Monday, November 8, 2010

A New Wave in Christianity: Exploring the Universal Religion Pentecostalism and Why it Appeals to Millions of People

By Elizabeth Bailey

This paper will examine how Pentecostalism has transitioned from its founding in 1906 to today using a variety of different techniques to appeal to new converts.

With over 500 million members, Pentecostalism in one of the largest Christian denominations in the world, with its flexibility and adaptability, Pentecostalism caters to almost every type of person, from any background, in any country, and all social classes. As a religion that is famous for its emphasis on a relationship with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, Pentecostalism is considered by outsiders to be crazy, but serves a community for its members. Pentecostalism is an appealing religion to millions of people as it enhances the lives of its members, while from the inside it fills the hearts and souls of the parishioners, it is not a perfect religion, but one that is considered to be fragmented within its own sect and uninterested in the teachings other religions by outsiders. With two camps clearly defined: Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, it is important to understand both points of view: why Pentecostalism is so appealing to millions of people and the criticism surrounding Pentecostalism. It may not be a perfect religion, but Pentecostalism uses a variety of techniques to draw people in and create converts.

In Christian tradition, the Catholic Church was born from a miracle when the Holy Spirit ascended upon the 12 apostles and blessed them with the ability to speak in many languages, this event is known as the Pentecost, a day celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday. As written the Bible:

When the Day of the Pentecost has fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as fire…And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2, 1-4 and 41).

The birth of Pentecostalism took place in the same way in 1906. As Philip Hughes writes in The Pentecostals in Australia, “…William Joseph Seymour [a black preacher in Los Angeles], had become convinced that is people prayed with sufficient fervour and intensity, God would respond with a new ‘Pentecost’ in preparation for the end of the world” (Hughes 2). According to history on April 9, 1906 Seymour watched one of his followers become overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in tongues and so the revivalist movement of Pentecostalism began (Anastas 32). After witnessing this miracle, Seymour founded the Asuza Street Mission, which mixed races, but this phenomenon did not last long, but Pentecostalism continued to thrive and grow (Anastas 34).

Today, Pentecostal churches are the fastest growing group of churches in Christianity, with over a quarter of all Christians considering themselves Pentecostals (Gooren 1). As Mark Jennings wrote in his article “Won’t you break free”, “Pentecostals have clearly demonstrated an ability to adapt to the times, and perhaps part of the appeal of the movement in post-modernity is the generally conservative, morally prescriptive stance couples with a definite experiential element that is now devoid of some of the more “loony” elements of the past” (Jennings 166). This adaptability Jennings discusses is on element that makes Pentecostalism appealing. In Jennings article, he discusses his experience at Breakfree Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Perth. During his time at Breakfree, Jennings noticed the importance music played in all of the services. While Pentecostalism is traditionally recognized as the religion where people speak in tongues, according to Jennings, “At Breakfree, however, speaking in tongues was generally confined to the prayer meeting, where a committed core of participants gathered in the hall before the service” (Jennings 166). This transformation from speaking in tongues publically, to a small group privately praying and speaking in tongues is one way the Pentecostal Church has changed. By making the services more welcoming and less chaotic for visitors and new members of the Church, Pentecostalism has become more approachable and appealing to people. Breakfree’s use of music is another element that draws people in, not only is music used as a technique to begin a spiritual experience with God, but music makes the service more lively and memorable to new converts.

Glossolalia is an important practice in the Pentecostal Church, but today more emphasis is placed on the experience one has with the divine, rather than the practice of speaking in tongues. As Jennings states, “Pentecostalism [is] a religion on manifestation” (Jennings 171), speaking in tongues is not the only way Pentecostals display their experience with the divine. During his time at Breakfree, Jennings saw that music was one tacit used to allow the congregation to commune with God. Jennings writes, “What sets Breakfree Church- and Pentecostals churches like it- apart here is the deliberate manner in which music is used to try and draw people away from the outside world to a space where God is to be experienced” (Jennings 163-164). Timothy Wadkins also described his experience at a Pentecostal Church in El Salvador, saying, “…the gifts of the spirit are emphasized, and Sunday celebrations are animated with raised hands and open weeping….Healings are regular occurrences” (Wadkins 27). Both of these descriptions of events that take place during Pentecostal services are examples of how Pentecostalism is a religion of display, where showing everyone that you have a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit is important. By displaying one’s relationship with the divine, Pentecostalism sends the message that anyone can have a divine experience, it is not something that needs to be taught as in other religions.

The manifestations of belief that take place during worship for Pentecostals are directly connected to the core doctrines of the Church, which Joel Robbin presents in “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity”, Robbins writes, “ Jesus offers salvation; Jesus heals; Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit; Jesus is coming again” (Robbin 121). These core doctrines make Pentecostalism portable, they are easy to teach to converts and by speaking in tongues, performing healings, using music as a way to connect with God, and through television Pentecostals are able to make their relationship with the divine frequent, memorable, and fun.

Media also plays a large role in converting people to Pentecostalism and helping Pentecostals make worship a daily ritual. Lynn Clark examines the media’s influence over religion in her book From Angels to Aliens, according to Clark:

….mass media have been associated with religious change in at least two important ways. First, the invention of the printing press established an alternative center of power that challenged the church’s authority to define the issues that we expressed to the public…. Second, the media, and the entertainments media in particular, have played a role in religious change, in a fundamental way, (Clark 224-225).

Today, television is one of the key ways religions such as Pentecostalism are able to reach so many people daily and how members are able to maintain such a strong faith. It is easy to turn on the television for 20 minutes a day and watch a sermon from your living room, people are able to experience the Holy Spirit from the comfort of their own homes on a daily basis. Bobby Alexander found in his book Televangelism: Redressive Ritual viewers of shows such as “Hillsong” and the “707 Club” have ritualized their preparation and participation, Alexander writes, “82% [of survey participants] indicated that they participate in the worship format of the program; 82% pray along with the telecast; and 37% read the Bible along with the program. (Alexander 199). These three statistics elucidate how television promotes worship. These viewers are not just watching “Hillsong” on a Sunday morning while eating their pancakes, they are wholeheartedly participating; using television as a way to reach viewers that may not be able to attend church or to reach members daily, Pentecostalism appeals to so many because one does not need to leave one’s home to have an experience with the Holy Spirit.

The Pentecostal Church does more than convert people, it also creates a community for millions of people. While in El Salvador, Wadkins interviewed numerous converts to Pentecostalism and what he found was that many of them all had similar stories. Wadkins writes, “Prior to ‘getting saved’ they [converts] suffered from the effects of depression, gang violence, drugs, marital strife…Their lives began to change only when they took responsibility for their predicaments, acknowledged the saving work of Christ on the cross, and received the healing power of the Holy Spirit” (Wadkins 28). By joining the Church many of the converters Wadkins spoke to were saved not only spiritually, but physically as well. Henri Gooren, also found that lives of many Pentecostal converters were changed once they joined the Church. In his review of “An Introduction to Pentecostalism”, Gooren agrees with Allan Anderson’s optimism about the Pentecostal Church saying, “these new communities sometimes filled the gaps created by socio-economic and religious disintegration and offered full participation and supportive structures for marginalized and displaced people” (Gooren). By creating a system that allows disadvantaged groups to move up in the world and that helps those in need, Pentecostalism appeals to not only to advantaged middle-class citizens, but poorer third world countries as well.

While Pentecostalism appeals to million of people globally, within the religious community there are several issues surrounding Pentecostalism and their beliefs and relationships with other religions. In his book, Gathering the Faithful Remnant, author Philip Powell criticizes Pentecostalism and the history they so proudly promote. Philip writes, “Pentecostals…frequently revise history and claim or imply that many of the great heroes of the “church” support their position [to begin the church’s history with scripture]. All too frequently they do this on the basis of very flimsy evidence and in some cases no evidence at all” (Powell 367). Philip argues that Pentecostals change their history in order to better fit the word of God and that written in the Bible. Philip believes that by changing the religion’s history with little or no evidence, followers will begin to doubt and lose faith (Philip 367). Changing the history of Pentecostalism to better-fit scripture is a valid concern. Pentecostalism promotes spirituality and the word of Jesus Christ, but altering the history would be considered lying. As a Christian denomination with so many members, it is important for the Church to be completely honest and Philip is correct in saying that as this phenomenon continues those converted will begin to question the legitimacy of the Church and its doctrines.

Upon its founding the Pentecostal Church was considered by many to be a phenomenon that would pass and a church of fanatics. The Catholic Church did not understand the history of Pentecostalism or consider Pentecostalism a valid religion for a time, but in 1960’s as the ecumenical movement began in the 1960’s and the Catholic Church opened their doors to the idea of promoting Christian unity, Pentecostals became suspicious and pulled away from the movement. Peter Hocken writes in “Christian Unity?” about the misunderstanding and suspicions the Pentecostals felt in regards to participating in the ecumenical movement alongside the Catholic Church saying, “The Evangelical and Pentecostal suspicion that the ecumenical movement lacked a spiritual foundation and was just a human effort to merge denominations finds no support in the origins” (Hocken 163). This fear that rather than promoting Christian unity the ecumenical movement became a ploy to merge dominations is still present today, and many Pentecostals are uninterested in the teachings and similarities they share with other Christian dominations. While different Christian dominations teach different doctrines, it is important to have a united front and respect for the teachings of other religions. The Pentecostal fear of losing its identity is legitimate, but Christian unity is also important. In order for Pentecostalism to grow it must put aside its fear of other institutions and its suspicions of other structures and teachings (Hocken 167).

Pentecostalism has transformed from a religion founded in Los Angeles that fell apart because of race to a universal religion with over 500 million members. Today, Pentecostalism is no longer considered a religion of fanatics or “holy rollers”, but as a Christian domination that promotes a strong relationship with the divine and an unquestionable belief that the scripture is completely true (Hocken 162). Through its multimedia approaches televised services-to music as a core element in worship Pentecostalism is continuously attracting new converts. Speaking in tongues is no longer the only image associated with Pentecostalism, today millions of converts from around the world would agree that Pentecostalism transformed their lives for the better and provided a community where they could worship and receive personal aid. While there are downsides to Pentecostalism: changing the religion’s history to better fit the Bible and fearing and being suspicious of the ecumenical movement and working alongside the Catholic Church to promote Christian unity, Pentecostalism is a religion that appeals to millions of people because it provides a community inside and outside of worship. Pentecostalism is a flexible and adaptable and as other religions struggle to find their place in the modern world, Pentecostalism will continue to transform to meet the needs and desires of its members, making it one an appealing religion that will only continue to grow.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bobby C. Televangelism: Redressive Ritual Within a Larger Social Drama. Atlanta: Scholar , 1994. Print.

Anastas, Benjamin. “The Pentecostal Promise.” New York Times Magazine 23 Apr. 2006: 32-34. Print.

The Bible. Mawson: Gideons Internation in Australia, 1987. Print. New King James Vers.

“Christianity Reborn; Pentecostals.” Economist 19 Dec. 2006: 84. Web. 6 Nov. 2010. .

Clark, Lynn Schofield. From Angels to Aliens: Teenages, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Gooren, Henri. “An Introduction of Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity By Allan Anderson.” Rev. of An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity, by Allan Anderson. Ars Disputandi 4 (Oct. 2004): n. pag. Print.

Hocker, Peter. “Charismatic Movements Christian Unity? The Opportunities and Challenges Raised by the Pentecostal and.” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies 27.162 (2010): 162-168. Print.

Hollenweger, Walter J. The Pentecostals. Trans. R. A, Wilson. London: SCM , 1972. Print.

Hughes, Philip J. The Pentecostals in Australia. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Services, 1996. Print.

Jennings, Mark. “’Won’t you break free?’ An enthnography of music and the divine-human encounter at an Australian Pentecostal Church.” Culture and Religion 9.2 (2008): 161-174. Print.

Karkkainen, Veli-Matti. “Identity and Plurality: A Pentecostal-Charismatic Perspective.” International Review of Mission 91.363: 500-503. Print.

Powell, Philip L., and Aeron Morgan. Gathering the Faithful Remnant. Healesville: Christian Witness Ministries, 2002. Print.

Robbins, Joel. “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 117-143 . Print.

Synan, Vinson, ed. Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins. Plainfield: Logos International, 1975. Print.

Wadkins, Timothy. “Pentecostal Power.” Christianity Century 4 Nov. 2006: 26-29. Print.

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