Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Rise of Pentecostalism and the Economist Religion Wars issue

In 1901, Bible college students at Charles Fox Parham's Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas prayed to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. At a New Year's Eve service that year, as Parham preached, Agnes Ozman began to speak in tongues, and Pentecostalism was born.

William J. Seymour, a one-eyed black minister, attended Parham's college in Houston, Texas, though he had to sit in another room across the hall and listen in, due to Texas race laws of the time. Seymour moved to Los Angeles, where he sparked the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.

Today there are over 400 million Pentecostals in the world, and it is the world's fastest-growing religious sect. The Mormons are lightweights by comparison, having only reached 13 million followers worldwide after nearly twice as long an existence. In Guatemala, Pentecostals have built a 12,000 seat church; in Lagos, one church supposedly has 2 million followers; and South Korea is home to five of the world's ten largest megachurches.

What makes Pentecostalism successful? It's not intellectual argument. Pentecostalism is what The Economist's recent special report on "The new wars of religion" refers to as a "hot" religion. It's not particularly concerned about doctrinal details (which is not to say it doesn't have them), but about religious experience and personal interaction and participation. The Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest megachurch in South Korea, has 830,000 members (one in 20 Seoul residents is a member), holds seven Sunday services each of which has 12,000 people in the main auditorium and 20,000 watching on television in chapels in neighboring buildings. While you wait (and you will wait, especially if you want to attend one of the two services led by founder David Cho), you can listen to choirs sing, and sing along with the help of karaoke-style captions on TV screens. Translation is supplied to provide the services in English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay, and Arabic.

The Yoido church, like many U.S. megachurches, works by organizing around many small groups. For Yoido, these are "home cells" of around a dozen people that meet in people's homes. Yoido has 68,000 female deacons and half as many male deacons, who may make 35 visits a week to parishioners. There's little hierarchy, and an emphasis on evangelizing, sending out missionaries, and producing more and more "home cells." And it's a methodology that appears to be winning the religious competition.

An earlier Economist story (from 2005, pay content) on the business practices of U.S. megachurches, likewise observed that they function by providing a diverse variety of services to lots of small niches, with groups for hikers, skateboarders, mountain bikers, book readers, and so forth, creating many small communities out of which a larger one is formed.

The lesson I take from this for the nonreligious is that a diversity of groups that cooperate with each other on common causes is far more likely to grow and have influence than individual groups that take a hard line on admissions requirements and require conformity to a narrow notion of what it is to be a freethinker or a skeptic, such as an adherence to scientism or atheism. The late Clark Adams of the Internet Infidels and Las Vegas Freethought Society was a strong proponent of cooperation between a broad set of secular groups as a way of strengthening their influence and being able to create organizations like the Secular Coalition for America. He was also a supporter of groups that engaged in social activities rather than intellectual navel-gazing, and promoted his views with humor and popular culture references more than with step-by-step argument.

If you've thought about starting a secular, freethought, or skeptical group around some interest of your own that's not currently served by an existing group, go for it. is a great way to get started or to find an existing group--you can find atheist groups, agnostic groups, deism groups, ex-Christian groups, Discordian groups, humanist groups, secular humanist groups, brights groups, skeptics' groups, separation of church and state groups, and many more.


Reed said...

Fascinating stuff, Jim.

Promoting social events (like meetup and the more recent Drinking Skeptically) among skeptics and secularists is a great first step.

However, social activities will not provide enough substance to keep people engaged in any way approaching the Pentecostal's success. Compare the active vs inactive members of any of those social-oriented meetup groups for an example. It's pathetic. A turnout of 5% of the active members for an event is doing well!

Providing events (speakers, e.g.) that go beyond the social have done wonders for Denver Skeptics meetup, vaulting us well ahead of similar groups in metropolitan areas with 5x the population.

I'd offer that one even has to go further to go beyond mediocre growth -- i.e., to provide a range of meaningful ways for the average person to contribute. One example would be skepticamp-like events, gatherings where the attendees provide the content.

I've added more here.

Lippard said...

I think your last paragraph is quite right--providing people with meaningful ways to contribute, actively participate, and have a sense of accomplishment is important to the success of any kind of organization.