The Spirit moves them: Pentecostals are swelling their ranks worldwide

San Diego Union-Tribune/April 16, 2006
By Sandi Dolbee

Draeh Hancock was on the floor of Faith Chapel Church of God in Christ in San Diego, sweating and shaking and speaking in a language she didn't understand.

And she couldn't have been happier.

“I wanted to be filled by the Holy Spirit, but I was always afraid,” Hancock said after the recent Sunday service had ended, tears welling in her eyes. “I prayed for it.”

As it began to happen, attendants helped her sit on the carpet. She was wearing a dress, so someone covered her legs with a blanket.

“It was just like a release,” Hancock said. “I wasn't afraid anymore. That's when I began speaking in tongues.”

Hancock, a 27-year-old makeup artist and aspiring singer, had been felled by the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, that is. She was communicating with God in a way that, for many Christians, is almost as old as Easter itself.

It was seven weeks after the Resurrection when, the New Testament's Book of Acts says, the disciples spoke in tongues. Jesus' followers were gathered together on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the celebration of the spring harvest. Suddenly, there was a rush of wind. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance,” it says in the second chapter of Acts.

Fast-forward to 100 years ago, to a cleaned-out stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. It was there that a one-eyed, African-American preacher helped lead a three-year revival that would give modern-day Pentecostalism a booster shot still felt around the world.

Later this month, when a multicultural convention of Pentecostal luminaries gathers in Los Angeles to celebrate the Azusa Street revival's centennial, there will be much to boast about. Although the numbers are admittedly fluid, Pentecostalism is considered the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in the world, skyrocketing from less than a million in 1900 to roughly 600 million today.

Included in those numbers are entire denominations – Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God and United Pentecostal Church International among them. But there also are segments of mainline Protestants and Catholics who have adopted the “charismatic” fervor; the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, for example, says it has reached 100 million Catholics since its formation in the 1960s.

“I think Pentecostalism is popular because it is in a sense a very democratic phenomenon,” said Cecil M. Robeck, a Pentecostal minister and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

All people, poor or rich, are on a level playing field, with their own direct pipelines to God. “I think that has really been hugely successful, especially in Third World countries, where it has grown very rapidly,” Robeck added.

Pentecostal Christians, by definition, embrace baptism by the Holy Spirit, usually accompanied by speaking in tongues, faith healing and other supernatural experiences. They also tend to be culturally and biblically conservative.

“Pentecostalism offers the Christian believer the opportunity to experience the God they believe in in a real, tangible way,” said the Rev. Billy Wilson, a Tennessee minister and executive officer for the Azusa Street Centennial, scheduled for April 25-29 in Los Angeles.

If Easter is the promise in Christianity, then Pentecost is the power.

“The Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, came and Jesus said, 'It will give you power; you will witness for me,' ” said Bishop Roy Dixon, Faith Chapel's 70-year-old pastor and a regional leader in the predominantly black Church of God in Christ.

Dixon believes that at some point in church history, “it seems like the Holy Spirit got lost in this funnel of religion.” Until about a century ago, that is.

There had been other, similar revivals, including ones in Kansas and Wales, that caused spiritual stirrings. But this gathering in Los Angeles appeared to be different, bringing together men and women, blacks and whites, and commissioning them to spread the faith.

“From the time it opened its doors, it began laying hands on and providing credentials for people who went everywhere,” said Robeck, author of “The Azusa Street Mission and Revival.”

Beginning April 9, 1906, the revival continued until 1909, led by William Seymour, the son of former slaves who had suffered a bout of smallox that left him blind in one eye. The first newspaper story about the revival ran April 18, 1906 – the same day as the great San Francisco earthquake.

“That shaking of the West Coast seemed to awaken people to the possibility of a new spiritual reality,” said Wilson, the centennial director.

Bishop Dixon is more blunt: “There's nothing like a calamity to turn people to God.”

Among the throngs drawn to the Azusa Street Mission was Charles Mason, a black preacher from Memphis who went on to found the Church of God in Christ. Latinos also caught the Holy Ghost bug, launching what scholar Arlene Sanchez Walsh calls “a steady and slow conversion.”

“The idea that they can have direct contact with the divine is popular,” said Sanchez Walsh, a Pentecostal who specializes in Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University. “Pentecostalism, its main doctrine, is that you have a direct supernatural experience with the Holy Spirit.”

Cultural anthropologist Thomas Csordas of the University of California San Diego has studied charismatic Catholics and speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, since the 1970s. “From my standpoint, it's a fully inspired human phenomenon,” he said.

Sanchez Walsh echoes that sentiment. “Whatever you cannot express to God in this particular moment, God allows you to express in a spiritual language.”

Still, critics question the authenticity of reports of faith healings and speaking in tongues – and warn of the dangers of what more than one calls “sensationalism.”

Roger Olson, who teaches theology at Baylor University in Texas, raises other questions. “Part of Pentecostalism's dark side is rampant sexual and financial scandal,” he wrote in a recent edition of the Christian Century magazine. A former Pentecostal, Olson blames “a cult of personality” with “charismatic leaders put on pedestals above accountability.”

The life of faith healer and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare Gospel church in the 1920s, was riddled with controversy, including numerous lawsuits and a mysterious, monthlong disappearance. In the 1980s, televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were dismissed from the Assemblies of God for wrongdoing. Bakker served five years in prison for fraud and conspiracy, and Swaggart admitted to encounters with prostitutes, though today they still have TV shows and remain active in ministries.

As for Pentecostalism's future, observers see more growth. “Globalization is the word there,” said Csordas of UCSD. “Pentecostalism very rapidly became a global religious force, and it continues to expand around the world in all different forms.”

It has taken different forms in San Diego as well.

Faith Chapel is a traditional-looking church in the Lincoln Park area, with pews and stained glass and well-dressed deaconesses wearing white because it was Communion Sunday. It's classically Pentecostal, with a congregation of 1,700 worshippers whose shouting and swaying are as common as singing.

In Tierrasanta, Canyon View Christian Fellowship worships in a style that's decidedly contemporary. The church occupies much of an office plaza, where the sanctuary is an auditorium with chairs and oversize screens that flash the words of pop-style praise songs and show film clips to embellish the sermon.

Senior Pastor Mike Quinn said he has seen this casually dressed, mostly young and white congregation grow to about 1,300 in less than a dozen years. He describes Canyon View as neo-Pentecostal, a contemporary charismatic trend that began in the 1960s and '70s.

Staff members say some people do speak in tongues at Canyon View, though it's generally saved for private prayer time or smaller-group retreats. For example, Quinn said that if he feels it coming on during worship, he tries to be discreet, “so I don't freak out someone next to me.”

But the Holy Spirit is considered alive and well there, equipping the church to go out and do community service projects and make mission trips, including Hurricane Katrina relief. Soon, Canyon View hopes to start new congregations.

“One of the things about Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism is that when I grew up, only really holy people heard from God or did spiritual stuff,” said Quinn, a 52-year-old Assemblies of God minister. “With Pentecostalism, there's really a flattening out. We're all priests and prophets walking in this.”

After a Saturday night service, Jon Zeller, 27, said he joined for reasons more personal than denominational. “I feel like this is home because of the way I feel loved by the church family.”

And when the Spirit moves him, he'll lift his arms to the sky, joining many others during the service. His reasons for that are personal, too. “Just kind of reaching out for a hug from God,” Zeller said.

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