Buoyed by its commitment to worship, Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest-growing Christian movement.
LOS ANGELES – “Did they say we can’t shout in here?” the visiting preacher teases. Why, back home in Nigeria, he tells them, the saints aren’t shy. They’re bold when they worship. They’re not quiet and pious like the people tonight.
The shy “saints” he exhorts are 150 Pentecostals in Los Angeles. They are black, white, Asian and American Indian, all of them joined in a spiritual experience very different from mainstream Protestant services.
The preacher is not talking mere preaching and praying. In a church near a forgotten alley called Azusa Street where the Pentecostal movement was born in 1906, he wants his worshipers to leap to their feet, to speak in tongues, to swoon to the floor, “slain in the spirit.”
And within five intense hours, they will.
This is the intimacy, the passion, that is transforming Christianity.
The preacher is standing in front of Fred and Wilma Berry with his hands on their heads. Their ministry will begin to take off, he tells them. God is getting ready to promote them.
The Holy Spirit is moving, and the power makes Fred and Wilma light-headed. He sinks into a pew. She drops to the floor like a gently toppled domino.
Just a few decades ago, many mainstream Christians would have called it hysterics. They had a name for Pentecostals: “holy rollers.” They were considered poor, uneducated. Backwoods folks. Many people still have doubts about them.
“The normal Episcopalian (himself included) would not find that kind of emotionalism useful,” said the Rev. Clayton Morris, liturgical officer for the Episcopal Church U.S.A.
“I have to be honest with you, I think we have more questions than answers at this point,” said H. Frederick Reisz, president of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina.
Yet Pentecostalism has bulled its way into the mainstream that once rejected it, asserted itself in Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches from Los Angeles to Tampa, and into Latin America, Canada, Africa, Europe and Asia. More than 500-million Christians practice Pentecostalism worldwide. It is thought to be the world’s fastest-growing Christian movement.
Not quite a century old, Pentecostals outnumber Buddhists and Jews.
Children of Azusa Street
Go back to the turn of the 20th century. William J. Seymour, a black preacher, blind in one eye, had learned about speaking in tongues at a Houston Bible college before moving in 1906 to be pastor at a Holiness church in Los Angeles. He taught his new members what he discovered, that Christians should be able to speak in tongues.
It was a radical idea. Speaking in tongues was among the biblical spiritual gifts first attributed to the Apostles, who had been empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in foreign languages. In Seymour’s day, most Christians believed supernatural gifts like tongues, divine healing, prophecy and recognizing evil spirits died with the fall of Jerusalem in about 70 A.D.
Seymour’s congregation kicked him out, but Pentecostalism had begun to take hold. His prayer meetings grew exponentially and he moved to a former black church and warehouse on Azusa Street.
The Azusa Street Mission, as he called the church, stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week from 1906 to 1909. A three-year revival, it was. Seymour preached occasionally, but there was no liturgy. Worshipers prayed for hours, standing, sitting or lying on the floor. At any moment, someone would stand and prophesy “a word from the Lord.” Singers sang as the spirit moved them.
Newspapers ridiculed the church. From the April 18, 1906, edition of the Los Angeles Times:
“Weird Babel of Tongues: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose . . .”
The story said, “. . . Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, near San Pedro Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preaching the wildest theories and working themselves into a state of mad excitement in the peculiar zeal.
The stories circulated nationwide. To some Christians it sounded like God’s promise in the Book of Joel: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . People traveled cross-country, and crowds swelled. Believers carried the message and their unorthodox worship style to other parts of America and the world.
But others feared Pentecostalism. A federation of churches tried to shut the place down. “For three years, L.A. was pretty much in turmoil over this little mission,” said Cecil M. Robeck Jr., a professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
The church continued for several years after the lengthy revival, but its once multiracial crowds dwindled to a dozen or so African-Americans. Azusa’s adherents had established their own churches, most of them racially segregated.
Then the end of World War II gave Pentecostalism its second wind. Postwar prosperity helped Pentecostals move out of weathered church houses, shedding the stereotype of poverty. Evangelists spread the word. The Rev. Oral Roberts broadcast healing services on TV.
By the 1960s and 1970s, a flood of Christians from mainstream religions were adopting Pentecostalism. Many remained members of their original denominations, while forming their own groups and calling themselves “charismatics,” derived from charism, the Greek word used for spiritual gifts in the New Testament. Others broke away and created independent churches.
Pentecostal and charismatic churches speckle the country today. Some are independent, others belong to denominations like the United Pentecostal Church International, Church of God in Christ, the Foursquare Gospel Church, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World or the Assemblies of God.
Some are tiny, Holy Ghost churches on red dirt roads. Some are megachurches in big cities like Without Walls International in Tampa, World Changers Church International in Atlanta, World Harvest Church in Ohio and West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, where movie producer Robert Townsend, Denzel Washington and Stevie Wonder have worshiped. Some of the megachurches are notably integrated with blacks, whites and Hispanics.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and several members of Congress are Pentecostal.
Speaking in tongues
The Rev. Manuel Sykes was 17 when he traded the Baptist congregation he grew up in for a Church of God in Christ in Jacksonville.
He saw people saying personal prayers to God throughout the service. A group of elders agreed to meet with him and help him receive God’s gift. They prayed with him, encouraged him to stay focused on Jesus. On the ninth night, his words began to sound like a new language.
But the denomination’s conservative beliefs didn’t sit well with Sykes. Back then, women couldn’t wear pants or makeup. He went to seminary and later joined a Baptist church.
Ten years ago, he saw an ad: Bethel Community Baptist in St. Petersburg was looking for a “spirit-filled” pastor. He got the job and gradually ushered in Pentecostalism.
A year ago, Sykes led Bethel’s 800 members into the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, a Pentecostal association of about 1,500 churches.
Some members left Bethel. “Some people were very dogmatic in their old belief systems,” says Sykes, now 46.
State Rep. Frank Peterman, a member at the time, didn’t mind the change, though. Years earlier, Peterman hadn’t believed in modern-day tongues, healings and prophecies. Then, he started studying the issue. One day, he says, “it happened to me.”
Peterman was praying alone and his words began to sound like a different tongue. “It wasn’t anything I tried to conjure up,” he said.
Speaking in tongues is an element of Pentecostalism that draws attention, but Peterman and some other believers say the gift must be put in context. “It’s not more important than having a personal relationship with Christ.”
Today, the legislator is pastor of his own small congregation, Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
Dramatic, seemingly miraculous conversions like Peterman’s are often described by Pentecostals.
Rick Hatfield was studying to be an Episcopal priest near Milwaukee in 1977. He began to believe that fellow seminarians who spoke in tongues were more committed than he was. He asked an upperclassman to “lay hands on him,” as he had seen charismatic Episcopalians do.
Nothing extraordinary happened that day, but a week later, he was reading Scripture by the lake when “I had a powerful experience that I can only liken to every molecule being taken apart and being put back together again.”
Shortly afterward, he began to speak in tongues.
He used to worship at a charismatic congregation with the Episcopal Church U.S.A. But said he felt marginalized by other priests who looked down on the charismatic movement.
Today, Hatfield, 57, is a priest with the Charismatic Episcopal Church denomination and worships in Jacksonville. Priests march in for the opening processional and members say the liturgy, just like in traditional Episcopalian services. But worshipers prefer “modern hand-clapping, joyful music” to hymns. They speak in tongues and proclaim prophetic messages from the pews.
Critics and doubters
Stories of Pentecostal awakenings abound, but so do critics’ doubts. Some denominations, like the Roman Catholic Church, accept the charismatic movement, even encourage it. About 60 charismatic prayer groups exist in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Other denominations seem only to tolerate charismatics.
Nothing in church doctrine forbids charismatics, says Morris, the Episcopal church’s liturgical officer. “We’re not a doctrinal church. We don’t make up a lot of rules like that and post them on the wall.” He stressed, though, “it’s not the norm.”
At the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, teachers refer to charismatics in some courses. One sticking point, says president Reisz, is that they can be judgmental of Christians who don’t speak in tongues, at times saying those who don’t are not saved. Still others say Pentecostals are overly dramatic. Even some charismatics agree that worshipers can get carried away in emotional zeal.
Opponents of the movement cite studies such as a 1972 project in which two New York psychologists recorded people engaged in glossolalia, the formal name for speaking in tongues. The studies said that people who spoke in tongues often sounded like their prayer leaders, although each was supposed to be speaking a unique language. Others dubious of Pentecostalism say that, like in Seymour’s day, non-Christians also speak in tongues and profess healing powers.
Hank Lindstrom, pastor at Calvary Community Church in Tampa and host of the Bibleline radio program on WTBN-AM 570, doesn’t mince words.
“No one on the planet Earth is speaking in the biblical gift of tongues,” Lindstrom wrote in an online article, Tongues – a Sign.
“The gibberish that is being done today is not the Biblical gift of tongues. The Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and others are doing this gibberish. People of world religions also do it, such as the Buddhists and the Mohammedans. … What we are seeing is a sign of the return of Christ. Jesus said, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs, and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”‘
Won’t be ignored
Back in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, tourists had asked Bill Watanabe for directions to Azusa Street. They described it as the Mecca of Pentecostalism.
Watanabe is executive director of a community development corporation and has worked in Little Tokyo for more than two decades. He knows the community, made of Japanese-owned restaurants and businesses and four Buddhist temples. He knew that Azusa Street was an alley next to the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
Curious, he assigned a college intern to research it. The intern ran into Fred and Wilma Berry whose organization, Joshua Ministries, educated people about Pentecostalism. The couple hosted events at the Bonnie Brae House where Seymour held his first prayer meetings before moving to Azusa.
The Berrys, Watanabe and Robeck, the church history professor, formed the Azusa memorial committee. Their efforts led to a historical sign at the street. Recently, Los Angeles also included Azusa Street in a series of historical monuments sprinkled on downtown sidewalks.
The Berrys wanted to hold events near Azusa. A half block away, the Union Church of Los Angeles was the closest church. They befriended the pastor, the Rev. Philip K. Tsuchiya. Now, they use his sanctuary for a series of all-night prayer meetings called “Re-Digging the Wells at Azusa Street,” like their upcoming Nov. 14 revival.
“We are praying for what we call AAA – Azusa Aflame Again!” said Tsuchiya.
Service starts at 7 p.m. People stay until 3 a.m., singing, praying, listening to sermons and vowing that the devil will be defeated. They nap on the pews and wake before sunrise to pray some more.
“Our bodies aren’t tired, but energized,” says Fred Berry, 43. “We feel refreshed. We feel younger than we are. We feel at peace. It’s a peace that surpasses all understanding.”
That kind of testimonial is what makes Pentecostalism a force mainstream Christianity can’t ignore.
“You let go of the Earth and you receive the spirit,” Berry says. “You get lightheaded. It’s euphoric. It’s all of the above.”
Nov. 9, 2003