Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest religious sect has started in Los Angeles. Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street. . . and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal.” — Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1906.
We have just passed one hundred years since the Azusa Street Revival (Los Angeles, California, USA) that launched Pentecostalism as a dynamic global movement. Since that time, Pentecostals, Charismatics and associated movements have grown from only a handful of people to nearly 500 million at the turn of the twenty-first century. According to Christian author Philip Jenkins, if current trends continue their numbers could reach one billion by 2050. This is a staggering achievement.
Today, if you are a Pentecostal, chances are you are young, female, poor and living in Africa, Asia or South America—the regions of the world experiencing the fastest population growth. You are also the future face of world Christianity.
Here are five characteristics that help explain the incredible rise and rise of Pentecostalism. They are five lessons we can all learn from.
1. White-hot faith. At Azusa Street, participants met daily from ten in the morning until late into the night. Worship was spontaneous and emotional. Singing in tongues and falling to the ground under the power of the Holy Spirit was common. The experience of God in their midst created the energy and drive that launched and fuelled a global movement. Author Harvey Cox says Pentecostalism succeeded because it rejected institutional religion and the modern gods of rationalism and spoke to the spiritual emptiness of their time.
2. Commitment to a cause. Early Pentecostals were convinced they were experiencing the last great revival before the imminent return of Christ. The message they proclaimed by the power of the Spirit was of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. Their zeal was fuelled by the expectation of the end of all things. That expectation left them unattached to the things of this world; they sacrificed themselves for a cause that was greater than themselves.
3. Contagious relationships. Early Pentecostals were poor domestic servants, janitors and day workers. Their leader, William Seymour, was a partially blind African American preacher, a son of former slaves. Pentecostalism believed the Spirit was present powerfully and could use anyone for ministry regardless of race, education, gender or social status. Charisma was not the possession of a few, it was “diffused” throughout the whole movement. Studies reveal it is not the big events or the big names that are decisive in Pentecostalism’s dramatic growth; the movement grows because people whose lives are dramatically changed tell their friends and family. Recruitment follows pre-existing networks of relationships.
4. Rapid mobilization. From its inception Pentecostalism was a missionary movement. Hundreds came from around the world to Azusa Street and returned home with the “baptism.” Ordinary people were sent out as missionaries from Azusa Street to China, India, Japan, Egypt, Liberia, Angola and South Africa. Evangelism leading to church planting was the central feature of their mission activity. Within six months thirty-eight missionaries had been sent. Within two years twenty-five different nations had been reached. Missionaries planted indigenous churches. Leadership roles were not restricted to those who have been trained in Western-oriented academic institutions. Gifted nationals, empowered by the Spirit, quickly became missionaries themselves.
5. Adaptive methods. Almost instantly Pentecostalism became Russian in Russia, Chilean in Chile, African in Africa. Pentecostalism’s freedom in the Spirit created grassroots movements that are at home in almost any context. American Pentecostalism historian Grant Wacker says that Pentecostalism flourished because it held together two competing drives: primitivism, a return to the first century where the Holy Spirit reigned, and pragmatism, a freedom to do whatever is necessary to achieve the movement’s aims.
This creative tension enabled the movement to combine a clear and universal core mission with great flexibility. Pentecostalism is conservative in its theology yet radical in methodology. It lives in the creative tension between the supernatural and the pragmatic.
From its humble beginnings at Azusa Street, Pentecostalism has become a global movement of massive proportions. The lessons are clear for the whole Church. Success eventually tames most movements as they choose to protect their gains rather than continue to risk, innovate and renew for the sake of a cause beyond themselves. In this new century, Pentecostalism must now face the challenge of its own success.
Jenkins, Philip. 2002. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 8.
McClung, Grant. 2006. “Pentecostals: The Sequel: What will it take for this world phenomenon to stay vibrant for another 100 years?” Christianity Today. www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/004/7.30.html
Cox, Harvey. 1996. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. London: Cassell, 81.
Anderson, Allan. 2005. “Towards a Pentecostal Missiology for the Majority World.” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 8:1, 29-47. www.apts.edu/ajps/05-1/05-1-AAnderson.pdf
Gerlach, Luther and Virginia Hine. 1970. People, Power, Change Movements of Social Transformation. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill.
Wacker, Grant. 1995. “Searching for Eden with a Satellite Dish: Primitivism, Pragmatism and the Pentecostal Character” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World. ed. Richard T. Hughes. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 139-166.