I was never embarrassed as a child to acknowledge that I went to church, but always dreaded the follow-up question, “Which one?”, because I quickly learned that my answer “the Pentecostal Church” would only invite bemusement.
My mumbled explanations would sometimes provoke a spark of recognition — “Oh, like one of those black gospel churches?” — to which I found myself responding that while there were perhaps some similarities, no, my church was not exactly like the famous James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers.
Thirty years on, I am not sure that Pentecostalism is much better understood than then, though the influence of the movement upon more traditional Christianity is now much more obvious and widespread both in the UK and beyond. The Pentecostal denominations (the first of which were founded in the early years of the 20th century) now account for around 300 million Christians worldwide, the single largest grouping within Protestant Christianity.
If we include the Charismatic Movement (members of mainstream denominations such as the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches who are influenced by Pentecostal theology and spirituality), and the second generation of churches who left the established churches in the 1970s and 1980s to form what became known as the ‘new churches’, then that figure probably more than doubles.
That’s around 650 million worshippers. So what is its appeal?
The vast majority of Pentecostals are entirely mainstream in their core theology and believe pretty much the same as any other orthodox Christian worldwide about the nature of God. It is what they add to the mix that is distinctive. Pentecostals believe that the Holy Spirit empowers every aspect of their lives and that he may give them miraculous abilities or ‘charismatic gifts’ (hence the use of the word ‘Charismatic’ as another description of this Christian tradition).
These gifts might include the ability to heal the sick through God’s power by praying for them; ‘prophecy’ or the capacity to speak out specific new messages or promises from God; the ‘gift of tongues’ which enables them to speak new languages ecstatically under the Spirit’s power that they have never learned; or the skill to ‘interpret’ or translate the ‘messages in tongues’ that others have spoken.
Pentecostals would say supernatural gifts such as these have been present throughout the history of the Church. And there is evidence of ecstatic prophecy in the life of the early church.
But it is also clear that after the era of the apostles, Pentecostal spirituality was not the norm. This was the case at least until, around the turn of the 20th century, perhaps partially in response to the emerging dominance of ‘liberal’ theology and the scientific challenge to the Bible posed by Darwinism, small clusters of Christians throughout the world began to gather together and pray for a renewal of what they saw as biblical Christianity and a restoration of the Charismatic gifts to the church.
Their prayers were answered in a series of great revivals through which many thousands were added to the Church.
Pentecostalism began in the USA, and beyond, as a religion for the poor, for the underprivileged and the otherwise unwelcomed. By and large it has retained that perspective. And that is one of the undeniable factors behind the movement’s huge global growth. While, in a sweeping generalisation, Charismatics have tended to reflect a slightly more prosperous, middle-class background, Pentecostal believers are particularly dominant in some of the world’s poorest regions. It has a message that clearly resonates with the poor.
Its adherents in South America and across Africa are drawn fundamentally by its energetic, uplifting tone and inspirational message. For the young single mum living in the barrios, the elderly widow in Kerala or the boy living on the streets of Nairobi, the religion teaches that they can overcome their circumstances to live lives of influence and significance; it shows them that God cares about them, and is able to meet their physical and emotional needs as well as the spiritual; it reveals that they have direct and immediate access to God through the Holy Spirit and don’t need to fight through class, gender and social barriers to be heard.
The joyful, exuberant music, congregational participation in prayer and song, experiencing the Holy Spirit while dancing and clapping certainly don’t hurt either. The worship is intended to bring about an experience of God’s presence and the gifts of the Spirit are often demonstrated, to dramatic effect.
It is an extrovert, engaging and community-focused faith which promotes conservative social mores. While at its worst it can become negative and judgmental, most frequently, right living is presented as a goal to aspire to and work towards.
True, the idea of ‘Prosperity theology’, that God will reward followers financially if they give generously to support the mission of the church, is taken to excess to detrimental effect in places. But where it is presented as an invitation to work hard to better oneself and improve one’s family circumstances, it has served as a useful tool to reshape individual and community priorities. It has helped bring families out of poverty, criminal behaviour and addiction. Pentecostalism worldwide is growing because it meets a very real and a very deep need.
And it also has a willingness to speak out on important social issues. Some prominent church and denominational leaders have seen it as their responsibility to speak ‘prophetically’ to governments and presidents, commending them for decisions which reflect Pentecostal social and economic values and asking their congregations to support particular parties at the ballot box. They will criticise policies which are seen as promoting unethical behaviour, or restricting the churches’ freedoms in any way. Some have even stood for office, on anti-exploitation, anti-corruption tickets.
The story in Europe is somewhat different, though; except perhaps in Italy and in Scandinavia, Pentecostals in Continental Europe have struggled to make much headway, and while their numbers are growing in the face of broader decline in church attendance, the most substantial increase has come through immigration. Regretfully, the commitment to racial inclusion which was so markedly a feature of the early revivals and doubtless part of its initial appeal has not been universally sustained. Both in the US and the UK, Pentecostal denominations are divided upon broadly racial grounds.
The Windrush generation, reaching Britain in the 1950s, found a colder country, a colder spirituality and a colder welcome than they anticipated, and decided they needed to found their own churches to worship in the way they were accustomed to. The (black majority) New Testament Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy and Church of God in Christ, which together account for around 200,000 members in Britain, all have their origins in this period, while the white majority Elim, Assemblies of God and Apostolic churches comprise similar numbers of congregants and rather more individual churches, but trace their history back to the 1920s.
In the UK, however, it is the Charismatic Movement which has grown most rapidly, and more than matches the numbers of the Pentecostal denominations. A series of ‘new churches’ or ‘house churches’ grew out of the established denominations in the 1970s and 1980s, but many Charismatics stayed within the Church of England or Roman Catholic Church. Their influence has grown stronger in recent times with the appointment of one of their number, Justin Welby, as Archbishop of Canterbury and the rise to global prominence of the Alpha Course, which originated from the Charismatic Anglican Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, which has itself evolved under the ‘HTB’ brand into a significant network of large and growing churches.
All these churches, Pentecostal and Charismatic, reflect a distinctive spirituality: a passion for life, a contemporary approach to preaching and to sung worship in particular, which is often accompanied by a rock band rather than the organ. While there are those who would say that there is something ‘not very British’ about the energy and enthusiasm of Pentecostal spirituality, there are as many who find its directness and message of empowerment for life to be liberating and transformative. And the message is spread widely and enthusiastically.
Along with Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism emphasises the need for individual conversion, and expects congregants to share their faith. Most new converts come simply through being invited to church by their friends. In the UK, some of the growth has come from immigration, but the single biggest increase in Pentecostal numbers has come through the churches’ evangelistic activity among non-Christians and from those leaving quieter and arguably less engaging congregations. Don’t forget, these congregations have been known to fill Wembley stadium.
Can the church cope with such massive growth? All the signs suggest its influence will grow stronger in the global south, and while the most rapid growth of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in the UK still seems to be coming from the black and minority ethnic community (whose churches are growing at, on average, around 15% a year), the style of worship is shaping the life and culture of more and more mainstream congregations here.
As social Christianity collapses and mainstream church attendance continues to decline, the proportion of churchgoers of Pentecostal persuasion steepens its rise and deepens its influence. This has already provoked some concern within the progressive wing of the Church of England. The conservative social and theological positioning of Pentecostalism is likely to lead to some measure of ecclesiastical and even sociopolitical conflict, as the committed biblicism of the Pentecostals encounters progressive attitudes in society at large.
But it is undeniable that there is a growing constituency out there seeking some security and stability amid life’s challenges. Pentecostalism has that to give and is, in this way, a premodern faith for a postmodern society.