5 Pieces of conventional wisdom that Pentecostalism challenges

Dramatic social change will always force us to re-evaluate our ideas. We round off our look at Pentecostalism by seeing what assumptions it may force us to discard.

1. We live in a Post-Christian age

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism has helped to push the number of Christians in the world to a record level. It has also spread Christianity to parts of the world where it has not previously been strong. For example, much of the faith’s expansion into China has been propelled by underground house churches that often have a Charismatic bent.

As well as increasing the number of Christians, Pentecostalism has also had a reinvigorating effect. It has turned many whose Christianity was becoming increasingly nominal back into active church members.

In this way Pentecostalism has given Christianity as a whole renewed relevance.

2. Latin America is Catholic

There have been Protestants in South America since the nineteenth century. However, they’ve always been a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic population.

While Catholicism is still very clearly the largest religion in this part of the world, Pentecostalism is eroding its dominance. If current trends continue then some states particularly in Central America could soon have protestant pluralities. For example, around 40% of Guatemalans are now Protestants.

3. Protestantism is a stolid, cerebral movement of White Europeans and North Americans

Traditional protestant denominations of both liberal and conservative varieties have become rather bookish outfits. Sola scriptura (by scripture alone) often feels like it’s moved from a piece of theology to a worship style and organising principle.

Tens of millions of poor Africans and Latin Americans emphasising the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and the possibility of a personal relationship with God has – to say the least – given Protestantism quite a jolt.

4. A movement centred around a literal belief in miracles will not be modernising force

Pentecostalism with its Glossolalia, ritual healing and the like can often seem like a weird throwback. In many senses, that’s how it understands itself: as a return to the spirituality of the early church.

However, the eminent religious sociologist Peter Berger has suggested it is a modernising force. He believes that it encourages economic development by teaching that ‘God does not want you to be poor.’ This translates into a mixture of mutual support and self-help that produces something close to the ‘Protestant Work Ethic.’ To quote Berger: “Max Weber is alive and he’s living in Guatemala!”

5. There will be an alignment between Christianity and US foreign policy

In 1956, the US adopted as its official motto “In God We Trust.” At this point, America was locked in confrontation with the avowedly atheistic Soviet Union. The new motto was supposed to symbolise the support that America and Christianity drew from each other. This has a long history before and after. Reinhold Neibuhr observed that Americans have always cast themselves in the role of the “chosen people.” And we can still see something of this fusion in George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

However, for Pentecostals mainly living in the Global South, Americans can look more like Romans than Israelites. In a panel discussion for the Pew Forum, Professor Paul Freston observes that – outside of the US – even Pentecostal churches that can normally be relied on to take politically conservative positions came out against the Iraq war.

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