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New Thirst for Spirituality Being Felt Worldwide

Africa, Asia, Mideast, Latin America, and U.S. South see rapid religious growth.

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Christianity's growth pattern (about 1.9 billion adherents) has now made it a majority non-Western religion, says Cox, who visited hosts of churches on four continents researching his book "Fire From Heaven," the story of the remarkable rise of Pentecostalism around the world.

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Pentecostal churches, with more than 410 million members, are said to be growing by 20 million a year. To the spiritually homeless in the huge cities of the world, he says, they "held out the possibility of a radically new order that would come about not because of the patchwork efforts of mere mortals but by the action of a loving God." The emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and healing is a return, he says, to "primal hope, primal piety, and primal spirituality."

Pentecostals have spurred Christianity's growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A statistical institute in Brazil predicts that half of that country's population will be evangelical by 2045. According to Christianity Today, South Korea's fervent evangelicalism includes "the world's largest Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches," and "over 5,500 missionaries in more than 100 countries."

New non-Western majority

The non-Western majority is changing the face of Christian practice and priorities for various denominations as well as the World Council of Churches. One example is the recent mention of an African cardinal as among the serious candidates to succeed the current pope.

With the liberalizing Vatican II in the mid-'60s, Roman Catholicism had one of the landmark religious events of the century; and in Pope John Paul II, it has one of the most influential popes of all time. Yet the church is challenged by today's disregard for institutional authority, disaffection with some doctrines, and by contention for followers with Islam and evangelicalism in Africa and Latin America.

The picture differs in Europe and parts of North America. Marty says a "spiritual ice belt" stretches from west of Poland across western Europe, the northern US and Canada, and includes Japan. "In that part of the world," he says, "there are 3,000 fewer Christians now than 24 hours ago, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, there are 16,000 more Christians than 24 hours ago." The southern US, he adds, fits into the growth pattern of the rest of world.

Marty credits pluralism not only for US religiosity, but also for the faster global growth. In Europe where there have tended to be established national churches, religious life has waxed cold and "nobody is much of anything," he says. Polls show that in Britain only 8 percent of the population attends church regularly.

The US tops the religious barometer of the industrialized world. "The overwhelming impression I take away from looking at religion in America, throughout our history and on the cusp of the 21st century, is that we are an incurably religious people," says Randall Balmer, a professor at Barnard College in New York who is writing a religious history of 20th-century America. "If you look at any index of our religious life, we are off the charts compared to other Western countries."

Yet that religious life has become a much less tidy one over the past half century. Dramatic cultural changes have modified the social landscape, bringing greater diversity (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism), spurring disenchantment with institutions of all kinds, and sending many Americans into an individualized search for spirituality.

Some sectors of religious life are flourishing while others are struggling. Mainline Protestant churches - the "establishment" of the 1950s - have seen memberships decline. The number of Americans who say they are Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Methodist is one-third lower than 30 years ago, according to Princeton Religion Research Center. "The mainline lost a lot of young people, partly because of 'coasting,' " Marty says. "You have to win your own kids, and they're going to go seeking on their own."