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The Spirit Bade Me Go:
Pentecostalism and Global Religion

Margaret M. Poloma
Department of Sociology
The University of Akron
Akron, OH 44325-1905

email:  mpoloma@uakron.edu

Paper prepared for presentation at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Annual Meetings, August 11-13, 2000. Washington, D.C.

*Due to the length of this article, you may choose to download this article now in a printable format.

Welcome to the World of Pentecostal Reality

With an adaptation of the title of Walter Truett Anderson’s (1990) delightful book on postmodernity, I would like to open this paper by proclaiming, "Religion isn’t what it used to be." At least it is not what it "used to be" for many scholars of religion whose knowledge is limited to what’s popular and politically correct in current academic thought. While interesting discussions can be found on topics ranging from long-running secularization and sacralization debates to market forces underlying religious restructuring, one of the most noteworthy developments rarely is discussed at our meetings or in our journals. What I speak of here is the rise of Pentecostalism from having no adherents (as we know Pentecostalism today) in 1906 to an estimated 500 million followers today. (Barrett 1982;1999). Pentecostalism, in its varying expressions, comprises the second largest communion of Christians in the world.

One of the reasons Western scholars have not been particularly aware of the rapid, if unobtrusive, growth of Pentecostalism is that, despite its mostly American origins, it is largely a non-western phenomenon. The majority of Pentecostals around the world are found among the poor and the working classes, the same socio-economic groups that gave rise to Pentecostalism in North America early in the 20th century. Although the various streams of Pentecostal expression have moved beyond their source to cross class, racial, and ethnic divides, the movement has experienced only a small steady growth in Western nations when compared to the phenomenal growth in two-thirds countries of the world.

Results of surveys place the size of the Pentecostal population in America from 5% to 12%, depending on the measurement used. According to Smidt, Green, Kellstedt and Guth (1996), 3.6% of the adult population belongs to a classic Pentecostal church. When non-denominational charismatics are added, the figure increases to 5%. Smidt, et al. (1996:223) have made an interesting observation about this seeming small figure, noting that "the only Protestant denominational families to exceed this size are Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans, with Lutherans only a fraction larger." The Pentecostal movement, however, is not a simply a new denomination but, as we shall see, an example of a restructuring of Christianity. In order to access less obvious facets of the movement, the researchers asked two other questions which yielded higher figures. When respondents were asked whether they spoke in tongues, a classic litmus test for Pentecostal "spirit baptism," the figure rose to 8.7%. When queried about identification with the spirit-filled movement, including charismatic groups that tend to place less doctrinal emphasis on glossolalia than older Pentecostal denominations, 4.7% claim to be "Pentecostal", 6.6% identify as "Charismatic", while 0.8% claim both Pentecostal and Charismatic identification, for a total representing 12% of the U.S.A.

Global statistics are understandably less precise than these just cited for the United States, but it is agreed by those who have investigated Pentecostalism’s growth that Pentecostalism is having an enormous impact on the shape of Christianity. As the subtitle of Harvey Cox’s (1996) book on worldwide Pentecostalism suggests, it is indeed "reshaping the religion of the twenty-first century." The following summary statement represents a terse but telling report on global Pentecostalism:

According to the well-known statistician of Christianity, David Barrett, there were an estimated 74 million ‘Pentecostals/Charismatics’, or 6% of the world’s Christian population in 1970. In 1997 he estimated that this figure had reached 497 million or 27% of the Christian population, more than the total number of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Anglicans’ combined, and only 27 years later. Barrett projects that according to present trends this figure is likely to rise to 1,140 million or 44% of the total number of Christians by 2025 (Anderson 1999).

Pentecostalism’s steady growth in the United States and its phenomenal growth worldwide has been attributed to its being a "movement organization" (Gerlach and Hine 1970) rather than taking the form of centralized, bureaucratic western denominations. The distinctive characteristics according to Gerlach and Hines (1968) and more recently by Gerloff (1999, 1992) are said to be twofold:

A reticulate (or polycephalous) organization, linked together by a variety of personal, structural and ideological ties, which is not linear but can be likened to a cellular organism and, such as life itself, cannot be suppressed.

A mission that travels along pre-existing daily social relationships such as family, friendship, village or island community, trade or work companionship, and shared migration, thus carrying its message like reliable and comforting luggage.

As noted earlier, attempts to measure the movement in the United States by Smidt, et al produced a range of figures, suggesting that the rise of Pentecostalism is more analogous to the rise of Protestantism in Christianity than the birth of a new denomination. At the same time, Pentecostalism has produced denominations and its denominational figures can cast light on a comparison of American and worldwide statistics. The Assemblies of God (AG), one of the oldest and the largest white Pentecostal group in the U.S. with 2.5 million adherents, exists worldwide, with some 35 million followers. The non-American churches usually have a lose "fraternal relationship" with the founding body and may not even use the term "Assemblies of God" to identify themselves. In some countries, including Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, there exists a national autonomous "Assemblies of God" which has a "fraternal relationship" with the American office but without the American AG missionary presence that can be found in most other countries. The telling tale is the difference in growth between the American Assemblies of God and the worldwide figures. In 1987 there were 11,004 American AG churches with 2,160,667 adherents; in 1999 there were 12,055 churches and 2,574,531 adherents – a 16-percent growth rate in adherents over a 12 year time period. For the same years the number of worldwide AG churches and adherents nearly doubled from 17,977,102 (served by 126,627 churches) to 34,576,558 adherents (served by 212,522 churches). To add a relevant observation about the AG growth in the United States, much of increase is said to be among immigrants, particularly Hispanics, rather than the original Euro-American population.

The statistics for the Assemblies of God mirror what appears to be happening in the larger Pentecostal movement. The growth-rate for the Western churches has reached a plateau or increased only slightly while Pentecostalism worldwide is growing at an exponential rate. Pentecostalism, according to some, has its origins to the black roots of African-American revivalist William Seymour, and it appears to be returning to its non-white roots with great force and magnitude.

What is Pentecostalism?

The question remains: if Pentecostalism is not a new denomination, what is it? Following Hollenweger (1997) and others, I use the term to include classical Pentecostal churches (Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Four Square Gospel Church International, etc.), the mainline churches who have been influenced by Pentecostalism through the Charismatic Movement, Neo-Pentecostal churches spawned by the Charismatic Movement and other later revivals, and non-white indigenous churches (particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean). What these churches share is not single structure, uniform doctrine, or ecclesiastical leadership, but a particular Christian world-view that reverts to a non-European epistemology from the European one that has dominated Christianity for centuries. Pentecostal pastor and theologian Jackie David Johns (1999:74-75) describes this world-view as follows:

At the heart of the Pentecostal world-view is transforming experience with God. God is known through relational encounter which finds its penultimate expression in the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. This experience becomes the normative epistemological framework and thus shifts the structures by which the individual interprets the world.

According to Johns, the following characteristics, taken together as a "gestallt," are what constitute the "uniquely Pentecostal world-view":

First, the Pentecostal world-view is experientially God-centered. All things relate to God and God relates to all things.

Second, the Pentecostal world-view is holistic and systemic. For the Spirit-filled person God is not only present in all events, he holds all things together and causes all things to work together.

Third, the Pentecostal world-view is transrational. Knowledge is relational and is not limited to the realms of reason and sensory experience.

Fourth, in conjunction with their holiness heritage, Pentecostals are concerned with truth, but not just propositional truth. Pentecostals were historically anti-creedal.

Fifth, the Pentecostal epistemology of encounter with God is closely aligned with the biblical understanding of how one comes to know. . . This understanding is rooted in Hebrew thought and may be contrasted with Greek approaches to knowledge. The Hebrew word for ‘to know’ is yada.. In general, yada is knowledge that comes by experience.

Finally, the Scriptures hold a special place and function within the Pentecostal world-view. Pentecostals differ from Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in approach to the Bible. For Pentecostals the Bible is a living book in which the Holy Spirit is always active.

According to the Pentecostal world-view, the Word of the Scriptures and the Spirit of the living God are in diological relationship, playing incessantly within and among individuals as well as within the larger world. It is a world of miracles and mystery, where healings, prophecy and divine serendipity are woven into the fabric of everyday life. The Greek dualism that divides the world into natural and supernatural tends to lose its hold on even Western Pentecostals. Although Johns’ description of the Pentecostal world-view is applicable to followers in both western and non-western cultures, it is subject to more of a plausibility crisis in the West than in developing nations.

The forces of modernism, materialism and instrumental rationality that are foundational for Western thought are a constant challenge to the Pentecostal world-view. Although at times it may seem embattled, renewals and revivals over the past century have brought a steady stream of newcomers into the Pentecostal fold and revitalized the beliefs of many cradle adherents.. The paradigm that has become normative for believers has been described by Pentecostal scholar Grant Wacker (1986:537) as "supernaturalism wed to pragmatism," of which he says:

It reveals a very other-worldly supernaturalism and a very this-worldly pragmatism still locked in a curiously compatible marriage that has lasted longer than anyone can quite remember. Admittedly over the years both partners have changed. The supernaturalism has become less stark, and the pragmatism has grown more resourceful, now embracing state-of-the-art technology along with the prayer of faith. But the essential structure of the relationship, the essential paradox, remains intact.

An illustration of the peculiar adaptation of supernaturalism and pragmatism found in Pentecostalism can be made through a brief discussion of the significance of speaking in tongues for Pentecostal world mission. Both glossolalia and an urgency for evangelism were prominent features of early Pentecostalism, and both have experienced institutional forces reshaping them through Pentecostalism’s nearly 100-year history. Although meaning and practice have shifted, glossolalia and missionary outreach provide a window into better understanding the Pentecostal world-view and its attraction in the global marketplace.

The Call to Global Witness: The Significance of Glossolalia

Pentecostal theologian Frank Macchia (1999:16) has described Pentecostalism as "a paradigm shift from an exclusive focus on holiness to an outward thrust that involved a dynamic filling and empowering for global witness." The "sign" of such empowerment was speaking in other tongues or glossolalia. Efforts to communicate with people of other nations in glossolalia, not surprisingly, failed from the start, but this failure did not cause early Pentecostals to abandon either speaking in tongues or extensive missionary activity. Macchia (17) went on to explain, "Pentecostals were then inclined to look into the function of tongues as a sign of the Spirit’s work in the depths of the individual and corporate life of prayer and obedience." Although not all Pentecostal believers have made glossolalia into a doctrine and many (at least half of American white believers and two thirds of blacks) do not themselves speak in tongues, tongues has great symbolic value. Its belief and practice is an important factor in understanding the success of Pentecostal missionary activities. As Macchia (1999:18) suggests, glossolalia has served as a leveling force, a sense that contemporary Pentecostals need to reemphasize:

The early Pentecostals felt the urgency of the moment when they spoke in tongues as a miraculous sign of the gospel of Christ for all peoples. Contemporary Pentecostals must rediscover that sense of urgency, believing that tongues connect individual Christians and churches with the need for global justice, reconciliation and redemption.

Tongues also symbolize the need for justice and reconciliation within the body of Christ. . . .Tongues allow the poor, uneducated, and illiterate among the people of God to have an equal voice with the educated and the literate. As Harvey Cox has noted, tongues protest the ‘tyranny of words’ in worship, allowing other forms of self-expression to have equal importance. Tongues represents the ‘cathedral of the poor’, according to Walter Hollenweger, providing a sacred space for those who cannot afford to build expensive church buildings.

Pentecostal Missiology and Pentecostal Growth

While Macchia and others who have postulated the relationship between Pentecostalism’s leveling qualities and its global appeal have articulated an important reason for its growth, it probably was not an expressed desire for social justice that motivated and continues to motivate the thousands of missionaries who have served around the globe. An eschatology that linked the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to being in the "end times" gave a sense of urgency to early missionary activity and still remains an important factor in the array of themes that relate to a developing Pentecostal missiology. McClung (1988:607) provides a list of major themes that he found in scanning the field of Pentecostal literature that "have formed the impulse for its missionary activity." These include:

a literal biblicism which asserts that the Scriptures have commanded the missionary obligation of the church.

an experiential Christianity which holds "that God is to be personally experienced through the Holy Spirit," with the call to and empowerment for missionary activity.

a belief that "the Holy Spirit is personally active, living in and directing his servants in the world." (Missionaries usually have a repertoire of stories about how the Spirit bade them "go".)

eschatological urgency which is at the heart of understanding the missionary fervor of early Pentecostalism.

The blend of a biblical mandate, a personal call, and experiential empowerment has touched many thousands who have taken off for foreign lands within the past century as Pentecostal missionaries. Some, like Loren Cunningham whose narrative will be used as an illustration, have provided an institutional base for sending Pentecostal workers into the international harvest.

The Spirit Bade Him Go: The Case of Loren Cunningham

By 1960 many Pentecostals, whose ancestors for a short time set off for foreign lands immediately after an experience of being filled with the Spirit, had moved far away from the seemingly naive faith of the movement’s founders. Denominational missionary organizations increasingly required prospective missionaries to have a bible college degree before becoming active missionaries. A young Assemblies of God minister, Loren Cunningham, had at what that time seemed like a radical vision – to significantly shortly the requirements in order to harness the enthusiasm of thousands of young people in a transdenominational program for missionary outreach. Cunningham (1984:66) met with less than a supportive response from his pragmatic denomination:

But if I were expecting a quick endorsement and a blank check to work interdenominationally and still maintain my standing as a minister with my church, I was mistaken. The problem I gathered as we sat talking quietly, was that new works like ours needed to be brought under the organizational umbrella–not outside and autonomous. There was a place for me in the Assemblies, but of course I would have to be a full team player. In the end I was offered a job. A good one, too, there at headquarters, complete with a fine salary, a staff, a budget. "You can continue with your vision, Loren, but you’d be taking our a more manageable number–say ten or twenty young people a year."

My heart dropped to my knees as the very gracious offer came out–it sounded so reasonable, so secure. Only it was far from what I believed God had told me to do: send out waves of young people from all denominations into evangelism. I tried to explain what I had felt God was saying to me about what was about to happen. It was much, much bigger than twenty a year, and larger than any one denomination. "Sir," I said, "there’s another generation coming. It’s different from anything we’ve ever seen—"

The seemingly supernatural call and vision seemed destined to be quenched by the pragmatism of the organized denomination. Cunningham left the denomination with his vision to establish Youth With a Mission (YWAM).

YWAM offers a self-description on its website (www.ywam.org), profiling its role as one of the largest missionary organizations:

Youth With a Mission is an international movement of Christians working to help make a difference in a needy world. Founded in 1960, it is now one of the largest interdenominational Christian ministries, with 11,000 volunteer staff based in nearly 650 locations in over 130 countries. In addition, tens of thousands more people from scores of nations are involved on a short-term basis each year. YWAMers are united in their desire to be part of changing people’s lives for the better. They have responded to "The Great Commission"–Jesus’ command to His disciples to go into all the world and tell the Good news.

Each year some 10,000 students enroll in the Discipleship Training School, "an intensive training course beginning with an 11 or 12 week lecture/teaching phase followed by a typically 12 week practical field assignment." YWAM’s program, like its history, is a blend of supernatural empowerment and pragmatic action. Its authority structure, like that of Pentecostalism itself, is decentralized and located in hundreds of autonomous centers around the world. Cunningham’s vision in which he saw "waves of youth going ahore on every continent in the world to evangelize" seems to have been fulfilled.

What was radical in 1960 has become commonplace for much Pentecostal missionary training for today. The revival/renewal in the 1990s that centered in places like the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, Brownsville Assemblies of God (Pensacola, FL), and Harvest Rock Church (Pasadena, CA) have all given rise to training centers that are non-denominational and offer "hands-on" evangelism, as have networks of other churches refreshed by this latest move of the Spirit (see Poloma, forthcoming). Pentecostalism, once opposed to forming new denominations but organizing in part to facilitate missionary activity, has spawned organizations more in accord with the two traits identified by Gerlach and Hines (1968) noted earlier said to characterize a movement organization: a reticulate organization promoting a mission with the use of less structured networks. While more structured denominations exist under its umbrella, Pentecostalism has largely retained the movement organizational qualities that have been compatible with the globablization process.

Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition

Anthropologist Karla Poewe (1994) was one of the first social scientists to develop a description of charismatic Christianity (Pentecostalism) as a global culture. Her summary is worth quoting here before concluding this paper with a quick overview of the growth and diversity that is found within this global religion:

In sum, charismatic Christianity is a global culture because it is experiential, idealistic, biblical, and oppositional. Being experiential, it is not tied to any specific doctrine nor denomination. Being idealistic, it embraces the whole person and the whole world. Being biblical, it replaces the "Word" above politician, government, or any other worldly authority. Being oppositional, it is always potentially in tension with the establishment, which includes church, government, university, ethnic, class, and racial structures. . . .it has ‘no one system of theology, no one integrating doctrine, no particular type of polity, no one liturgy, no geographical homogeneity (Poewe, 1994: xii).

Whatever else it may be, Pentecostalism is a global culture that is experiential and holistic. Its Christianity is biblical, but there is a tension between a predominantly modernist approach to the Bible which regards it as a source of propositional truths and the Pentecostal experiences of a Spirit who blows where and how She will. (A popular contemporary comment made by speakers, directed against the fundamentalist pull on Pentecostalism in America which tends to diminish the power of the Spirit, is: "Many Christians think that the Trinity consists of the Father, the Son, and the Bible.") Increasingly Pentecostals, especially as found in scholarly writings, are recognizing and accepting the pluralism that is found as Pentecostalism weds with non-western indigenous cultures. Pentecostalism is not simply another example of an American export. In many countries the most rapidly growing Pentecostal churches have developed a form of Christianity quite different from its American cousins.

The greatest quantitative growth in Pentecostalism can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, South Korea, and especially in South America (Anderson 1999). In Chile, the indigenous Methodist Pentecostal Church has become the largest non-Catholic denomination in a country where Pentecostals now constitute 15% of the total population. In Nicaragua and Brazil Pentecostals comprise 20% of the total population. In Guatemala 30% of the population is said to be Pentecostal. These kinds of figures have caused some scholars to ask whether the entire continent of South America is destined to become Pentecostal. In parts of Asia, Pentecostalism is demonstrating a similar phenomenal growth. South Korea is home not only to Paul Yonggi Cho’s Yoida Full Gospel (Pentecostal) Church, the "largest single Christian congregation on earth," but to three other megachurches on the "top ten" list, two in Seoul and one in Inchon (Cox 1995:219). In the predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia, the Pentecostal Church of Indonesia numbered 1.3 million in 1990, making it the third largest Christian denomination in that country (Anderson 1999:26). Kimbanguism, an independent African spirit-filled church, claims the adherence of some 3 million persons (out of a population of 28 million) in Zaire. Similar independent and rapidly growing Pentecostal churches have developed in Nigeria and Ghana (Hollenweger 1997: 51-55).

There tends to be two streams of Pentecostalism found in the once-called "third world." One has been exported by American missionaries from both classic Pentecostalism (especially the Assemblies of God) and its cousins from more-recently formed independent charismatic churches. While significant differences can be found among Pentecostals in the United States (one need only recall that Smidt, et al found only 0.8% of Spirit-filled believers were willing to label themselves as both Pentecostal and Charismatic and neither would readily accept their Pentecostal serpent-handling cousins), the differences between some of the independent churches of the world and their American kin are even more notable. Religious experiences are a main staple in the Pentecostal spiritual diet, and these experiences (or at least their articulation) take on the local culture.

To use one illustration, Harvey Cox (1995:224) offers the following description of Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church to describe the syncretism that can be found in Korean Pentecostalism:

To a visitor schooled in comparative religion, the worship at the Yoido Full Gospel Church bears a striking resemblance to what is ordinarily known as "shamanism," but when one points this out to Korean pentecostal ministers they firmly deny there is any similarity. They open well-thumbed Bibles to the passage in 2 Corinthians in which Paul describes his ecstatic experience of being ‘caught up into the third heaven," and of hearing "words so secret that human lips can not repeat them." If the Apostle himself could have such visions in a trancelike state, they argue, why shouldn’t we?

Although Cho has had his share of past difficulties with the Korean Assemblies of God over alleged shamanism, he seems to have weathered the problems (at least in the American Assemblies of God), even being a keynote speaker for its General Council Meetings and holding a position with its Division of Foreign Missions. The independent African churches have not fared as well with general acceptance and tend to form another stream of Pentecostalism. At least one Pentecostal scholar has referred to "Pentecostals in the African diaspora" in Europe, America and the Carribean as having a different pneumatology than that of white Christianity. Black Pentecostals worldwide have used their Christianity "as an instrument for defining black international identity in the face of oppression and powerlessness" (Gerloff 1999). Although in both the U.S. and in South Africa, the earliest Pentecostal revivals were interracial, in both countries Pentecostalism quickly segregated. What will happen as black nations begin to develop a strong Pentecostal voice will provide the next scene for the ongoing drama.

Concluding Comments: Global Pentecostalism and the Future

Despite the tension, squabbles and disagreements existing among the different streams of global Pentecostalism, its status as a "movement organization" gives it flexibility, meaning "that it is more easily able to adjust to any context, even when that context is a rapidly changing one, as is the case in many of the cities of the Third World" (Anderson 1999:29). At the same time its success may lure sectors of this movement into becoming what theologian Harvey Cox (1999:394) has referred to a "global market culture" (which he believes is idolatry). Cox calls for a return to an "ethnic of simplicity," which Cox defines as "that suspension of ‘the things of this world’, for which the early Pentecostals were so famous." It is with his observation that we conclude this assessment:

The gospel clearly requires a ‘preferential for the poor’, not an economic system which rewards the few and excludes the many. Christianity is not against markets, but it is unalterably opposed to allowing the Market and its false ethic to dictate the meaning of life; and the gospel stands in dramatic opposition to the dominant values of the currently reigning global market culture. But will Christians in this global economy manage to resist it as the early Christians did theirs?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In the next century Christians will have to develop ways of living marked by communal sharing, not by individualistic accumulation. . . .Christians will have to speak out for the integrity of the creation against its despoilers. And we will have to expose the false claims of the ‘gods that are no gods’, in the debased ethic of the global market. If we can be faithful to this calling, God may permit us to create something new, just and beautiful in place of the debilitating religious culture of the present world age when it finally collapses, as it one day surely will (Cox 1999:394-95).

Although the shape and face of worldwide Pentecostalism is yet unclear, its development as a global religion is phenomenal. It will most certainly be the subject of extensive research to provide academic form to its diffuse content. The future of Pentecostalism in a postmodern global world remains open, with leaders and followers increasingly being challenged by scholars like Cox who urge that religion be "done differently" this time. Such challenges at present are more dream and vision than reality. The Pentecostal world-view, however, was launched by visionaries and dreamers, and it is visions and dreams that continue to revitalize the movement. Perhaps nothing will be different — but just then, maybe it will. One thing for certain, the "death of Christianity" proclaimed so loudly by some academics in the 1960s proved to be premature. Christianity is alive and thriving in Pentecostal form.



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