Religion scholars say the fastest-growing form of Christianity is Pentecostalism, with its exuberant worship and belief in the so-called gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues and divine healing. Researchers say Pentecostals and charismatics - Catholics and others who share in Pentecostal practices - make up one-quarter of the world’s Christians, with the greatest numbers in the developing world. A new study finds the fastest-growing Pentecostal churches are tackling social problems in their communities.
In Los Angeles, members of the Angelus Temple are rebuilding a community that has fallen on hard times. This Pentecostal church was founded by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson nearly 90 years ago.
Today, a mobile clinic provides health care, and food and clothing are distributed in two of the many social projects at the church’s Dream Center, which is housed in a former Catholic hospital. The church bought the property for almost $4 million and has spent another $28 million refurbishing it. The center houses homeless families, counsels victims of sexual trafficking, and helps people with drug addiction problems.
At Sunday worship at Angelus Temple, a youthful crowd is on its feet, dancing and praying.
Professor Donald Miller of the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture said churches like this are booming around the world. He has visited many, from a Catholic charismatic congregation in India to a Pentecostal assembly in Singapore.
"They believe that God is powerful and that miracles happen in the present, just as they did 2,000 years ago," said Miller. "They also believe in the possibility of prophecy and of the gift of tongues, speaking in tongues. And they believe in a supernatural God that can do anything.”
This Catholic charismatic congregation in Brazil is part of a huge movement in the country, where the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says half of the population may be charismatic or Pentecostal.
Charismatic Episcopalians in Brazil work with impoverished people who scrape out a living in garbage dumps. In Egypt, charismatic Coptic Christian Maggie Gobran works with children in Cairo’s garbage dump, providing support and training.
A church-sponsored center in South Africa provides care for young children.
A Hong Kong ministry works with drug addicts, and helped this former gang member set up his own business.
Miller is coordinating the study of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Grants totaling $3.5 million are going to regional centers and individual scholars to study the movement.
He said the findings so far are preliminary, but striking. He said scholars are finding a shift in emphasis in Pentecostal churches. Once, most of them focused only on individual spiritual needs, but now many have expanded into community service. He said they provide a sense of belonging for people with little support in modern cities.
In Los Angeles, Angelus Temple Senior Pastor Matthew Barnett said he welcomes those who are not conventional church-goers.
“That means we will sometimes have a drunk yelling out in the middle of the service, something that is maybe is kind of strange or different, or maybe someone will come to church that was in a nightclub the night before and they partied until three o’clock in the morning. But the concept is this: you belong first in order that you may believe.”
A former gang member, Kory Barmore, works with other troubled young men to find a new direction. He said this way of life is grounded in his religious experience and community worship at Angelus Temple.
“When I close my eyes, all my worries just go away," said Barmore. "I mean, all my problems just go away. I just feel the Spirit there.”
Miller said the new churches often are built by entrepreneurial pastors, but they enlist the help of members in running their growing ministries and social outreach programs.
“And if someone is sick, they are helped," he said. "And if someone is poor, they are assisted with a job or food, and they really become like extended families.”
He said the more involved lay leaders become in the church, the more likely they are to develop skills that are useful in the workplace. He said that is one of the ways the churches are spurring social changes.
Researchers say religions compete with each other, and many Pentecostal congregations are thriving because they are addressing the social, as well as religious needs, of their communities.