One of the interesting things about Pentecostalism is that it is so new. The movement has grown from basically zero about 125 years ago to one of the largest Christian groups in the world today. A recent study by the Pew Forum, for instance, has determined that there are an estimated 584 million Pentecostals and Charismatics (we might lump them together under the term “renewal movements”) across the globe.
In addition to representing around 8% of the entire population of the world, Renewalists now constitute over 26% of Christianity. This means that 1 in 4 Christians living right now could be considered Pentecostal or Charismatic.
While the numbers are often debated and figuring out exactly who belongs in which categories can be controversial, it is clear that Renewalism has grown to be a large and influential movement that is coming to define the Christian faith of the 21st century.
We’ve reached that point in my Church History course this semester where we are talking about Roman emperor Constantine. His conversion to Christianity in the 4th century augured great changes for Christianity, which within one generation went from being actively persecuted by the Empire to being not only tolerated but actively favored by those in power.
This move from humility to power was a major turning point in the development of the Church. Some have seen it through a triumphal lens. Others have seen it as the death knell for “real” Christianity. In any case, it was the end of an era. Now moving into an influential position, the Church had new demands placed upon it from both within and without.
I wonder, as I consider Pentecostalism and related movements, if similar dynamics are not at work today. Though the geopolitical and global religious climate is much different from Late Antiquity, in just a few generations the world has seen a small movement despised and rejected by the religious elites become one of the most numerically dominant forms of religion in the world. As there has been a growing awareness of this in the larger world, forces similar to those that attempted to direct/guide/influence the newly powerful early Church may similarly be at work.
Already in much of the literature and scholarly debate around Renewalism we see a lot of ink being spilled on defining the “meaning,” “ethos,” and “legacy” of Pentecostalism and its co-religionists. Is it a protest movement? A movement of the people? Is it conservative or progressive? How much of it is otherworldly and how much is concerned with today’s pressing social issues? The list continues. Descriptions and prescriptions for the movement abound, and I suspect will continue to do so as Renewalism navigates its newfound influence. Whether this will be ultimately helpful or not is an open question…though I will say that influence, power, and money have not always been handled well by religious faiths the world over.