The Growth of Global Pentecostalism (Wheaton Theology Conference 4)

Conceptual composite arrowAfter a slight hiatus so I could slip some actual teaching in, we’re back to reviewing some of the sessions from the recent Wheaton Theology Conference. And this we’ll focus on a paper that took a slightly different approach. Rather than focusing on theological issues, Allan Anderson looked at facts and trends relative to the growth of pentecostalism around the world.

What’s a “Pentecostal”?

Before you can talk about the growth of pentecostalism, of course, you need some kind of definition about what qualifies as “pentecostal.” And Anderson started with a rather broad definition, including people in four categories:

  • The “classic Pentecostal” denominations (e.g. Assemblies of God)
  • Independent churches (i.e. church that are not affiliated with pentecostal denominations but that affirm key pentecostal doctrines and practices)
  • “Charismatic” churches (i.e. those that are part of non-pentecostal denominations but that affirm key pentecostal doctrines and practices)
  • Independent megachurches (this apparently received its own category because of the growth and global influence of such churches)

Anderson’s stats about global pentecostalism, then, summarize information about Christians in all four categories.

The Demographics of Global Pentecostalism

I won’t try to summarize all of the stats that Anderson offered, but here are some of the more interesting ones:

  • There were 631 million pentecostals in 2014 comprising nearly 1/4 of all Christians.
  • There were only 63 million pentecostals in 1970, and the number is expected to reach 800 million by 2025.
  • 2/3 of pentecostals are in the majority world.
  • Classic pentecostalism only accounts for 4% of North America and 2% of Europe (though that percentage would be higher if you only counted those who attend church regularly)

Three Historic Truths

In one of the more interesting parts of the presentation, Anderson discussed the beginnings of the penteocstal movement, arguing for three key historical truths:

  1. Historical Continuity: We have a tendency to talk about pentecostalism as though appeared out of thin air with the Azusa Street Revival. But Anderson pointed out that we have to understand pentecostalism as growing organically out of (at least) the earlier evangelical revivals and the Wesleyan holiness movement.
  2. Many Points of Origin: Anderson also pushed back on the usual narrative of pentecostalism beginning at Azusa Street and then spreading around the world. Instead, Anderson argued that although Azusa Street was important, it was one among several significant events. So modern pentecostalism has many beginnings that worked together to shape the global movement.
  3. Many Waves: And Anderson also critiqued the common assumption that pentecostalism grew in three main stages: classic pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and the “Third Wave.” Since many pentecostal movements don’t fit neatly into that three-fold narrative (e.g. Latter Rain, Jesus People), we should see Pentecostalism as involving many different “waves.”

Why Is Pentecostalism Growing So Fast?

A good chunk of Anderson’s paper focused on the “driving motivations” that have contributed to pentecostalism’s rapid spread. And he focused here on four things:

  1. Missiological Factors: From the very beginning, pentecostalism saw itself as a “missionary” movement, with evangelism lying at the center of the church’s purpose in the world.
  2. Theological Factors: Anderson highlighted quite a few things here, arguing primarily that certain features of pentecostal theology make it both attractive and flexible. Some key ideas here include pentecostalism’s emphasis on personal experience of the Spirit, recognition of the human need for divine involvement in the everyday world, and a refusal to separate spiritual/physical or sacred/secular.
  3. Cultural/Social Factors: Anderson was careful not to explain pentecostalism exclusively in terms of social/cultural factors, but he argued that we do need to take them into account. And here he mentioned pentecostalism’s ability to tap into ancient religious beliefs about the reality and power of the supernatural, its tendency to subvert convention by empowering lay leaders, its willingness to “translate” Christianity into the language/idioms/customs of various cultures, and its history of engaging issues of gender, race and class.
  4. Globalizing Factors: Finally, Anderson mentioned pentecostalism’s early embrace of things like mass communications media, international organization, and the development of a global charismatic culture. In short, arising at the beginning of the twentieth century, pentecostalism quickly embraced the global world into which it was born.

My one reservation in this section was the way Anderson described some of these “distinguishing” features. When describing any Christian group and what makes it special/unique, we need to be careful about what we may be unintentionally saying about other Christian groups. Are the pentecostals unique in seeing themselves as a “missionary” movement with a strong emphasis on evangelism form the beginning? Certainly not. Let’s not suggest that rapid growth is the only indicator that a church has a vision for and commitment to missions. Similarly, are pentecostals unique in emphasizing the transformative power of the Spirit and the human need for personal experience of the divine? Of course not. All Christian churches emphasize these theological truths. Of course, the way they understand these truths differently, and there are diverse ways for these things to be manifest in the life of the church. But again, let’s not suggest that the pentecostals have cornered the market on experiencing the Spirit just because their approach might be more noticeable.

Future Prospects for Global Pentecostalism

Anderson closed the presentation with some statistics on the expected growth of pentecostalism moving forward. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The rapid growth of the church in the global world, along with the corresponding decline of the church in the global north, suggests that pentecostalism will account for an ever larger percentage of Christianity in the future.
  • There is no sign that the growth rate of pentecostalism has slowed down, and it may even be increasing in places.
  • According to a 2006 Pew Forum Report, classic pentecostals now comprise a significant minority of the population in many countries:  Guatemala (20%), Brazil (15), Chile (9), Kenya (33), Nigeria (18) South Africa (10). And when you add charismatics and independent church, it is even more significant in some countries: Guatemala (60%), Brazil (49), Kenya (56), Philippines (44). In the future, then, it seems likely that many majority world countries will have populations in which pentecostal Christians are either in the majority or comprise a very significant minority.

Check out the rest of the posts in our series on the Wheaton Theology Conference:

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