'Renewalist' impact grows

Pentecostals and charismatics, one-quarter of the world's Christians, will shape politics and culture.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Growing up in Colombia, José Soto Ávila had a loving family that gave him many opportunities. He became a chess champion and was given a car when he began his university medical studies. But a partying life led him into drugs and a catastrophic downward spiral, resulting in three suicide attempts.

Though he went through several rehabilitations, nothing prevented a relapse until a friend "told me that Jesus Christ could transform me," he says. Entering a Christian rehab home that demanded much of him, he "became a new man."

Two decades later, Pastor Soto shepherds Charismatic churches in Bogotá and Barranquilla and is organizing a church network across Colombia. "God is doing a powerful work in Latin America," he says in an interview during a US visit. "There is a great awakening, and many are being liberated."

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Soto's work is part of a global "renewalist" movement that believes that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, plays a direct role in all aspects of everyday life.

"Renewalist" is an umbrella term for Pentecostals and charismatics. (The latter are Christians of other denominations, both Protestant and Catholic, as well as independent churches, who have taken up Pentecostal practices of "Spirit-filled" worship.) The movement has spread rapidly and is thought to represent one-quarter of the world's 2 billion Christians.

Along with other resurgent faiths, it has the potential to reshape political and cultural life in many parts of the globe. A survey of 10 countries released last week offers the first in-depth look at the attitudes and practices of renewalists in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Besides the United States, countries surveyed included Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala; Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa; and India, South Korea, and the Philippines.

"These groups are not only growing, but have reached a point that they can have an enormous impact on the social and political life of the countries," says John Green, senior fellow at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which did the survey.

The report, "Spirit and Power," confirms the significant size of the groups in the developing world. A neo-Pentecostal church in Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, for instance, grew by 1.8 million between 1991 and 2000. While renewalists represent 23 percent of the overall US population, they include 56 percent of Kenyans, 44 percent of the Philippine population, and 60 percent of all Guatemalans.

One reason for growth is evangelism – personal and through TV and radio. In eight of the nations polled, majorities of Pentecostals say they share their faith with nonbelievers at least once a week.

In the US, other studies show that religious growth in Christian churches comes mostly from immigration, including Latinos. This is true for the Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination. In 2000, some 15 percent of its membership was Latino, says Arlene Sanchez Walsh, author of "Latino Pentecostal Identity."

The Pew poll also reveals some surprises, countering perceptions about renewalist religious practices and views on political involvement.

Speaking in tongues is a fundamental doctrine of Pentecostalism that has long been considered crucial evidence of the "second baptism," that of the Holy Spirit, as in the "day of Pentecost" in the Bible (Acts 2). The survey found that while there is widespread speaking in tongues in churches, in six of the 10 countries polled at least 40 percent of renewalists say they've "never" spoken in tongues. Instead, healing is the most prominent of the New Testament "gifts of the Spirit" for adherents.

"Divine healing may be the most consistent hallmark of these renewalist movements around the world," says Luis Lugo, Pew Forum director. Among Pentecostals, the number of those who say they have experienced or witnessed healings ranges from 56 percent in South Korea to 87 percent in Kenya.

Abraham Kurian, a Pentecostal from India, says healing brings people to Christianity in his country, and has changed his life. While his family had been Christian for generations, "they didn't believe in the gifts of the Spirit." But after two years suffering with a stomach ailment that medical treatment had not helped, he visited a cousin.

"Two pastors who were there prayed over me, and within a week I experienced a complete healing," he says in an interview. He became a Pentecostal.

Later, working as a project manager for World Vision, an international Christian development agency, "I received a clear call to the ministry," he adds. He completed theological studies and teaches in a seminary in India. Now he's studying for another degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

Large majorities of Pentecostals in all 10 countries polled "completely agree" that angels and demons are active in the world. Majorities in Africa and Latin America say they have witnessed or experienced an exorcism.

Another key finding is that renewalists believe in an active role for religion in political affairs. Pentecostals were long thought to avoid politics, but they are "anything but apolitical," Dr. Lugo says.

Large majorities in all countries but India and South Korea support active political involvement, and in all 10 countries, majorities say it's important that political leaders have strong religious beliefs. Still, there is widespread support for separation of church and state. Only in the US (52 percent) and Nigeria (58 percent) did a majority of Pentecostals back making the country a Christian one.

Similarly, renewalist Christians give strong support to a free-market economy. Yet in all 10 countries polled, the report says, "majorities also agree that government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep."

At the same time, such Christians say that faith in God is very important to economic success. Some Pentecostal pastors have been criticized by other Christians for preaching a "prosperity gospel," encouraging the idea that God gives health and material prosperity to those with enough faith. The survey shows widespread support for this, though the belief in God's blessing of health is more common than that of financial success.

Soto believes strongly "that God blesses spiritually, physically, and materially – completely." It's important, he says, "that people first love God, but also that they come out of poverty and sickness and have a job."

Those in the renewalist movement express traditional views on moral and social issues, along with others in developing societies. But they are more conservative on some matters. In seven of the 10 countries, majorities say that drinking alcohol is never justified.

"In India, we don't preach that God brings change in one's economic situation," Mr. Kurian says. "When people get healing, however, and come to God, they stop bad habits like drinking and playing cards, and their financial situation naturally improves."

Renewalists do break with tradition when it comes to women in the clergy. Except for India, huge majorities of Pentecostals support female pastors, with charismatics not far behind.

"Still, there is a glass ceiling," says Dr. Sanchez Walsh. "Single women, particularly, almost never get to senior pastor."

The poll occasionally reveals sharp differences, such as on the question of HIV/AIDS. While in five countries polled, majorities did not see it as a punishment from God, renewalists in South Korea, Kenya, and Guatemala say it is God's punishment for immoral behavior.

Pentecostals and charismatics tend to be fervent in their beliefs and practices. As the world continues to shrink, the potential for rising tensions within and among major faiths is keenly felt. When asked about "conflict between religious groups in your country," substantial majorities of renewalists – as well as the populations at large in every country but Chile – see it as a "moderately big" or "very big problem."

The full report, funded by the Templeton Foundation, is at: www.pewforum.org.

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