Pentecostalism is the fastest growing Christian movement in the world. Whereas 30 years ago Pentecostalists represented only 6 percent of Christians, today they constitute 25 percent of that religious group. Worldwide, the movement includes between 250 million and 500 million followers, most of them in developing nations such as China, Nigeria, Brazil and the Philippines. In the United States, where Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic in the nation, Pentecostalism is also the fastest growing religion among that population group.
The Pentecostal Movement began in Los Angeles in 1906. The preacher William J. Seymour argued that the Holy Spirit could enter a human being and endow him or her with the power to heal others and communicate directly with God. Seymour also predicted that the world’s end would be announced by a violent act of God. Six days later the San Francisco earthquake struck and with that apparent sign from the heavens, the Pentecostalist Movement was born.
Pentecostalism and Hispanics
Among the converts to this new religion were Mexican Americans. Within 20 years, revivalist meetings had spread to other Hispanic communities across the United States and to Central and South America through missionaries from the U.S. Hispanic community. Today Pentecostalism is practiced by nearly 10 million Hispanics in the United States and over 150 million followers throughout Latin America, accounting for almost 30 percent of that region’s population.
One reason for the popularity of Pentecostalism is the way in which Pentecostal churches relate to their members, many of whom are immigrants. In one survey, Pentecostals were twice as likely as Catholics to say that their church had found them work, lent or given them money, helped them find housing and/or had given them food or clothing. Researchers suggest that the emotive nature of Pentecostal revivals may be a better match for Latin American immigrants than the more reserved tone of U.S.Catholic services. In Pentecostalist revivals, for example, members are encouraged to repeatedly greet one another, lay hands on one other and call out and communicate directly with God. Researchers argue that for these cultural outsiders under the stress of the immigrant experience, Pentecostalist encouragement of outward expression may be a welcome release from the pressures of cultural adaptation.
The extroverted character of Pentecostalism is a manifestation of the central belief of the movement – that the Holy Spirit is regularly present and acting in people’s lives. This ecstatic nature is often expressed though spontaneous prayer and/or collapse, speaking in tongues and improvised lengthy sermons. The Pentecostal belief in healing is an important match for Hispanic spirituality, since many Hispanics are culturally accustomed to using traditional healers. Rather than eccentric, Pentecostalists see these beliefs and practices as a return to an earlier, simpler form of the religion that is more faithful to the spirit of early Christianity.
Hispanics are also drawn to Pentecostalism for its philosophy of empowerment. Unlike the Catholic Church, with demanding ordainment requirements and hierarchical structure, the Pentecostal Church allows members to become pastors with only minimal Bible school training, and leadership positions are attained through commitment and personal piety. The Pentecostal Movement also encourages women to become ordained ministers, something not possible in the Catholic Church. Considering that the percentage of Hispanics who self-identify as Pentecostal increases down family lines – from 15 percent among immigrants to 29 percent by the third generation – one can appreciate how these beliefs and practices have contributed to the Hispanic Pentecostal phenomenon.