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Survey Sees Pentecostalism Growing, Pentecostals Getting  into Politics

A new 10-nation survey says Christian Pentecostalism is growing, and that Pentecostals, known for their exuberant style of worship, are also becoming more active in politics. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where modern Pentecostalism was born 100 years ago, and where scholars met at the University of Southern California to assess the movement's impact.

There have been times in Christian history when believers experienced what they said were gifts of the Holy Spirit -- an ecstatic form of expression called speaking in tongues, divine healing, and utterances of prophecy, which are messages they believe come directly from God.

The prototype for the experience is seen in the New Testament Book of Acts, which says the spirit of God descended on the followers of Jesus on the feast of Pentecost.

In the early 1900s, there were scattered episodes of Pentecostal enthusiasm -- in Wales in southwest Britain and near Pune, India. But in 1906, a major movement erupted in Los Angeles to which historians trace the rise of modern Pentecostalism.

An African-American preacher named William Seymour held meetings in a building on Azusa Street.

There, many experienced what they described as gifts of the Holy Spirit, says Cecil Mel Robeck, Junior, a third-generation Pentecostal minister and professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary. He says the dirt-floor meeting room had been used to house horses, was filled with flies and smelled bad.

He said, "It was hot. It was noisy. It was not in the best part of town. And yet there were 15,00 people that came there consistently over the next three years or so."

People of all races took part in what came to be called the Azusa Street revival.

In the excitement, people would fall and roll on the floor and speak in what seemed an unintelligible babble. The behavior drew ridicule in the press, but word also spread through sympathetic Christians in churches and missionary societies.

The Azusa Street church sent emissaries abroad to preach the Pentecostal message as far as Liberia, where they planted the seeds of a now-thriving Pentecostalism in Africa.

Allan Anderson of the University of Birmingham in England says there were soon multiple centers of the excitement.

He said, "There were revival movements in Korea, Manchuria, all of this within a few years of each other. And of course the first one was in Wales in 1904."

But most analysts trace the modern movement to the Azusa Street revival two years later.

Pentecostal denominations were soon founded, such as the Assemblies of God. Many decades later, a Pentecostal-like movement emerged in the Catholic and Protestant churches. This movement is often termed "charismatic."

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the modern movement, the new study of Pentecostals shows they are numerous. Together with charismatics, they may make up one-quarter of all Christians. They are nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population, according to the study, and almost half the population of Brazil.

The study of the Pentecostal movement was conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It suggests that more than half of the people of Kenya are Pentecostals or charismatics, and 60 percent of the people of Guatemala.

Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo says the study has some surprises.

He said, "One, to me, was the extent to which Pentecostal beliefs and practices had made their way into these non-Pentecostal churches. In several of these countries, the percentage of charismatics was at least double that of Pentecostals."

Those countries include Chile, South Africa, and South Korea.

In the Philippines, the number of charismatics, most of them Catholic, is 10 times the number of Pentecostals. The study groups all of them together under the term renewalists.

John Green of the Pew Forum, says Pentecostals and charismatics, like other traditional Christians, have a high regard for the Bible and attend church often. Surprisingly, he says, they are also interested in worldly matters.

"They are very interested in politics. They are very interested in the free market. They are very interested in social welfare programs," he said. "These are very different than the common stereotype of Pentecostals as being other-worldly."

Harold Caballeros, a former lawyer in Guatemala, is the founder of El Shaddai Pentecostal ministries in Guatemala City. He is now retiring from active church work to establish a university and create a political movement.

He notes that Guatemala suffered from a bloody civil war from 1960 to 1996, and that the Central American nation still has social problems.

"Such as very high crime and violence and poverty, and that has created a conscience, so to speak, in many of us to get involved, to engage society instead of the traditional position, which was be just inside the church," he said.

Analysts point to an obvious difficulty when religion crosses the line into politics. Not all practitioners of a religion live up to its precepts.

Guatemala has had two Pentecostal presidents, and the one who took power in a 1982 military coup, Efrain Rios Montt, has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses. Prominent Pentecostals have been the subject of scandals in Brazil.

But some scholars see social benefits in Pentecostalism. Ann Bernstein of the Center for Development and Enterprise has studied the movement in her native South Africa.

She said, "Our research has revealed the phenomenal entrepreneurial energy that Pentecostal pastors have in establishing new institutions, often in very poor, difficult circumstances, and surviving a very competitive environment."

She says Pentecostal churches provide opportunities for leadership and instill discipline, helping people improve their prospects in a complex economy.

The Pew Forum's Luis Lugo says the study gives hints as to why Pentecostalism is growing. He says renewalist churches offer a joyful form of worship and the sense that God is really present.

Pentecostalism has also adapted to local cultures, blending its enthusiastic form of expression with Christian beliefs and practices in indigenous African churches. Through the charismatic movement, it has also enlivened the ritual of older denominations.

Finally, he says Pentecostals are building a sense of community by reaching out to the displaced, including migrants to the city, providing a spiritual home in a world that is quickly changing.