed they “have a duty to convert people of other faiths.” In Brazil, for instance, where only 34 percent of other Christians agree with that statement, an overwhelming 72 percent of Pentecostals do. Moreover, in all but two of the countries, the majority of Pentecostals said they shared their faith with nonbelievers at least once a week, with 31 percent in Guatemala sharing their faith daily. Many new members are converts, and in Latin America and the Philippines especially, they are converts from Catholicism.

In several countries, Pentecostals and charismatics already constitute a sizeable majority of all Protestants (73 percent in Kenya, 78 percent in Brazil and Chile and 85 percent in Guatemala). In only three of the 10 countries in the Pew survey — the United States, South Korea and South Africa — were the majority of Protestants not renewalists. The influence of Pentecostalism is being felt across the board of Christian denominations. In a second editorial, we’ll look at the influence of Pentecostalism on the United States and the international political landscape.

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