'Renewalist' Impact Grows ; Pentecostals and Charismatics, One-Quarter of the World's Christians, Will Shape Politics and Culture

Article excerpt

Growing up in Colombia, Jose Soto Avila had a loving family that gave him many opportunities. He became a chess champion and was given a car when he began his university medical studies. But a partying life led him into drugs and a catastrophic downward spiral, resulting in three suicide attempts.

Though he went through several rehabilitations, nothing prevented a relapse until a friend "told me that Jesus Christ could transform me," he says. Entering a Christian rehab home that demanded much of him, he "became a new man."

Two decades later, Pastor Soto shepherds Charismatic churches in Bogota and Barranquilla and is organizing a church network across Colombia. "God is doing a powerful work in Latin America," he says in an interview during a US visit. "There is a great awakening, and many are being liberated."

Soto's work is part of a global "renewalist" movement that believes that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, plays a direct role in all aspects of everyday life.

"Renewalist" is an umbrella term for Pentecostals and charismatics. (The latter are Christians of other denominations, both Protestant and Catholic, as well as independent churches, who have taken up Pentecostal practices of "Spirit-filled" worship.) The movement has spread rapidly and is thought to represent one-quarter of the world's 2 billion Christians.

Along with other resurgent faiths, it has the potential to reshape political and cultural life in many parts of the globe. A survey of 10 countries released last week offers the first in-depth look at the attitudes and practices of renewalists in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Besides the United States, countries surveyed included Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala; Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa; and India, South Korea, and the Philippines.

"These groups are not only growing, but have reached a point that they can have an enormous impact on the social and political life of the countries," says John Green, senior fellow at the Washington- based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which did the survey.

The report, "Spirit and Power," confirms the significant size of the groups in the developing world. A neo-Pentecostal church in Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, for instance, grew by 1.8 million between 1991 and 2000. While renewalists represent 23 percent of the overall US population, they include 56 percent of Kenyans, 44 percent of the Philippine population, and 60 percent of all Guatemalans.

One reason for growth is evangelism - personal and through TV and radio. In eight of the nations polled, majorities of Pentecostals say they share their faith with nonbelievers at least once a week.

In the US, other studies show that religious growth in Christian churches comes mostly from immigration, including Latinos. This is true for the Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination. In 2000, some 15 percent of its membership was Latino, says Arlene Sanchez Walsh, author of "Latino Pentecostal Identity."

The Pew poll also reveals some surprises, countering perceptions about renewalist religious practices and views on political involvement.

Speaking in tongues is a fundamental doctrine of Pentecostalism that has long been considered crucial evidence of the "second baptism," that of the Holy Spirit, as in the "day of Pentecost" in the Bible (Acts 2). The survey found that while there is widespread speaking in tongues in churches, in six of the 10 countries polled at least 40 percent of renewalists say they've "never" spoken in tongues. Instead, healing is the most prominent of the New Testament "gifts of the Spirit" for adherents.

"Divine healing may be the most consistent hallmark of these renewalist movements around the world," says Luis Lugo, Pew Forum director. Among Pentecostals, the number of those who say they have experienced or witnessed healings ranges from 56 percent in South Korea to 87 percent in Kenya. …