(AP) – The birth of Christianity as a world religion can be dated from an event that took place 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. His apostles, gathered in Jerusalem at a time when the city was filled with foreign visitors, were inspired by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel in languages that could be understood by the visitors.
That day is celebrated every year as Pentecost, a name that now identifies those Christians who continue to speak in strange tongues. The modern Pentecostal movement, which began at a revival on Azuza Street in Los Angeles, marks its centennial this year. There are now some 10 million Pentecostal Christians in America, many of them members of traditional denominations.
The growth of the movement has been phenomenal worldwide, to the extent that one-fourth of the world’s Christians are now Pentecostals. Latin America, Africa, and Asia are experiencing the greatest growth.
Speaking in tongues is prized by Pentecostals as a sign that God’s spirit speaks through them. The problem, of course, is that no one comprehends what they are saying. Revivalists have long gloated that “a man with a doctrine doesn’t stand a chance against a man with experience,” and it is the presence of the spirit that animates Pentecostals.
Early Pentecostals believed that the kingdom of God was coming soon and designated themselves as its heralds. Aimee Semple McPherson drove in a car that carried the painted message: “Jesus is coming soon: Get ready.” Today’s Pentecostals have muted their apocalyptic warning, and are more inclined to preach the compassionate presence of God’s spirit as helper and companion. They prize the apostles’ gift of healing the sick and seek to revive faith-healing.
Although Pentecostals can be found in many traditional congregations (there are even “Charismatic Catholics“), two denominations are clearly Pentecostal: the Assemblies of God with 2.3 million American members and 30 million worldwide, and the Church of God in Christ, which claims more than 5 million members in the United States.
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Traditional denominations tend to be wary of Pentecostals, preferring religion based on common faith rather than on individual emotional experience. Late last year the Southern Baptist Convention barred from its International Mission Board any future member who uses a “private prayer language,” despite the fact that the board’s president, Jerry Rankin, claims to have been speaking in tongues for 30 years.
Pentecostalism shares with fundamentalism the yearning for religious certitude. Fundamental Christians find certainty in the literal wording of the Bible, Pentecostals in the personal experience of God’s love. To sense oneness with God requires no thinking, no study – only feeling – and is relentlessly upbeat. In times past, Christians were persuaded of the “otherness” of God, but in America today optimism tends to domesticate him.
David Yount’s latest book is “Celebrating the Rest of Your Life: A Baby Boomer’s Guide to Spirituality” (Augsburg).