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Pentecostal Enthusiasm Is Spreading

As the movement marks a key centennial, other Christians adopt its exuberant worship style.

April 28, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Since Saturday, more than 31,000 Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians from 113 countries have been making their presence felt throughout Los Angeles with what many call "joyful noises to the Lord."

They have gathered for the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival, the cradle of the modern Pentecostal movement. By day, many worship under a tent on Noguchi Plaza in Little Tokyo, the site where the Rev. William J. Seymour, a one-eyed African American preacher from Louisiana, established the city's first multiracial mission in 1906.

When the sun goes down, they move to a nearby Japanese American church and offer fervent personal and "global prayers," waving flags from many nations, singing and dancing until midnight, when they're anointed with "special" oil from Jerusalem.

Until recently, mainstream Christian denominations tended to look down on Pentecostals because of their spontaneous, seemingly disorderly and loud services.

But as the movement has grown in the last three decades, its exuberant style of worship has been adopted by many Catholic and Protestant congregations trying to woo younger people.

"Pentecostalism has come in vogue," said Anthea Butler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York, a Roman Catholic who is an expert on Pentecostalism, believed to be the fastest growing branch of Christianity worldwide.

"Pentecostalism has made a vital contribution to the worship of the church in general," said Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, which is in the Crenshaw district.

Worldwide, there are about 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. (Some experts call that figure inflated but agree the numbers are huge.) Both groups trace their roots to the revival at Azusa Street, which from 1906 to 1909 drew worldwide attention as thousands worshiped around the clock and dispatched missionaries all over the world.

Pentecostals and Charismatics come under the rubric of "Renewalists," said Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at USC who has spent the last five years studying Pentecostalism in 22 countries.

About 25% of all Christians in the world today are Pentecostals or Charismatics "of one stripe or another," compared with 6% 30 years ago, he said.

Theologians say there are many groups within the Pentecostal movement and what unites them is their belief that the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, witnessing signs and performing miracles are available to them through baptism, as they were to 1st century apostles.

At one service this week, the dynamic style of worship was on display as Voice of Africa, a gospel group, sang. The group's leader almost playfully shouted, "Confuse the devil!" -- stomping his feet and motioning the worshipers to follow his lead.

They stomped, lifted their arms upward. Others stretched out on the floor. Some laughed or shouted, "Hallelujah" and "Thank you, Lord!"

A major difference between Charismatics and Pentecostals is that one can be a Charismatic while a Catholic or a member of any number of Protestant denominations. A Charismatic may or may not believe in the baptism of the spirit.

In the United States, nearly one in nine Catholics is a Charismatic, according to church historians.

Miller's study found that Pentecostal churches around the world focus on serving the poor. They are active in mercy missions of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and responding to crises such as earthquakes and famines, he said.

Miller characterized Pentecostal leaders as shepherds not far removed from their sheep. "They're not highly educated; they don't have seminary degrees," he said. "They very much are connected to the very people to whom they are ministering. They know their problems, they know their pain."

Even as festivities, accompanied by workshops, lectures and rallies, continue through Saturday, leaders of the movement warn their flocks not to get carried away with their success, but to remain humble.

"As we are more accepted into the Christian community, it is important that we don't lose our uniqueness, our enthusiasm and our freshness," Blake said. "Acceptance is a dangerous thing if you allow it to cause you to lose your revolutionary nature, your focus on the newness of what the spirit did for you years before."

The revival celebration means a lot to Los Angeles, Butler said. "In many ways, L.A. is always associated with the movie and entertainment industry," she said. "But when you think about the City of the Angels, the spiritual focus of the city from the very beginning was always part of the life blood of Los Angeles -- life blood that was really ignored in light of the entertainment industry here."

There is now a movement afoot to "rebirth" the Azusa Street Mission. Fred and Wilma Berry, members of the West Angeles Church, are scheduled to be commissioned as pastors of a revised Azusa Street Mission at 7 p.m. today at Union Church.

On Saturday, Bishop Yvette A. Flunder of San Francisco will play host to a daylong counter-event, "Liberating Pentecostalism," for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at Unity Fellowship of Christ Church on Jefferson Boulevard. Flunder, who represents 53 congregations nationwide, said organizers of the Azusa Street Revival festivities did not invite leaders of the community she represents to participate.

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