Slightly OT: The Rise of Pentecostalism

Today’s New York Times kicked off Part I of a three-part series on Pentecostalism in America. As it’s the fastest-growing brand of Christianity today and not a little part of southern gospel, seems worth staying abreast of in all its complexity and increasing diversity. This first installment has a predictably New Yorkcentric approach, but is worth reading all the same. Some choice bits:

Though Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Christianity, was born a century ago in Kansas and is often associated with the stereotypical “holy rollers” of the Bible Belt, it has made deep inroads in Asia and Africa. In this hemisphere, its numbers and growth are strongest among Latinos in the United States and in Latin America, where it is eroding the traditional dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.

Experts believe there are roughly 400 million Pentecostals worldwide, and this year, the number in the city is expected to surpass 850,000 — about one in every 10 New Yorkers, one-third of them Hispanic. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by because there are scores of denominations and no central governing body.

Although several large Pentecostal organizations like the Assemblies of God have bureaucracies, colleges and legions of missionaries, about 80 percent of all Pentecostals belong to small or independent congregations. They have aggressively courted the poor, and imparted a work ethic that is nudging their members into the middle class and beyond.

[snip]

the gloom is tempered by a noisy, collective joy born of the belief that the faithful will be blessed in this world and the next. That joy lends a sense of freedom, and often abandon, to services at the Ark, where people break into song or their own spur-of-the-moment prayers.

[snip]

Music flows through everything [at one Pentecostal church for Hispanics in NY] — not solemn hymns, but brassy Caribbean tunes. In fact, some sound exactly like the songs that hard-core members condemn — the pop and salsa on Spanish-language radio — but with religious lyrics that are repeated so breathlessly that some singers faint.

That ability to harness the local music and culture is one reason for Pentecostalism’s swift spread around the world.

“It takes in everything and absorbs it,” said the Rev. Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary. “You get as a result this extraordinary emergence of churches.”

In New York, the ranks of Pentecostals have grown 45 percent since 1995, said Tony Carnes, president of the International Research Institute on Values Changes in New York City, an independent group financed largely by foundations that has been surveying churches since 1989.

Pentecostals became the city’s largest group of born-again Christians in the mid-1990s, and within a few years, a new storefront church was opening every three weeks in the South Bronx, he said. The 9/11 attacks set off a fresh growth spurt.

Another factor in that growth worldwide is the way the faith reaches out to people on society’s edges and gives them vital roles. Unlike Catholics and some evangelical Christians, Pentecostals let women preach and lead; Mr. Florian’s co-pastor is his wife, Mirian. The humblest member can take the pulpit to share testimony, a prayer or a poem. Recently, an 8-year-old girl preached excitedly to a rapt congregation, then laid her hands in blessing on a new convert.

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