Religious movement spread from Los Angeles worldwide
Blacks and whites, men and women spilled into the streets outside a small home near downtown Los Angeles, danc ing, shouting and praising God by speaking in tongues.
On those wondrous nights in April 1906, modern Pentecostalism was born.
A century later, the religious movement born in the Azusa Street Revival is reshaping Christianity worldwide, reaching up to a half-billion people with a Pentecostal-charismatic experience that has crossed over to mainline Protestant and Catholic churches.
In this country, from the success of evangelical megastars such as Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. Joel Osteen to the explosive growth of nondenominational “spirit-filled” megachurches, the movement toward more experiential, personal spirituality is again sweeping along whites, blacks and Hispanics with nearly equal fervor.
Consider what’s going on in our area:
The Pentecostal Church of Christ at Chester Avenue and East 105th Street, the birthplace 14 years ago of a denomination that now has more than 300 churches with a half-million members, plans a $20 million building project.
Over in Westlake, the Church on the Rise, which fills two Sunday services in its gleaming new facility, is finishing work on a $3 million teen center with a coffeehouse, gym, computer lab and youth church. Six years ago, it met at a school.
In Cleveland Heights, New Spirit Revival Center, started by former drug addicts, has grown from five members to more than 3,000. New Spirit just bought a radio station, 1000 AM, to add to an extensive television ministry, including a show on the national TV One cable network.
Church leaders say the Pentecostal movement has its problems: lingering racial intolerance and suspicion of outsiders, the relative lack of an educated clergy, strict rules about behavior that discourage young people.
But in the growth of Pentecostalism and a charismatic movement that crosses old church boundaries, believers see not only a hunger for a more personal relationship with God, but also the fulfillment of a divine plan that began on Azusa Street.
“It’s going to continue to proliferate,” said Bishop J. Delano Ellis II, pastor of The Pentecostal Church of Christ and head of the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. “It’s God’s last breath on the Earth, I believe, before the coming of the Lord.”
Young people seek something real
Young people and their parents, many with Bibles in hand, make their way Tuesday through a side door of New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ in Glenville.
The faded name of the church is painted on an unremarkable brick building across from an abandoned building on East 105th Street.
Inside, youths say being in a Pentecostal church with contemporary music and people speaking in tongues is not boring.
“Some churches are all about money and fashion,” said 12-year-old Jasmine Whiting.
“Our church is real.” Over in suburban Avon on a recent Sunday, an older choir in green and white robes joins the congregation of the Christian Heritage Assembly of God in singing over and over the chorus of “Blessed Assurance”: “This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior, all the day long.”
Some people will stand, arms outstretched. Many will come forward for prayer, where someone will put their hands on their shoulders. Often, others will join them in creating prayer circles. No one is looking at a watch.
It is in houses of worship such as these, and hundreds of others in traditional buildings, storefront churches, houses and basements throughout Northeast Ohio, that one can find the descendants of the Azusa Street Revival.
At the turn of the century, Charles Fox Parham, in his Topeka, Kan., school, identified ecstatic speech in unknown languages, or speaking in tongues, as a sign of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. But it wasn’t until one student, William Seymour, conducted services in 1906 out of a house in Los Angeles that the movement took flight.
Over the next three years, people came from all over the world to Azusa Street. They brought the revival back to their churches, and it wasn’t long before denominations such as the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God were formed.
They gave organization and order to a spontaneous movement distinguished by its belief in Holy Spirit baptism. Adherents say the experience enables some of them to heal the sick, prophesy and speak in tongues.
The two largest Pentecostal denominations, the predominantly black Church of God in Christ and the predominantly white Assemblies of God, have more than quadrupled their memberships since 1970. With a combined membership of more than 8 million, they are among the largest church bodies in America.
But growth in many traditional Pentecostal churches has slowed. The Assemblies of God, for example, reported more than tripling membership from 625,000 in 1970 to 2.15 million in 1990. Today, it has about 2.7 million members.
Ellis said when one considers how the Pentecostal movement quickly divided along racial lines, and then the excesses from snake handling to an almost tyrannical code of moral behavior in some of the thousands of branches, “for more than 60 years, the movement has grown by the sheer power of God.”
What he has tried to do in the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ and organizations of black Pentecostal bishops is to restore order and discipline and encourage an educated clergy.
That means rejecting a theology of “exclusivism and terror,” he said. A little fingernail polish is not relevant to salvation.
The Rev. Welben James of New Jerusalem church said his father, who was pastor before him, waited until the 1990s to see his first movie — “Father of the Bride,” with Steve Martin.
The church needs to be more contemporary in areas from its choice of music to drawing the line differently on popular culture, he said.
“We don’t want to drive the church in a Model T Ford anymore,” he said.
Experience is essential to worship
“Praise!” “Praise!” “Praise!” “Praise!” Think of the movie “Animal House,” when the club crowd responded to the Isley Brothers’ song “Shout” with increasing fervor, and you get an idea of the intensity of Sunday morning at the Church on the Rise in Westlake.
Clips from the movie “Mean Girls” are part of the service, people are out of their seats and moving from the start of worship, and the music from a band with drums, trumpet and sax is so loud it is sometimes difficult to hear the person next to you.
As worshippers are invited to come up to be prayed over, a young woman in a black top with a neckline the other side of conservative sings “American Idol” star Carrie Underwood’s hit, “Jesus Take the Wheel.”
The Rev. Paul Endrei said his congregation is heir to the groundbreaking movement of the Holy Spirit at Azusa Street.
Only for a new generation.
“Today people want more than theory. They want reality in their spiritual experience,” Endrei said. “Young people would rather have the experience with God than the lecture about God.”
That also means not excluding anyone. People from a Pentecostal background, with a charismatic experience, or who seek a closer experience with God attend, he said.
The Rev. Darrell Scott, pastor of New Spirit Revival Center, said the church can not get bogged down in rules about makeup or female pastors.
“Traditiona Pentecostal churches, I believe, need to divest themselves of the repressive traditions they hold,” he said.
“They’re not able to attract the current generation, and the churches are dying.”
New Spirit member Vicie Boyd, 53, said God is exciting — “He’s large” — so religious services should be exciting, too.
“When you walk through the doors of this church, you feel free,” added Antoinette Morris, 27, a singer at New Spirit. “You can worship the way you want to worship. Nobody is saying you can’t jump around or you can’t do this. It’s free. I love it.”
Charismatic trend leads to acceptance
Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony Pilla has visited Ellis’ church and the Church on the Rise. Ellis led a group of black Pentecostal bishops to the Vatican.
At Praise fest in January, Bishop Luther Blackwell of the Pentecostal-charismatic Mega Church in Cleveland marveled at the way churches across the Pentecostal-Baptist-nondenominational spectrum gathered for a city revival that drew 11,000 to The Q.
“I didn’t think I’d ever live to see this in Cleveland, Ohio,” he said.
Several factors — the socioeconomic rise of Pentecostals, their entrance with other evangelicals into the political world, the lessening of mutual theological animosity among Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals — all contributed to a new mutual respect.
The growth of charismatic worship in Catholic and Protestant churches has brought acceptance of Pentecostals, once decried for their “demonic” styles of worship.
“A big reason is that it’s gone mainstream,” Endrei said. “It’s on Main Street. You can’t ignore it.”