Pentecostalism’s global impact outsizes its organizational footprint, according to a recent study parsing the reach of American Protestant mission organizations.
Pentecostals and charismatics—it’s often difficult to name such a broad and diverse group—comprise 26 percent of all Christians worldwide, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity’s 2020 report, and they have a growing presence in the developing world.
Yet only about 10 percent of US missions agencies serving abroad over the past 40 years were affiliated with the popular movement, sociologist Jared Bok found.
“Global Pentecostalism saw its roots historically in the US. Yet despite its growth around the world, in the US itself, it’s evangelical Protestantism that is more dominant,” said Bok, adding that American evangelicalism “doesn’t always affiliate with and sometimes even dissociates with Pentecostalism or charismatic forms of Christianity.”
Bok, inspired by his family’s interactions with US missionaries in Southeast Asia, said he has wondered how big of a role US missions agencies are playing in the growth of the faith around the world.
In a study published last year in the Review of Religious Research, the researcher analyzed a sample of 799 agencies from the North American Mission Handbook, a directory of North American missions organizations, alongside United Nations data on development and Protestant identity. His analysis begins in 1972—the first year that the questionnaire sent out by Mission Handbook included the word “evangelical”— and differentiates between organizations that identify as evangelicals, Pentecostals, both, or neither.
Bok reported that evangelical agencies rose from around 100 in the 1970s to a peak of over 300 in the 1990s, around the time Pentecostal agencies spiked to around 70. (Groups that were neither numbered somewhere in between evangelicals and Pentecostals.)
Pentecostals and charismatics have been more likely to engage in evangelism and publishing abroad, while evangelical agencies are more likely to evangelize over TV and radio.
Generally, sociological research sorts Protestants into subgroups: mainline, evangelical, and black Protestant. But recently scholars have also suggested the importance of differences within evangelicalism between Pentecostals/charismatics, evangelicals, and fundamentalists as key categories.
“Any contribution sociologists can make in breaking apart stereotypes and highlighting the diversity within seemingly monolithic groups is useful,” said Bok, who is an assistant professor at the University of Reno.
“The differences … between evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic agencies in terms of what they do and where they operate may have implications for the survivability of their international ministries in the near future.”
In certain countries, government regulations around religious activities can target foreign workers and agencies, in some cases forcing Christians to conclude their work, leave, or find new ways to evangelize. (Bok’s forthcoming research focuses on factors that prompt organizational changes at missions agencies.)
Although both Pentecostals and evangelicals tend to minister in countries where Protestants are underrepresented, Bok found, as he suspected, that evangelical agencies operate more frequently in countries with unreached people. He tentatively concluded that Pentecostal and charismatic agencies have seen more success in deepening the faith of active Protestants or igniting a new practice in those who were Christian in name only.
Bok clarifies that this doesn’t mean Pentecostal mission workers don’t evangelize nonbelievers, but that social networks play a significant role in spreading the faith.
Bok recounts Tulane University sociologist David Smilde’s research in Latin America, which found that “a lot of conversions, especially from Catholicism to Pentecostal/Charismatic Protestantism, happen through social networks—people know family members who are Pentecostal, make friends or meet people in a different town”—meaning not directly through the operations of an American mission organization. Bok suggests that organizations should be studied more with ethnographies or analysis of mission agencies’ materials to provide a fuller picture of reach.
Geographically, the new research adds to understanding of the greater share of global Christians who belong to Pentecostal or charismatic churches. In Latin America, Pentecostal and charismatic mission agencies had a larger presence, while in sub-Saharan Africa, organizations that identified as neither Pentecostal nor evangelical had a larger presence. Few American agencies had a presence in North African/Middle Eastern and former Soviet countries.
Overall, Bok found “less sweeping and more selective” differences between Pentecostal and evangelical missions than he anticipated.
“There is far more that binds these two types of mission agencies together, especially compared to other Protestant agencies (such as mainline Protestant), than divides them,” said Bok.
For example, Bok hypothesized that Pentecostal/charismatic agencies would tend to do less ministry as development increased for countries over time—other scholars have promoted the assumption that Pentecostalism is uniquely appealing to those experiencing poverty. (Others have also documented the popularity of Pentecostalism among the middle class.)
The data did not support the idea that Pentecostal agencies were more interested in low-income countries. But the answer could be beyond the scope of his examination of organizations—Bok again suggests that more personal, community-level evangelism among those in poverty may be at play in those countries.
His study also found the role of denominations in US missions work abroad has shifted.
In the 1970s, over 70 percent of Pentecostal agencies were denominationally affiliated, while evangelical organizations were mostly not denominationally affiliated. By the 21st century, Pentecostals resembled evangelicals in that regard, and only about 25 percent of Pentecostal mission agencies were denominationally affiliated.
The change suggests some agencies began to emerge from independent congregations, said Bok. It also reflects rapid growth in nondenominational Christianity.
One advantage denominational agencies have over their nondenominational counterparts: a more robust missional scope.
“Denominations may indeed provide the networks and scope of mission to allow their agencies to reach wider audiences,” Bok said. “They may not be as prolific in number as nondenominational agencies, but they certainly are making up for it with more ministries per agency.”
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more