Pentecostal power 2006

WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 10/18/06.

Church historian Vinson Synan has made 20 trips to Latin America while studying the explosive growth of Pentecostal Christianity and he believes that it’s time to state the obvious.

“We’ve reached the point where you’re not going to be able to get along very well with many believers in the Third World unless you embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” said Synan, who teaches at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

“You just can’t have a closed mind when it comes to healing and prophecy and speaking in tongues if you want to talk to people in places like Latin America, Africa and Asia. We¹re talking about the whole church there — almost all of the Protestants and many of the Catholics.”

Synan has been saying this for decades in books like “The Old-Time Power” and “The Century of the Holy Spirit,” and he isn’t alone. Now, researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ( in Washington, D.C., have released a wave of data from 10 nations documenting that the diverse 100-year-old movement called Pentecostalism has touched the lives of one in four Christians around the world.

The Pew team defined “Pentecostals” as members of older bodies such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ and the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. Then there are “charismatics” who are Catholics, Anglicans and mainline Protestants who embrace healing, prophecy and other spiritual gifts, yet remain in their own churches.

Together, these groups form what many now call the “renewalists.” According to this study, these believers — to cite four eyebrow-raising examples — make up 60 percent of the population in Guatemala, 56 percent in Kenya, 49 percent in Brazil and 44 percent in the Philippines.

“Renewalists, as a group Š tended to have a very high view of the authority of scripture. They tended to be very regular in worship attendance. They tended to uniformly believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation,” said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Center in religion and American politics.

“They tended to be quite conservative or traditional on moral beliefs such as sexual behavior, the consumption of alcohol, divorce and so forth. Š But even in those countries where majorities of the population hold very traditional beliefs, renewalists tend to hold those beliefs more intensely and more extensively.”

Another interesting part of this study, said Synan, indicated that “glossolalia,” or “speaking in tongues,” may no longer be the spiritual gift that defines charismatics and even many Pentecostals. Within the Assemblies of God, for example, there has long been a gap between an “old guard” that believes this experience of ecstatic speech is always the initial sign that someone has been “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and a “third wave” of younger believers who see it as a gift that some experience and some do not.

What truly unites “renewalists” is their belief that miracles and other signs of God’s power, especially acts of healing, are real and can be seen in modern life. There is no question that this emphasis on the supernatural causes tension in some churches touched by Pentecostalism, especially tensions between Protestant and Catholic leaders in America and Europe and their Third World counterparts.

Meanwhile, there are conservative Protestants — especially Calvinists and Baptists — who reject Pentecostalism and its emphasis on prophecy and “glossolalia.” Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, have decided to ban all foreign missionary candidates who confess that they practice a “private prayer language,” another phrase often used to describe “speaking in unknown tongues.”

Nevertheless, said Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo, “it is getting harder and harder to find non-charismatic Protestants in Latin America, Africa and many other parts of the world.” Meanwhile, top Catholic leaders appear to have accepted the need for theological dialogue with the charismatics in their global flock.

At least, said Lugo, it’s clear that some clerics in Rome can do the math.

“The Vatican knows that it will have to deal with this new reality and the trend there is definitely toward accommodation,” he said. “The U.S. Catholic bishops have not been as open. But the growth of Catholicism in this country is among charismatic Catholics, especially among Hispanics and people moving here from Africa and overseas. There is simply no way to ignore that.”

Terry Mattingly ( directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.