Today one of every four Christians is a pentecostal, comprising an estimated 580 million persons, and growing by some 19 million every year. Some estimate that by 2025 there will be 1 billion pentecostal Christians in the world. In Latin America and Africa, pentecostal growth has been nothing sort of astonishing, and many of these churches take root among the poor and the marginalized.
Some months ago I was asked by the World Council of Church’s general secretary if I could be part of a small delegation representing the WCC at the centennial celebration of the Azusa Street Revival, where modern pentecostalism is said to have been born. I agreed because I had heard of the plans for this historic event from pentecostal colleagues involved with Christian Churches Together—the broadest, most inclusive fellowship of Christian churches and traditions in the U.S.—who had also encouraged me to attend.
One of the evening services was held in the West Angeles Cathedral. This 6,000-seat sanctuary is part of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the primary African-American pentecostal denomination in the country. Its lead pastor, Bishop Charles Blake, is a key figure in COGIC and well known among the leaders of historic black churches. We arrived early as instructed and were seated right in the front of the sanctuary. (I later learned we were near Whitney Houston, whom I didn’t recognize.)
The three-hour service combined the culture of worship in the black church with all the features of pentecostalism—speaking in tongues, explosive music, riveting preaching, fervent prayers, ecstatic utterance, and heart-felt yearnings for the Spirit’s healing and cleansing power. The ministry of this congregation has an impressive social outreach as well. Bishop Blake has a particular passion for the HIV and AIDS crisis in Africa, and he founded Save Africa’s Children. With partners in 23 countries in Africa, it now cares for 100,000 AIDS orphans.
THE NEXT MORNING we heard preaching by Cesar Castellanos, pastor of the International Charismatic Mission congregation in Bogotá, Colombia, which has a membership of 300,000. That’s not a misprint. His congregation has 300,000 members. Castellanos cited Matthew 16:18, but he gave what amounted to an extended personal testimonial. Most striking to me was this: Colombia is a country torn apart by violence, drug wars, and suffering. Castellanos never shared a word about where this amazing congregation is situated or what its effect on these pressing social issues might be or could be.
Many of the pentecostal ministries I encountered are intensely dependent upon a particular personality. It’s one thing to believe in leadership as a gift given through the Spirit to build up and guide the Christian community. In my view, that’s a clear biblical teaching. But it’s another thing for a ministry to be driven by what can almost amount to a “cult of personality,” which virtually idolizes people. What gets threatened is the principle of personal and pastoral accountability. And one can think of those tragic cases of high-profile pentecostal (and non-pentecostal) leaders who have fallen victim to moral or ethical failure, with whole ministries sometimes crashing as a result.
The total number of all Christians in the member churches of the WCC—about 550 million—is slightly less than the number of pentecostal church members around the globe, and that gap is widening. Since 1906, pentecostalism and the ecumenical movement—which had one of its early roots in the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910—have basically gone their separate ways. Suspicion, mistrust, and even hostility have often characterized the relationship between the two.
I am convinced more than ever of the urgent need to build bridges between the historical established denominations, who have a clear sense of the church’s teaching and wisdom through the ages, and the indigenously rooted pentecostal movement and other similarly vibrant expressions of Christian witness that exhibit such vitality and growth today. We need each other to express the fullness of our common faith. Walls of separation built by a century of suspicion and mistrust need to be broken down. That is no small effort, but one that is essential for an effective global Christian witness in today’s and tomorrow’s world.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change.