At the Faithdome in South-Central Los Angeles this week, one of the most dynamic religious movements in the world is out in full force.
A man from the Philippines has collapsed on the floor and is murmuring sweet praises to Jesus. An Asian and an African are hugging, praying and weeping. A leader of the faith, Thomas Trask, voice booming and face perspiring, has laid his thick hands over a Korean woman's head and is exhorting God: "Heal! Heal! Heal! We rebuke the attackers in the name of Jesus!"
A century after a one-eyed preacher in Los Angeles fired up the Pentecostal flame that has now spread to half a billion worshipers worldwide, several thousand believers from more than 40 countries are congregating here for the World Pentecostal Conference. At their nightly gatherings, differences seem to melt away as they worship in the same language of God and give remarkably similar testimony of miracles worked, lives transformed and native lands spiritually afire.
Gabriel Olusoji Farombi, resplendent in Nigerian robes, said he left the Anglican Church for Pentecostalism four decades ago after the Holy Spirit healed a leg shattered in an auto accident and marked for amputation. Thanks to such miracles, he and others say, the Nigerian church has grown from 900,000 a decade ago to 2 million today.
The Pentecostal movement is inspired by the biblical Book of Acts, in which the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and empowered them with the ability to speak in tongues, perform miracles and witness wonders. To believers, such gifts are not the stuff of dead history, but fully available today to those who ask for it through baptism.
Their exuberant faith is reshaping global Christianity by inspiring similar renewals among Catholics and other non-Pentecostal Christians. In what adherents call Pentecostalism's "third wave," this florid style of worship is now taking root indigenously and independently from its original American denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Fully 70% of those who follow the Pentecostal style today are nonwhite, religious demographer David B. Barrett said. He said the single largest group is China's 60 million.
That spiritual energy has sparked a global backlash. Barrett said Pentecostals are the most persecuted Christians in history, having suffered oppression even in countries that embrace other Christian churches. Experts say many churches may see them as competition.
Pentecostals have come under fire for faking healings or running financially amok, as occurred with Jim and Tammy Bakker several years ago. Some Christians dispute their theology, arguing that the age of miracles is over. But Pentecostals are also beginning to win broad public acceptance, thanks in part to a new focus on social ministry.
Four years ago, for instance, the Assemblies of God began launching "Convoys of Hope" throughout the nation, bringing health clinics, food, clothing and the gospel to as many as 25,000 people every weekend, said Trask, the denomination's general superintendent. Now the denomination, whose 40 million members make it the largest Pentecostal group in the world, is expanding relief operations overseas..
In a global study of rapidly growing churches with social ministries, USC sociology professor Donald Miller found that nearly 90% of them were run by Pentecostals.
Miller said the survey has countered stereotypes that liberal Christians were doing the social ministries while Pentecostals focused on the hereafter. It has also challenged assumptions that active social ministries stymie church growth by reducing time for evangelism--one reason Pentecostals historically shied away from them.
"We took care of getting men saved and ready for heaven, but weren't sure what to do with them on Earth," said Ron Williams, Foursquare Church spokesman. "Now we're helping them with both their spiritual needs and their physical daily needs."
The focus on the supernatural, Holy Spirit and social ministry are not the only attractions for believers. Pentecostal churches tend to provide the small-group intimacy that many hunger for, experts say. The average Pentecostal church has only 90 members--60 in rural areas--and large congregations often take care to break down into "cell groups" in which personal and spiritual issues can be freely discussed, experts say.
The Pasadena Foursquare Church, for instance, has developed "tribes" organized by interest--music, for instance, or art and culture. But just as often members might end up comforting someone bemoaning a romantic breakup or praying for each other, said Burt Jones, a church elder and USC research professor.