Why is Pentecostalism so popular? It is nearly half a billion strong worldwide, and has been and continues to be the fastest growing Christian movement in the world. It has made inroads not only in third-world regions like Africa and Latin America, but it also continues to attract huge followings in the United States and Europe.

Walter J. Hollenweger is the leading expert on worldwide Pentecostalism, which he has been studying for more than 40 years. Having grown up in the Pentecostal church, he later became ordained in the Reformed Church of Switzerland. From 1965 to 1971 he was executive secretary of the World Council of Churches, then served as professor of mission at England's University of Birmingham for 18 years. His seminal book The Pentecostals (Hendrickson, 1972) was recently followed up by Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (Hendrickson, 1997).

What is a Pentecostal?

Worldwide there is so much variety that about all one can say is that a Pentecostal is a Christian who calls himself a Pentecostal. Though Americans tend to focus on the gift of tongues, overall Pentecostals emphasize that God has given several gifts—not just speaking in tongues but also healing and the so-called rational gifts like organization or building a school. Diverse gifts to diverse people. It's not a strictly theological definition but a phenomenological one.

Why is speaking in tongues the focus in America?

There are many reasons, of course, but one is that American and other middle-class cultures, as in Switzerland, find tongues an extraordinary phenomenon, so these experiences get a lot of attention. In Africa or Mexico, on the other hand, speaking in tongues and healings are not considered extraordinary—they can even be found ...

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