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Philip Jenkins

A Global Pentecost

The fastest-growing religious group?

In their hasty efforts to explain Islam to the American public, media commentators have offered some dubious statistics that, if true, would have striking consequences for the picture of religion worldwide. How many times of late have you heard that Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion, that Islam will be the world's largest religion within a few decades? The figures are spurious, since Christians will far outnumber Muslims at least through the coming century. That North Americans so readily accept such predictions testifies to our continuing ignorance of the flourishing state of Christianity in the global South, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Despite all the superb scholarship on "Southern" Christianity over the last 20 years, many North Americans are oblivious to the booming numbers of Christians worldwide. For our secular Élites, at least, there are ideological reasons to ignore this Christian explosion—to hope, perhaps, that if they ignore it, it will go away. Across the global South, the churches that are enjoying the richest harvests are quite alarming even from the viewpoint of mainline liberals, let alone hardcore secularists. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority. Whether such congregations describe themselves as Pentecostal, independent, or even Catholic, they preach messages that, to many a Westerner, appear simplistically charismatic, visionary, and apocalyptic. In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all fundamental parts of religious sensibility. For an American liberal, this emerging Christianity is about as alien as Islam, and perhaps just as frightening.

Published in 1990, David Martin's Tongues of Fire became one of the most influential sociological attempts to analyze the Pentecostal movement, as it exists in its Latin American heartlands. Working from a British perspective, ...

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