USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Moved by the Spirit


Movements associated with the first wave of global Christian renewal have become institutionalized, sparking new renewalist impulses in the developing world.

Glory Moses, a pastor’s daughter, is no spiritual slacker. Other 20-year-olds in her native Kerala may be counting the days until the opening of Kochi’s mammoth Lulu Mall—billed as the largest shopping center in India outside Mumbai. But Moses, a student at a girls’ school affiliated with Doulos Bible College, is up before dawn every morning for about two hours of prayer. Her school day, punctuated by periods of Bible study and meditation, officially ends at 6 p.m. with more prayer. But she prays on her own for another hour before midnight and again between 1 and 2 a.m.

“That’s when it’s easiest to get authority over the evil spirit,” she said.

An improbable mixture of religious fervor, socialist politics and centuries-old cosmopolitanism constitutes Kerala’s heady cultural brew. Indians commonly refer to the state, which has a population of about 35 million, as their country’s Bible Belt. To wit, Doulos (the word means “servant” in New Testament Greek) is one of about a dozen training centers for pastors and lay evangelists within an hour’s drive of Kochi. And in a country dominated by Hindus, Christians constitute slim majorities in several towns on the edge of Kochi’s urban sprawl.

Yet interspersed among the gleaming commercial developments and mushrooming churches that line the state’s well-maintained highways are rows of red flags emblazoned with the Communist movement’s hammer and sickle. As the Indian writer Akash Kapur noted in “Poor But Prosperous,” his seminal essay on Kerala, a long history of international trade and a general openness to outsiders have made the state fertile ground for political as well as religious practices that are distinct from the more insular social ethos that prevails in other parts of India.

Abraham and Molly Pothen, Fuller Theological Seminary graduates who returned to India to found Doulos in the 1990s, are senior leaders in the Sharon Fellowship Church, a second-generation Pentecostal movement with over 2,000 small congregations, mostly in Kerala and other southern states. They supervise about 250 students in the campuses affiliated with the school. The primary purpose of the institution, according to Abraham Pothen, is to nurture the growth of their religious network.

“Ninety-five percent of our graduates will be pioneer ministers,” Pothen said. “They’ll go into new areas where there is no church.”

Glory Moses’ religious ardor and the Pothens’ commitment to cell group-style evangelism are typical of the growing edges of Protestant renewalist movements in southern India. On the other hand, long-established denominations like the India Pentecostal Church (IPC) often cling to orthodoxies—a prohibition against jewelry, for example—that diminish their appeal to younger believers. A heavier reliance on organizational and pastoral authority also makes their rate of growth sluggish in comparison to upstart churches like Heavenly Feast and the Blessing Centre. These “post-denominational” or “next-generation” movements train lay people to seed most of their new churches (degrees in business or engineering are more common among young leaders than formal theological certification). But a strong emphasis on “gifts of the Holy Spirit”—particularly supernatural healing—still places them within the renewalist stream of global Christianity.

Fine-Tuning the Storyline on Pentecostal Growth

Catholicism and Protestantism claim roughly equal portions of India’s 24 million Christians. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey of global Christianity in 2006, India is one of two countries (along with Nigeria) where a majority of worshipers in non-renewalist congregations—Methodist, Baptist and traditional Catholic churches, for example—have begun to report experiencing or witnessing miraculous cures and other supernatural events. This fact speaks to the degree to which the process of Pentecostalization entails not just the appropriation of lively preaching and worship styles but also a shift toward the individual believer’s personal experience of encounter with the Holy Spirit.

An even more striking trend revealed in the Pew report is that renewal movements in six of the ten countries surveyed now account for solid majorities of the Protestant population. Which means that in places ranging from Brazil and Guatemala to Kenya and the Philippines, Christian renewalists—including traditional and “next generation” Pentecostals and Pentecostalized mainline Protestants as well as charismatic Catholics—now dominate the religious landscape.

Still, seven years after the publication of the Pew report, a number of developments suggest that many of the older, first-generation Protestant renewal movements have reached the peak of their potential for growth. This slowing expansion has to do, in part, with the natural limits on the appeal of any given movement within the religious marketplace. In other words, in places like Chile, Brazil and El Salvador, most of the Catholics who might be attracted to charismatic forms of worship have either already left the Catholic flock or joined a Charismatic Renewal group supported by the local hierarchy of the Church. Similarly, the worship cultures of traditional Protestant denominations in Nigeria, Indonesia, South Korea and other parts of the developing world are by now largely Pentecostalized, which means there is less incentive for believers to look beyond their own communities for the kind of spiritual exuberance that was once the distinctive offering of Pentecostalism.

“The only difference between Christian churches in Nigeria,” said Yusufu Turaki, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion at Jos Theological Seminary, “is who’s in the pulpit. The congregations are all the same.”

The Next Generation— Renewing Renewal Movements

Within the ranks of Protestant renewal movements, the experience of encountering what might be called a “spiritual saturation point” in the wider religious culture has redirected the energy of the evangelizing impulse in a pair of important ways. First, pastors increasingly tend to identify themselves and their ministries with networks rather than their own denominational leadership. In other words, for inspiration and innovation they rely more heavily on global relationships cultivated through social media and the flow of migrant labor than on their denomination’s hierarchy. And second, the institutions that preserve denominational identity among older Pentecostal movements have become more routinized and inward looking as millions of latter-day evangelists find themselves much more tightly constrained than their predecessors in where and how they can evangelize.

The 90-year-old India Pentecostal Church is a case in point. IPC is the largest Pentecostal denomination in India, with over 7,000 churches there and in countries where Indians have migrated for work and study. During a visit to an IPC seminary in Kerala, about a dozen faculty members made formal, conference-style presentations that uniformly placed great emphasis on the denomination’s centralized structure and careful control of worship culture. This establishmentarianism starkly contrasted with the lively, almost ad hoc spiritual ethos of Heavenly Feast and the Blessing Centre, next generation movements that are bursting the seams of their industrial-warehouse style worship spaces and attracting younger, more demographically and economically diverse believers.

“If you are willing to take God out of his theological box,” said Damien Anthony, founder of the Blessing Centre, “he will start working in your life.”

Anthony, who grew up in a Catholic family, joined a Protestant renewal group in the 1990s during a period of personal spiritual crisis. He describes his first experience with denominational culture—in a small, second-generation movement similar in theological outlook to IPC—as a “negative example” of how to run a church. The leadership strictly enforced clean-shaven faces for men and modest dress for women as well as a closed-minded perspective on religious “others.”

“This was not what Jesus intended,” Anthony said.

The worship experience at the headquarters of the Blessing Centre movement—there are currently 14 centers in India and a handful in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa—is loose and vibrant compared to the more conservative style that prevails in Kerala’s first-generation Pentecostal churches. Women significantly outnumbered men at a recent Sunday service, and many of them wore the colorful saris and jewelry typical of southern India’s dominant Hindu culture. While supernatural healing has a prominent place in the movement, Anthony is indifferent to using the label Pentecostal to describe his beliefs and practices. He even eschews the word “church” as too narrow to accommodate the breadth of his vision for ministry in a religiously pluralistic country, which points toward another characteristic of next-generation movements—an openness to a degree of ecumenism that would have been unimaginable, even abhorrent, to earlier generations of Pentecostals.

Finding a Place for Charismatics in the Church

If, compared to next-generation movements, traditional Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God and IPC are beginning to resemble the hidebound Protestant establishment that the first Pentecostals in the U.S. rebelled against, the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church has managed to establish a congenial niche within the Church’s larger ecclesial culture. This comfortable assimilation is particularly apparent in India, where the Church has a long history—St. Thomas is supposed to have brought Christianity from Rome to Kerala in 52 CE—and charismatic retreat centers attract thousands of participants each week. In fact, Kerala’s enormous Divine Retreat Centre offers twice-yearly spiritual renewal programs for both priests and nuns.

But the relative comity between the Catholic Charismatic movement and traditionalists within the Church has not been achieved without some difficulty. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which established the Divine Retreat Centre in the 1950s, runs other centers in Nigeria and Kenya. In Nairobi, where women often lead charismatic cell groups at the Vincentian House of Prayer, the hierarchy of the local diocese banned charismatic ministries for several months in 2009. But the Vincentian House of Prayer also conducts healing services that attract thousands of participants from the nearby Kawangware slum, which undoubtedly figured into the Vatican’s decision to order the lifting of the ban.

A similar appreciation for the value of the charismatic movement as the Church’s engine of evangelism is apparent in Brazil, which still has the largest number of Catholics in the world even though Catholicism now claims less than 60 percent of the population —down from 85 percent just two decades ago.

Pentecostal “sheep stealing” is largely responsible for this decline, which inspired Fr. Edward J. Dougherty, SJ—founder of TV Século 21 (21st Century TV), a Catholic media network—to produce online educational programs to train Catholic laymen and laywomen as evangelists, essentially taking a page from the Pentecostal playbook and updating it for the digital age. And along with shows devoted to youth culture, cooking, news and sports, Dougherty and his development team have also created fare like the immensely popular “Charismatic Nights” that responds to the needs of viewers who are eager for Catholic programming with a Pentecostal flavor.

“Jesus Christ would be on the air,” Dougherty said. Indeed he will be. Século 21 plans to produce the four Gospels in telenovela format and dub the HD programming into dozens of languages. Thus the network’s TV viewership of 20 million in Brazil will likely soon become a relatively small fraction of a much larger global online audience.

Prosperity Loses Its Luster

The prominence of the prosperity gospel among Protestant renewalists is a key difference between the Catholic Charismatic movement in the global South and the Pentecostal movements whose worship styles and evangelism strategies charismatics have begun to emulate. As next-generation Pentecostals begin to attract upwardly mobile, well educated worshipers from emerging middle classes, many of the pastors who promote a sense of divinely ordained entitlement among their parishioners have become embroiled in scandal or have been called out for their profligacy by their coreligionists.

Asked about the followers of Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s wealthiest megachurch pastors, a 20-something member of a second-generation Pentecostal church in Rio de Janeiro remarked, “They think God is like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp.”

That kind of grassroots disdain for the excesses of Pentecostalism’s prosperity-focused subculture is becoming widespread in the developing world—and not without reason. Believer’s Church in India, City Harvest in Singapore and, perhaps not surprisingly, Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea—the largest Pentecostal megachurch in the world, with nearly half a million members—have all been tainted by money-related scandal in recent years.

But even in the absence of overt financial misconduct, many proponents of the prosperity gospel have become objects of scorn in the eyes of their next-generation peers. Tony Rapu, pastor of This Present House and several
other ministries in Lagos, recently published an op-ed piece in a Nigerian newspaper in which he criticized fellow pastor Ayo Oritsejafor for accepting a private jet as a gift from a wealthy benefactor. In Rapu’s widely discussed opinion, the acquisition by Oritsejafor, the first Pentecostal president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the first person to serve as the leader of both CAN and the Pentecostal Federation of Nigeria, was “technically legal but spiritually inappropriate” in a country hobbled by rampant corruption and where tens of millions of people live on less than $1 a day.

Crisis and Innovation

Glory Moses, the ardent Bible college student in Kerala, spoke of what she took to be a prophetic dream in which she is called upon to pull “huge, fat people, even people who call themselves Christians” from the bottom of a dry well. This kind of vision-inspired prophecy falls squarely within a scriptural tradition that includes figures like Amos and Jeremiah, who preached to (and chided) not just spiritual outsiders but also degenerate coreligionists. Moses’ description of her sense of vocation also reflects the broader tension between reformation and orthodoxy in all religions. Thus as some of the movements driven by the impulse of spiritual renewal in global Christianity begin to develop the traits of institutionalism—or begin to allow the distinctive individualism of Pentecostal experience to devolve into uninspired self-centeredness—new renewalist movements will inevitably arise. Fresh sparks of spiritual innovation are emerging now, as they have before, under the kinds of acute social pressure that are especially congenial to extremophile forms of religious belief.

Nick Street was a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.