Tongues of Fire: The Global Rise of Pentecostalism

Tongues of Fire: The Global Rise of Pentecostalism
Valerie Gartseff
WASHINGTON,D.C.

In contrast to the ordered, predictable services found in mostChristian churches, worship at pentecostal churches is anythingbut business as usual. Take, for example, Washington, D.C.’s Rhema (ray-muh) Christian Center Church. Each Sunday, its roughly two thousand-member-congregation, mostly African-American, come together to glorify God.

One woman is exercising what is believed to be the gift of speaking in tongues, a gift that is said to flow from the spirit of the living God. Her voice overflows, bursting with energy as if having waited too long to speak. Another church member then interprets this unknown tongue.

Many American Christians, more accustomed to traditional types of worship, often assume such practices are confined to religious fanatics or fringe groups. But they are mistaken.

Pentecostalism, the age-old Christian faith characterized by spiritual healing, speaking in tongues and prophetic visions,according to some experts may be the fastest growing faith in the world today. Along with the closely related charismatics, who incorporate some pentecostal practices within the mainstream churches, the faith is growing so rapidly that experts predict one in three Christians will be pentecostal by early next century.

David Barrett, former editor of the World ChristianEncyclopedia, one of America’s foremost researchers on the growth of pentecostalism says:

“If we say there are about 50 confessions of Christianity in the world, one of which is Roman Catholicism, the pentecostal/charismatic is probably the fastest growing.” Religious experts say pentecostalism cuts across all social and ethnic divides and is catching on all over the globe, from formerly atheistic Russia, to Latin America, to China. They say this Christian faith is growing twice as fast as Islam, and it’s transforming the lives and worship of many mainline Christians, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

The people who call themselves pentecostals trace their history to the bible’s new testament. There, it says 2000 years ago followers of the recently crucified Jew named Jesus, whom they believed was the messiah, gathered to mark a Jewish holiday called pentecost. Then something extraordinary happened. “Like
the rush of a mighty wind,” the holy spirit suddenly filled them, and tongues “as of fire” hovered above their heads. Amazingly, while they came from every nation under heaven, and spoke many languages, it is said that they understood one another. Passersbys accused the crowd of being drunk. But the apostle Peter leaped to group’s defense, denying they were inebriated. Instead, he said God’s spirit was being poured out  upon his people in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Throughout the ages, Christians have been inspired by the story of pentecost. But the faith didn’t take hold in America until the 1800’s with a group of Methodist dissenters called the holiness movement. They believed that Christ could help sinful men and women become holy. By baptism in the holy spirit, believers could be empowered to live moral lives. Also, many believed that prayer could heal diseases just as it had in the time of Christ. The predominant pentecostal churches in the U.S., such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ,owe their origins to the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles,California in 1907. There an African-American preacher with no theological education attracted thousands of worshipers of all ethnic backgrounds. His followers claimed to speak in strange tongues and to be touched by the spirit of God, and proclaimed that a new pentecost was happening.

Since the 1960’s, the charismatic renewal movement has penetrated mainline Christian churches with many members claiming to experience a greater awareness of the holy spirit through charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues and spiritual healing. Charismatic Christians believe these gifts are available to individuals who have surrendered their lives to Christ. Dr. Karla Poewe (pron: Purh-va), professor of anthropology at the University of Calgary in Canada, is the editor of the new book, “Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture.” Contrary to what many people think, she says the charismatic renewal movement did not originate in the United States:
“We discovered this kind of Christianity has been going on in Europe for centuries. It goes back certainly to pietism (a reform movement in the German Lutheran Church in the 17th and 18th
centuries to renew the devotional ideal) even the early Jesuits, the Catholic priests were charismatic, and there was a lot of back and forth between Jesuits and Pietists, influencing one another. Then it occurs across the world in Africa. When we did research in South Africa, we found that in the 1940’s the zulu in natal had had charismatic renewal that went on in the Anglican Church before we knew anything about this in the U.S.”

Harvard Divinity School’s Harvey Cox writes in “fire From Heaven”, his new book on pentecostalism that “…Pentecostalism, in all its myriad forms, has become the most rapidly expanding religion of our times.”

Missionary researcher David Barrett adds there are about 20 million new converts to pentecostal/charismatic churches each year, that’s 50 thousand every day:

“Seventy percent of all pentecostals and charismatics are non-white. In other words, this isn’t just Europe and America.  And obviously if you are talking about non-whites in India or Pakistan, you are talking about relatively poor people, and you are talking about people who are from quite a different culture than Europe. There are probably 9000 cultures who have pentecostal or charismatic members in them. There are hundreds of Roman Catholic bishops who are charismatics, cardinals. There are millions of full-time Christian workers, like Catholic priests, Lutherans, converts, all sorts of people, intellectuals as well as poor people. There just happen to be far more poor people in the world, therefore the impression gets around that this appeals to poor people, but you might as well as say that Cola-Cola appeals only to poor people. The literature coming out of the pentecostal/charismatic renewal is so enormous that you’re talking about an intellectual movement as well as a popular movement.”

Why have these pentecostal and charismatic churches grown so rapidly while others have lagged behind? We can learn more about the appeal of this type of worship with a visit to Rhema (pron: Ray-ma) Christian Center Church.

There worshipers sway and clap to the beat of the elaborate musical service that goes on for nearly three hours. The pastor preaches a message based directly on the bible. The members of the congregation speak in tongues, give interpretations and prophesy the will or message of God by what they believe is divine inspiration.

Clarence Givens, pastor of the Rhema Christian Center Church, is a genuine spiritual model for his Parishioners. A retired analyst with the federal government with a working knowledge of six different languages, he was raised a baptist. Like most modern Protestants, he had been taught that supernatural gifts, such as speaking in tongues and healing, had gone out with the apostles. About 15 years ago, his wife, who had suffered for years from several illnesses, took her husband to hear Kenneth Hagin, a charismatic minister from Oklahoma. Then skeptical, Clarence Givens remembers how he watched the minister lay hands on people:

“I said, ‘I’m going to go down and let him lay hands on me, I’m going to see if there’s anything to this. So i went down and I got in line and he layed hands on me, and I felt this heat running through me, and all at once my mouth opened and I started all these strange sounds coming out. And I said, ‘I’m not doin’ that talking!’, it was just flowing, I said, ‘it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before, and it’s just coming out.’ so I went back and sat down and my wife said, “what happened?” And I said.’ I don’t know, something strange happened.’ she said, ”you’re speaking in tongues.'”

William C. Frey (fry), a bishop in the Episcopal Church, is presently dean and president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, a small seminary in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He says that about 15 percent of episcopal churches seem to be affected by charismatic renewal:

“Because when I was a very young seminarian, oh, over forty years ago, working in a small skid-row mission in the slums of Philadelphia, I prayed for a derelict who was very, very ill, and I saw what looked like a gangrenous leg, a leg that was swollen three times its normal size, was infected, dripping, smelling, he had been hit by a freight train while he was drunk and disorderly, wandering about the freight yards in Philadelphia, had lost his other leg and arm, and this one leg was due to be amputated the next day by the doctors at the charity ward at the University of Pennsylvania hospital. And he came to the chapel and asked me to pray for him. So I prayed for him and lo-and-behold, he was healed.”

Not everyone is prepared to embrace the pentecostal revival.  Steve Arpee, an episcopal priest in Washington, D.C., is involved with an experimental ministry called the church without walls. He Praises historic pentecostalism in general because it tended to empower the laity for ministry. In other words, they have their own personal experience of God’s power.

But he says that the modern-day charismatic movement’s emphasis on spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, has led to a rigid focus on a worship style that has proven divisive in many churches:

“Therefore when people had this very wonderful experience of the presence and action of God, they tended to try to replicate that by a particular style of worship. It tended to use folk music, people liked guitars, there was a tremendous emphasis on congregational singing rather than choirs. These things are valid in themselves. But my criticism is that it was all too easy to think of the life of the church primarily in terms of what happens on Sunday morning and primarily in terms of liturgical style. And if that’s where people start, they are bound to end up at loggerheads. So one of the criticisms of the charismatic movement is that it tended to fracture congregations.”

Some see the pentecostal movement besieged with widening splits on theological issues, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood. Most pentecostals are politically and theologically conservative, something ignored until the so-called religious right gained political prominence in the U.S. Critics make the point that many pentecostal denominations have become racially divided. That’s in contrast to the profound multi-racial pentecostal experience that took place in 1907 on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, an event on which they base their origins. But recently several pentecostal denominations, including the mostly white Assemblies of God and largely African-American Church of God in Christ, met in Memphis, Tennessee, to embark on a new alliance based on the Azusa model.

Critics also are appalled by the excesses of televangelists, such as Jim Bakker, who used genuine religious faith as a way to solicit large sums of money from faithful viewers. Too often the money was not used for religious purposes, but for the personal financial gain of the television preachers. For that reason, many charismatic Christians have ceased to use the terms charismatic or pentecostal to describe themselves. In the late 1980’s, ministries that taught the so-called “prosperity gospel,” came under serious criticism.

Today, a new brand of conservative Christians has emerged. They are developing “megachurches”, huge churches with membership in the thousands, and value the pentecostal spirit without using the term to describe themselves.

Many students of pentecostalism, such as Karla Poewe (pron: Perh-va), find that the lives of these adherents often appear to be transformed, and their Christian faith is able to unite individuals across all national, educational and racial backgrounds:

“What fascinated me as I did research among charismatic Christians is that the kind of things that i discovered occurred among scientists as well as among blacks who lived in, as it were, mud huts in parts of Africa. What it is is seeing the world in terms of a living God, a God who participates in your life today, a God who gives signs that he is present in your life and you have the capacity to read these signs and therefore interprets our life, as it were, as guided and penetrated by acts of God. And this is very exciting to anybody, whether they live in the rural villages of Africa or if they are in scientific labs in north America, that’s the fascinating part.”

For University of Calgary anthropologist Karla Poewe (purh-va), the pentecostal movement is a global culture, a tapestry that transcends national, ethnic, racial and class boundaries, not an American invention, as she insists, “foisted on the world by the Christian right.” She thinks the movement is only a surprising phenomenon because we think that modern life would have freed us from of this kind of thinking, from a belief and trust that there are still religious wonders out there, that one can interpret what goes on in terms of signs and wonders. This is the surprising aspect of pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, she notes, and this is exactly what makes it so refreshing and appealing to so many.

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