Pentecostalism is changing the global face of Christianity

By Stephen Brown
18 Feb 2011

The “phenomenal growth” of Pentecostalism is changing the worldwide landscape of Christianity but is also putting global disparities into sharp relief, a World Council of Churches' meeting in Geneva has been told.

As it sweeps through the global South and related diaspora communities in the global North, Pentecostalism is developing “amongst people who are disproportionately impoverished, imprisoned, infirmed and enslaved”, said the Rev Jennifer S. Leath, an ordained pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, USA.

Yet at the same time, “We know there is a socio-economic trail that often leads back to predominantly white, moneyed interests in the North,” noted Leath in a 17 February 2011 presentation to the WCC’s main governing body, its central committee.

Pentecostalism - a movement characterised by ecstatic, rapturous worship that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century - has been described as the world’s fastest-growing faith.

Estimates suggest there are now between 250 and 500 million Pentecostals worldwide, many of them in the southern hemisphere.

“There are theologies of wealth and wealthy Pentecostals who subscribe to those theologies – yes, in both the North and the South, but disproportionately in the North,” said Leath, researching a doctorate in religious ethics and African American studies at Yale University.

The WCC’s 349 members are largely historic Anglican, Orthodox or Protestant churches, representing about half a billion faithful. Though it includes some Pentecostal churches, most of Pentecostalism remains outside the WCC.

Leath represents the WCC as the co-moderator of a joint consultative group between the Geneva-based church grouping and Pentecostal Christians, part of an effort to build closer links.

She said it was a “historical moment” when, in 2010, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit became the first WCC General Secretary to deliver a formal greeting to a meeting of the Pentecostal World Fellowship.

Yet the way in which the WCC relates to Pentecostals would be a “litmus test” for the ways in which it relates to marginalised people from the global South and its diaspora, women and youth, she said.

“To deny our welcome to Pentecostal churches in the global South is not only a refusal that has a disproportionately unwelcoming impact on people of the global South and its diaspora, but may also reinforce the financial and ideological control that predominantly white Pentecostal churches from the global North often have,” she stated.

At the same time, Leath noted, “We as the WCC also participate in such paternalistic politics … Our own churches – and our fellowship as the WCC - reflect this same, corrupt, ideologically inflected economy.”

Interviewed after her presentation, she said, “The way the WCC relates to our Pentecostal brothers and sisters requires that we not only look outside of ourselves for global justice but also that we look within us as we try to pursue justice, especially because of the ways that Pentecostalism highlights the complex economy of the global North and South.”

Leath added, “The household that God calls us to be, is one that reflects an economy of justice characterised by love and unity, self-critique and the broadest possible representation of all our family of faith.”

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© Stephen Brown is a Geneva-based journalist and writer. He is reporting for Ekklesia from the WCC central committee.

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