Pentecostals: Missions Movement or Voting Bloc?

From humble beginnings in rural Midwestern America, the Pentecostal movement has grown to represent at least a quarter of all Christians globally, second only to Roman Catholics (who themselves are a major segment of Renewalists in the form of Catholic Charismatics). Pentecostals were ostracized from the rest of Christianity while the movement was in its infancy. Nevertheless, the movement was founded upon an evangelistic logos, as the baptism in the Holy Spirit is understood to be an empowerment for ministry. Due to remarkably rapid church growth, Pentecostals have shot through adolescence to adulthood, claiming a seat at the Christian roundtable.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals in October 2006. The report seeks to understand how Pentecostals have become a major political force in Christendom, and will play a prominent role in politics in the years to come. It specifically seeks to challenge the perception that Pentecostals are “largely apolitical in their outlook.” The ten countries surveyed in the report are: Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea and the United States.


Due to remarkably rapid church growth, Pentecostals have shot through adolescence to adulthood, claiming a seat at the Christian roundtable.


The report classifies Pentecostals as “closely resembling evangelical Protestants in many of their doctrinal beliefs,” but distinguished in their affirmation of miraculous signs of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, prophesying and divine healing. Diversity within the theological tradition has given way to two generally accepted groups of classification. First, the term “Pentecostal” is used to refer to those belonging to intrinsically Pentecostal denominations (such as the Assemblies of God or an independent indigenous church). The second group, “Charismatics,” refers to those who share many of the distinctively Pentecostal experiences, but still remain within mainstream Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox denominations. Both Pentecostals and Charismatics are referred to under the blanket term “Renewalist.”

Distinguishing Characteristics
There are experiences and other aspects of their faith that distinguish Renewalists from other Christians. There are three characteristically Pentecostal religious experiences:

  1. Divine healings. In all ten countries surveyed, over half of Pentecostals claim to have experienced or witnessed a divine healing. In seven of the countries the number is over seventy percent.

  2. Divine revelations. In eight of the countries, over half of Pentecostals claim to have received a direct revelation from God.
  3. Exorcisms. Over half of Pentecostals in seven of the countries claim to have experienced or witnessed an exorcism.

The Bible and Evangelism
Renewalists (particularly Pentecostals) are also distinguished by biblical literalism. A high percentage of Pentecostals believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and to be taken literally. For example, ninety-four percent of Renewalists in Nigeria believe this. The Philippines is the only country where the number does not exceed seventy percent, and in seven of the countries it is over eighty percent. This is contrasted with other Christians, where it ranges from thirty-seven percent in the United States and Chile to eighty-two percent in Nigeria. In seven of the countries, fewer than seventy percent of non-Renewalists are biblical literalists; and in four of the countries the number is fewer that sixty percent.

While the above statistics help to qualify Renewalists against the greater Christian population, they are not the most telling data in the report. According to the report, in eight of the countries the majority of Pentecostals share their faith at least once a week. Six of the countries report that at least forty percent share their faith more than once a week; in five of the countries at least twenty percent report sharing their faith everyday.

This should not be surprising given Pentecostalism’s history of missionary activity. For example, at the first General Council of the Assemblies of God (the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination) in Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA, interest in foreign mission was one of the chief motives for forming together as a denominational body. If measured solely in terms of sheer size, Renewalism is decidedly marked by a commitment to advancing the gospel.

Renewalist Population
The population of Renewalists surveyed varies from five percent in India to sixty percent in Guatemala.1 Within Protestantism, the size of Renewalists ranges from twenty-eight percent in the United States to eighty-five percent in Guatemala. Within six of the countries surveyed, Renewalists account for over half of the Protestant segment. In five of the countries, Renewalists exceed two-thirds of the Protestant bloc. Considering the relatively short history of Pentecostalism, this growth rate is indeed staggering.

Political Involvement
Perhaps some of the misconceptions about Renewalists’ political involvement are in their eschatological outlook. In six of the countries, over half of Pentecostals believe that Jesus will return in their lifetime. They also gain much of their distinctive doctrine from Acts 2, where Peter quotes the apocalyptic words of the prophet Joel. This apocalyptic mentality has perhaps given rise to the perception of Renewalists as being highly isolationist. It is indeed true that many apocalyptic communities have been characterized by a bewilderment of existing government structures and withdrawl to await the eschaton (consider the community at Qumran, Jonestown and the Millerites). While to some extent this same mentality has plagued Renewalists, they have also shown fierce commitment to evangelization, which by its very nature is antithetical to isolationism.

In all ten of the countries surveyed, Renewalists are shown to express as much support for religious involvement in political and public life as other Christians. In eight of the countries at least sixty percent of Pentecostals support expressing religious views in politics; over seventy percent in five of the countries. In comparison, only seven of the countries have sixty percent of other Christians expressing support for religious involvement in politics; and in only one country over seventy percent of non-Renewalists.

Social and Moral Concern
The report examined three areas of social and moral concern. In nine of the countries, the majority of Pentecostals say that drinking alcohol is never justified; in six countries the number is over seventy percent; in four countries it is over eighty percent. By contrast, in only five countries the majority of non-Renewalist Christians say drinking alcohol is never justified; only two countries over seventy percent; three countries are under forty percent.


Religious expression in a political environment is a natural extension of missionary expansion.


In six of the countries the majority of Pentecostals say that divorce is never justified. Four of those countries are over seventy percent. Among non-Renewalists only four countries have majorities opposing divorce in all situations.

Religious expression in a political environment is a natural extension of missionary expansion. The Kingdom of God is more than spiritual; it is also material: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). By their very nature, missionary movements are intrinsically political, insofar as political involvement includes advancing social and moral concerns. Consider the words of Isaiah: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; vindicate the orphan, defend the widow,” (Isaiah 1:17). It should be no surprise that a missions movement is at its core concerned with social matters.

Endnote

1. All statistics were taken as national samples indicative of the country as a whole. The only exception to this was in the case of India, where the survey was limited to the states Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Meghalaya (districts known to have a disproportionately high Christian demographic).


Justin Evans is a graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA. He also works as a research assistant at The Center for the Study of Global Christianity.