walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Photo by rayttc, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Published on: February 19, 2014
"Pentecostal Drift"
An Archbishop's Nightmare

More Christians today live in the Global South—Asia, Africa, Latin America—than in the old Christian homelands of Europe and North America. This inevitably means further “Pentecostal drift”.

In the 1980s, when David Martin began his pioneering research on the explosion of Pentecostalism in Latin America, the Catholic Archbishop of Santiago de Chile told his entourage about a bad dream he had had. The archbishop dreamed that he was arriving to say mass in his cathedral. Upon entering the large sanctuary he found that it had been completely taken over by a huge crowd of charismatic worshippers praying and singing loudly, arms upraised, to the accompaniment of electronic guitars, many speaking in tongues and laying on hands miraculous healing. The archbishop was squeezed into a corner as he tried to do his job as a Catholic priest. This was a good many years ago. I suspect that today this nightmare would disturb the sleep of many more Catholic hierarchs in Chile and other countries in the Global South.

There are two religious periodicals I read regularly, The Tablet, which is a reliable source on developments in the Catholic world, and the The Christian Century, which does the same for mainline Protestantism. In their respective issues of January 25, 2014, and February 5, 2014, both publications contain thoughtful releflections about the growth of Pentecostalism. In the Tablet story Paul Graham, a parish priest in London who is also the provincial of the Augustinian order in England and Scotland, reflects about what he calls “the Pentecostal drift”—the growing tendency of Catholic immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean to move out of their original parishes and instead worship in Pentecostal or charismatic churches in which people of their ethnicity form the majority and determine the religious flavor of what goes on. What is particularly interesting here is that this “drift” does not seem to be limited to ethnic immigrants, but also includes individuals of monochrome white English/British origins. In other words, it seems, you don’t have to come from Trinidad to favor a Caribbean beat in the Catholic liturgy. A good many Anglicans seem to follow the same pattern.

(Coincidentally, this week’s issue of The Economist contains an unrelated story about the big increase in interracial marriages, notably black and white, in the United Kingdom. This confuses the census takers and the progressives who dream of transcending racial categories—but who need these categories to define the alleged “communities” to whose progress they are committed. Something similar has been happening in the United States, with “mixed race” fast becoming an important identifier. I, for one, find it greatly encouraging that the libidos of lustful teenagers are jumping way ahead of the sedate behavior that earnest pedagogues still advocate under the heading of “racial tolerance”.)

Paul Graham admits to mixed feelings about this matter. On the one hand, he appreciates the exuberant vitality of charismatic worship, even feels personally drawn to it. But of course he cannot help regretting the loss of membership in his own parish, all the colorful former parishioners having moved out, leaving behind what by comparison must appear as a rather dull bunch of indigenous English and Irish Catholics. Graham suspects that these Afro-Caribbean Catholics much more closely represent what Pope Francis in his recent statement called the “evangelii gaudium”—the “joy of the Gospel”, which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Graham notes that, while still in Argentina, Francis ostentatiously attended a Pentecostal service and allowed himself to be “prayed over”—in other words, participating in the joyful sacrament of charismatic worship. On another occasion Francis suggested that Catholics leaving church should not look as if they just came from a funeral. Yet an individual of Graham’s education cannot help feeling some unease about this storm of unrestrained emotionalism washing over the disciplined gravitas of standard Roman ritual. Graham’s final thought about this whole business is that he, and others like him in the hierarchy, should “stop bemoaning” what he calls the “Pentecostal drift”. Maybe so, but I do sense an undertone of “bemoaning”! And how could there not be!

The Christian Century story is a rather detailed account of two international Christian conferences. In August 2014 there was a meeting of the Pentecostal World Conference in a megachurch in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—a rather audacious locale for such a gathering, the very audacity testifying to the self-confidence of the charismatic international. Malaysia is of course a distinctive case of religious diversity—a slim majority of ethnic Malays (“sons of the soil”) who are almost all Muslims, with a significant minority of mostly Christian ethnic Chinese—the political system kept going by a complicated regime of pro-Malay affirmative action balanced by concessions to the economically powerful Chinese community. I don’t know how this intrusion of militant Protestantism has or has not disturbed the delicate balance that has kept the peace in the country. Count on Pentecostals not to be overly concerned with interfaith sensitivities! The background of the meeting is spelled out: In 1970 Pentecostals were 5% of world Christians; today the figure is 25%! 80% of Christian converts in Asia are Pentecostal! I’m not quite clear how this arithmetic is worked out, but the Christian Century story asserts that one of twelve people alive today is Pentecostal! Not surprisingly, the gathering in Kuala Lumpur was “young, vibrant and confident”. No stepping around quietly so as not to offend Muslim sensitivities!

Two months after Kuala Lumpur, the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches met in Busan, South Korea. The two gathering could not have been more different. If Kuala Lumpur was “young, vibrant and confident”, the Spirit blowing mightily through the assembly, here there was all the orderly procedure of a large bureaucratic organization. After all, the 1st Assembly of the WCC took place in 1948—plenty of time to occur what Max Weber called “the routinization of charisma”—committees and subcommittees, working groups preparing reports and background papers, even the worship services put together carefully so as to take full account of the ecumenical diversity of the gathering. After all, the WCC is a federation of Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches, with only a very small sprinkling of Pentecostals and the Roman Catholic Church only present as an observer. On paper, at least, the total membership adds up to about 500 million, though it is not clear what this actually means in terms of active participation. On paper, again, the WCC membership is slightly less than the total claimed by the Pentecostal World Fellowship—but that number means almost nothing, as Pentecostals are a spontaneous bunch, constantly merging and splitting up again, meeting in storefronts and garages, and notoriously difficult to count.

Yet, while the WCC meeting had much in common with the orderly proceedings of a multinational corporation, the account makes clear that there was some real inspiration too—if only by the huge diversity of world Christianity manifested by the conference, and by the careful work that went into the preparation of worship materials. I have not followed the recent changes in the WCC. For a while, in the last decades of the twentieth century, its activities were heavily influenced by the various strands of neo-Marxist and/or Liberationist ideology, creating an ever deeper alienation between the activists stirring the pots in Geneva and the lay people back home who wrote the cheques for this activity. This phase seems to have ended some time ago, partly because the ideology has lost credibility, and perhaps more basically because the organization lost funding. An important change has apparently been the increasing involvement of the Orthodox, notably by way of the Moscow Patriarchate whose international ambitions are fuelled by its ever closer alliance with the Russian government. The Orthodox influence would hardly make for a less bureaucratic, more spontaneous modus operandi. 

Be this as it may, the Christian Century story clearly shows the way in which the WCC reflects the major demographic shift in world Christianity—the fact that more Christians now live in the Global South: Asia, Africa, Latin America—than in the old Christian homelands of Europe and North America. Whether the Russians like this or not, this inevitably means a further “Pentecostal drift”. Christians in the Global South are more supernaturalistic (the world of the Spirit is very close), more conservative in their understanding of the faith (including a literal approach to the Bible), and most important of all, have an openness to all the charismatic gifts of the Spirit.  Inevitably, the gap between Kuala Lumpur and Busan is narrowing, and will narrow further. It is very likely that this underlying affinity will also express itself in closer organizational relations. Prince Guneratnam, head of the Pentecostal World Fellowships, brought formal greetings to the WCC assembly in Busan. A new organization, the Global Christian Forum, brings together for theological conversation individuals representing historic Protestant and Evangelical communities, Pentecostals, Orthodox and (this quite new) Roman Catholics. It would be premature to speculate how far this new ecumenism may go. Clearly there are limits. All the same, it is unlikely that ten years from now stories about the Pentecostal World Fellowship and the World Council of Churches will emphasize the wide gaps between them. Whether this will occasion more or less “bemoaning” by the likes of Paul Graham and other Augustinians remains to be seen.

show comments
  • Martin W. Lewis

    Interesting article, but the opening line is idiotic on multiple levels: “More Christians today live in the Global South — Asia, Africa, Latin America — than in the old Christian homelands of Europe and North America.” In actuality, Christianity was established in Latin America well before it was established in North America (taking North America to be what is now the US and Canada). Manila and much of the rest of the Philippines was Christianized long before the first European settlers came to New England and Virginia. Some of the the world’s oldest Christian communities are found in Southwest Asia (the “Middle East”) and in Africa (Ethiopia). The very concept of the “Global South,” moreover, is meaningless, as it groups together countries that have virtually nothing in common. Do we really want to place Chile, the UAE, and Singapore in the “undeveloped world” and Albania, Moldova, and Tajikistan in the “developed world,” as the concept of the “Global South” has it?

    • Barbara Piper

      And the Christian “homeland” is surely the middle east, no?

      • Jim__L

        Absolutely true, but frequently overlooked with the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

        On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that European missionaries had only a small role in the worldwide spread of the Gospel.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger clearly admires the “joy of the Gospel” in Pentacostalism– as opposed to sedate Catholics who seem fresh from funerals or bureaucratic WCC members dragging routinized charisma on their ankle chains. But if this joy, which is at the heart of the Christian faith, is the magnet which explains the Protestant drift, it is unfortunate that more Pentacostals haven’t found a way to uncouple the Spirit from Biblical literalism. In Romans 8:38-39, Paul lists a bunch of things which he is persuaded are unable to separate us from the love of God. To that list, Berger adds sociological analysis (Russian politics, WCC funding, etc.) and Biblical criticism.

    Atheists often condemn the “blind faith” of Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and religious people, generally. But there is nothing to which one must be blind to appreciate the priceless pearl of the joy of the Gospel, Christian presencing, and the love of God. I just reread Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry” in preparation for Tulsa Opera’s presentation of the Robert Aldridge opera of that name. The novel is theologically boring because of Lewis’ unquestioned assumption that “authentic scholarship” will blow religion out of the water. Fortunately, it appears that the opera will ditch Lewis’ socialist realism and present something more akin to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”! (That would account for the fact that the premier was fairly well-received in Bible Belt Tennessee.) The real blindness (ironically shared by atheists and Biblical literalists) is to the foundational power of the most ephemeral signals of transcendence.

    I notice with pleasure that the customary lucidity and humor in Berger’s post suggest that he is not being distracted by too much hip pain.

    • Phil Mitchell

      I don’t know how you ever arrive at the “joy of the Gospel” without believing the Gospel. And that requires, at least to some extent, a literal understanding of the Bible.

      • Jim__L

        I don’t know how you ever arrive at the “joy of the Gospel” without understanding the severity of the Law. He who is forgiven most, loves most, and all.

        Moderns don’t think they need to be forgiven anything — short-term prosperity can whitewash the dire consequences of many sins. Everything is always excusable, justifiable.

        Contrast this to Christianity — which never excuses, but always forgives. It’s a very different outlook.

  • Gary Novak

    Oops, Pentecostal.

  • free_agent

    There does seem to be a major transition within Christianity away from the institutionalized, “theological” churches to the visceral “folk” churches. (I look at “theological” vs. “folk” as an axis of differentiation of religious practices. Perhaps an extreme example is Confucianism compared to “Chinese folk religion”.)

    I’m reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s critique in “Exposing shallowness”, who is well on the “theological” side:

    “[Margo DeMello] believes that tattoos have philosophical meaning for those who bear them. The philosophy in question is a witches’ brew of new age “spiritualism,” ecological paganism, elevation of the primitive, and vegetarianism. It is the kind of philosophy that emerges when religious feeling is no longer disciplined by religious ritual that is established by tradition and upheld by social pressure.”

  • Jim__L

    I see no reason why a Lutheran should shy away from approaching these gatherings as an opportunity to persuade other Christians that the work Luther did to dig into Scripture was sensible, fruitful, and worth integrating into their own understanding of God’s Truth.

  • Randy Thompson

    Interesting–but what about the crowd of “Recovering” fundamentalists, charismatics and pentecostals who are “drifting” into Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches? It’s a tricky business, spiritually, to balance the head and the heart.

  • Gary Novak

    I think Phil Mitchell and Jim L are worried that my reference to the “foundational power of the most ephemeral signals of transcendence” makes the joy of the Gospel available too cheaply. They don’t deny the value of joy but insist that it is not really availble through what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” A close, literal reading of the Gospel throws cold water on the happy face “spiritual” swooning at the pretty sunset. The Law is severe: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit leads to eternal damnation.

    But, as Berger frequently points out, it is not true that moderns who reject Biblical literalism believe that “everything is excusable, justifiable.” Secularists are quite capable of recognizing, for example, the immorality of racial oppression. That is why C. S. Lewis refers to morality as “a clue to the meaning of the universe.” Even without a literal reading of the Bible as a foundation, modern people have moral intuitions that can be best understood in a religious framework– if the “clue” is followed up. Indeed, some of the most immoral people are those who accept the literalists’ ground rules and then insist that, because there is no compelling reason to grant the Bible privileged epistemological status, they are free from moral obligation. But to pretend that one has dismissed God by dismissing the Fundamentalists’ visible church is an act of bad faith. Ironically, the most ephemeral signals of transcendence can feel more severe, more inconvenient, than the most demanding– but experientially unfounded– Foundation.

  • Gary Novak

    Let me add a follow-up to my mention of Tulsa Opera’s presentation of “Elmer Gantry,” which I have now seen. While the opera contains a suitable assortment of hypocrites and fanatics, it does not, like the novel, portray religious belief as necessarily blind faith. The difference between the novel and the opera is most apparent in the character of Frank Shallard, who, in the novel, is a preacher whose doubts have placed him on an irreversible trajectory toward enlightened atheism. In the opera, Frank is more like the father who says, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.” He partially envies the Gospel singers who, with unwavering faith, sway to and fro in unison– with eyes closed. Well, Frank wants an eyes-open faith, but, since Berger’s “The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation” was not on the bookshelves in those days, all he can do is play “We Have a Friend in Jesus” at his piano and weep and reflect that it is “laughable– but true.” Sinclair Lewis, of course, is turning over in his grave at this operatic recognition that the struggle with faith can have more than one outcome.

    Incidentally, composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein have also collaborated on a “reconciliation oratorio” (“Parables”), which Garfein says was partially inspired by a reading of Berger. (Let’s hope Berger would be more pleased with the result than Lewis would be with their “Elmer Gantry”!)

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