Observations of the "Spirit of the World" Conference on Pentacostalism

By: Katherine Marshall

October 7, 2006

Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Azusa Church, considered the first formally established Pentecostal Church, this conference brought together a fascinating blend of scholars and "practitioners", in this instance preachers and activists in the Pentecostal arena. Among luminaries at the meeting were Rev. Harold Caballeros (Guatemalan preacher and candidate for President), Peter Berger, David Martin, Luis Lugo, Eugene Rivers, and Jack Miles.

The conference was held at the University of Southern California and was jointly sponsored and organized by the John Templeton Foundation and the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. The program, abstracts of papers, and links to webcasts can be found here.

The conference looked to the global impact of the Pentecostal movement, described as the fastest growing religious phenomenon in the world today, and it featured the presentation of substantial research, much commissioned for the conference. A new Pew Forum poll of 10 countries was released to coincide with the conference, and underscored the dynamism, diversity and complexity of the movement - a major "soundbite" from the Pew release is the figure 500-600 million people classified as "renewalists" - which includes self-designated Pentecostalists and Charismatics from a variety of Christian faiths. The survey addressed both the spiritual and socio-political dimensions of Pentecostalism and explored its socio-economic impact.

The geographic coverage was wide, though the depth of knowledge is greatest in Latin America, much more spotty in Africa. The conference also featured an evening focused on Pentecostal church work in the Los Angeles area.

Among the many papers I found of particular interest those of Anne Bernstein (University of Capetown), on work on Pentecostalism in South Africa, Robert Woodbury on Pentecostalism and democracy, Paul Freston, whose work focuses on Latin America especially Brazil, on Pentecostals, James Ault, with fascinating film footage on African Pentecostal churches, and papers focusing on the healing aspects of Pentecostalism.

The concluding session was moderated by Kirom Sergeant from the Templeton, with Allen Andersen (University of Birmingham), Peter Berger (Boston University), Anthea Butler (University of Rochester), Ogbu Kalu (McCormick Theological Seminary) and David Martin (LSE). It looked ahead at research agendas and brought out some clear conclusions and lingering questions. Some issues that emerged:

    Need for greater clarity on definitions: very complicated challenge, and use of definitions can be very confusing, with literally thousands of independent churches, huge range in size (millions to small single congregations, very dynamic with change literally every day). Often not clear what is being discussed, insufficient appreciation of great diversity.
    Pentecostalism produces a social revolution globally, probably very beneficial to people economically, maybe even encourages development of democracy (Berger).
    Far too little good research on Africa and Pentecostalism: theory has outstripped data. Drawn large conclusions from minimal data. In developing societies, Pentecostalism helps move from survival status (abject poor) to approaching middle class; what is impact, prospect? Social mobility and its impact.
    Pentecostalism in helping to define "alternative modernities" - different kinds of identities. What do these look like? What does it mean for national, regional identities and behaviors.
    Role of women insufficiently explored. Major roles of women yet still largely patriarchal arrangements within most Pentecostal churches. Male run phenomenon driven by female motivations (Butler and Martin).
    Money flows around Pentecostal movements are very large but very unclear. What is happening and what is its impact? Major role of entrepreneurial spirit that is encouraged by Pentecostal movements.
    Ambiguous conclusions on Pentecostalism and education, area to explore. Impact of "Pentecostalization of Christianity" and "Pentecostalism and Christianity", including links with transformation and movement south of Christian center of gravity.
    Major questions about impact of these changes on social and political values and questions about what this means. Large issues (constant echoes of Weber) around economic values.
    Religious continuities and discontinuities (including pre-Christian beliefs and interaction with contemporary faiths): what is significance? Not well mapped.
    The "revolving door" is significant: people who join and leave. Globalization of Pentecostalism - major role of migration. Shapes of new pentecostalisms as they change in different parts of the world and blend Rethinking of history in light of religious movements including Pentecostals given significant distortions
    North to south and now south to north influence and migration: eg Africans in Europe, South American Pentecostalists in US Political dimensions
    Assertion that there is more forgiveness within Pentecostal congregations around sexuality than other congregations; poorly appreciated.
    Pentecostalists and inter-religious dialogue: where is there a coming together? Frictions and tensions?
    Role of media and Pentecostalism: major roles, but not well known and understood (radio, television, other)
    More thoughtful and sophisticated approach needed to motivation to Pentecostalism (rather than rather simplistic and patronizing): "The dancing madman is hearing some music" (Kalu)
    Focus on Pentecostal intelligentsia: changes, roles; challenges they will encounter.
    Pentecostal music: powerful element in the movement, not sufficiently studied.

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Observations of the "Spirit of the World" Conference on Pentacostalism