Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

A Quick Question 

Is Pentecostalism Christianity's next reformation? 

The quick answer: 
  It is, if one looks globally at the entire Christian world.

The longer answer:    Christianity’s “next wave” may come in Pentecostal form.  With an estimated 500 million followers, Pentecostalism now comprises the second largest communion of Christians in the world, more than Protestants and Anglicans combined.  With its continued growth and its unique understanding of Christian experience, Pentecostalism promises to reshape Christianity in the 21st century.

“The Pentecostal movement is not simply a new denomination,” says Margaret M. Poloma of the department of sociology of the University of Akron.  “The rise of Pentecostalism is more analogous to the rise of Protestantism in Christianity than the birth of a new denomination.  It’s an example of the restructuring of Christianity.”  Ms. Paloma authored the study, “The Spirit Bade Me To: Pentacostalism and Global Religion.”  

What is Pentecostalism?

There are several classical Pentecostal denominations, including Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of God (Cleveland, TN) and Four Square Gospel Church International.  In addition, numerous independent and non-white indigenous churches consider themselves “Pentecostal,” “Neo-Pentecostal” or “Charismatic.”  

What defines Pentecostalism, however, is not a single structure, uniform doctrine or ecclesiastical leadership.  Pentecostals share a particular Christian world-view, which includes:

  • An emphasis on a transforming experience of being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’

  • A holistic world-view with God present in all events and causing all things to work together.

  • A belief that knowledge is not limited to the realms of reason and sensory experience.

  • A view of the Bible as a “living book” in which the Holy Spirit is always active

“The Pentecostal world-view holds that ours is a world of miracles and mystery, where healings, prophecy and divine serendipity are woven into the fabric of everyday life,” says Poloma.   

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, represents another distinguishing element of Pentecostal experience. “Although not all Pentecostal believers have made glossolalia into a doctrine, and many do not themselves speak in tongues, tongues has a great symbolic value,” says Poloma.  Many researchers consider glossolalia a “leveling force” among Pentecostals, an experience that gives “equal voice” to the poor and illiterate as well as the educated.  As Walter Hollenwager says, “Tongues represent the ‘cathedral of the poor,’ providing a sacred space for those who cannot afford to build expensive church buildings.”

How much has Pentecostalism grown?

The current estimate of 500 million followers is particularly phenomenal considering that Pentecostalism had no adherents when the movement began in 1906.

As recently as 1970, Pentecostals and Charismatics represented only 6% of the world’s Christian population.  By 1997 the figure jumped to 27% of the world’s Christians, or 497 million people, exceeding the total number of Protestants and Anglicans.  (Source: David Barrett)

In the U.S., Pentecostals represent 5-12% of Christians, depending on the measurement used.   That figure is outnumbered only by Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans.  

Most of Pentecostalism’s growth, however, occurred in developing countries.  While the growth-rate for Western churches has reached a plateau, Pentecostalism worldwide is growing at an exponential rate. The majority of Pentecostals around the world are found among the poor and the working classes, the same socio-economic groups that gave rise to Pentecostalism in North America in the early 20th century.

A good example of the sources of this growth is the Assemblies of God (AG), the largest Pentecostal denomination, which has 2.5 million adherents in the U.S. and 35 million worldwide.  From 1987 to 1999, the number of AG churches in the U.S. increased about 16%; however, much of that growth came from immigrants, particularly Hispanics.  Worldwide, the number of AG churches almost doubled within the same time period to more than 212,000. 

Why this phenomenal growth?  

Researchers point out that Pentecostalism is a “movement” rather than a denomination.  Instead of a centralized, bureaucratic organization, Pentecostals form a network linked by personal ties and similar beliefs.    Pentecostals’ mission travels along pre-existing daily social relationships such as family, friends or work companions.  

Missionary activity is another source of growth.  Pentecostals link the outpouring of gifts of the Holy Spirit to the “end times,” which gave a sense of urgency to early missionary activity.  Thousands of Pentecostals have taken off for foreign lands within the past century, spurred by Biblical mandate, a personal sense of calling and an empowering experience of the Holy Spirit.  Many missionaries, for example, often cite stories of how “the Spirit bade them go.” 

A second Reformation?

“Reformation” is most commonly understood as a “change from worse to better,” but a secondary meaning of reformation is “the act of forming anew.”   In the latter sense, Pentecostalism may indeed represent Christianity’s “next Reformation.” With its exponential growth in developing nations, and its unique understanding of Christian experience, Pentecostalism could “form anew” Christianity in the 21st century.

Margaret Poloma's article, "The Spirit Bade Me Go:  Pentecostalism and Global Religion" is available on this web site.

Visit our section on Pentecostalism form more information including additional articles and links


Return to the Quick Question archive



Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research