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.