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In Asia, the Pentecostals are on the march

Appealing to the voiceless and uprooted, the faith could take swathes of believers from the Church

Pentecostalism is growing globally but it is not without its critics (picture courtesy Godswill Ministries) Pentecostalism is growing globally but it is not without its critics (picture courtesy Godswill Ministries)
  • Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
  • International
  • April 15, 2013
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Pentecostal or charismatic Christians are growing fast in Asia, especially among the new urban migrants and ethnic minorities, according to a recent analysis presented in Rome. Some have concluded that this rapid growth could prompt the Catholic Church to change its culture – long distinguished by excessive clericalism and top-down governance.

Father John Mansford Prior, a missionary to Indonesia since 1973 with the Society of the Divine Word, discussed the growth of Pentecostalism in Asia during a conference on Thursday on “new religious movements” organized by the German bishops' conference.

The Pentecostal movement started at the beginning of the 20th century out of an urge for direct personal experience of God and spiritual renewal through baptism of the Holy Spirit. It puts a central emphasis on the Spirit's “gifts,” such as speaking in tongues, miraculous healings and prophesying.

While the term Pentecostal is usually used to refer to the new movements and independent churches that sprung up from the movement, the term charismatic is generally used for the groups who bring Pentecostal spirituality within traditional churches.

In the Catholic Church there are groups such as the Charismatic Renewal or El Shaddai, which has 2 million registered members and an estimated 7 million supporters in the Philippines.

“Pentecostalism has set its stoutest roots among Asian ethnic minorities and social classes which lack political or ideological power,” Father Prior wrote in a report presented at the conference.

In an interview with ucanews.com, Prior warned that in response to the growth of these “new movements” in Asia, the Catholic Church will have to change its mentality and culture, or it risks losing a vast swathe of the continents' believers.

In Asia, Pentecostalism is an urban phenomenon: “People who have been uprooted from their village and culture,” who are “somewhat insecure in the cities as migrants,” join the new charismatic and Pentecostal communities because there they find “warm fellowship” and “have a place” while “Catholic parishes in the cities are large, anonymous, very ritualistic,” Fr Prior said.

As more than 50 percent of Asians now live in cities, the phenomenon is bound to keep growing. In fact, according to Prior, already 40 percent of Asian Christians define themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal.

It is also strong among ethnic minorities, such as the Chinese minority in Indonesia. “Pentecostalism gives dignity and identity to ethnic minorities and provides security, close community and mutual help to unsettled urban migrants” that was “presumably... lacking in their previous religious/ecclesial commitment,” Prior wrote in his report.

Unlike in Latin America, and with the exception of South Korea and – though reliable data is hard to come by – China, Pentecostal groups in Asia do not explicitly emphasize the “gospel of prosperity,” which puts a direct link between faith and economic success.

But Prior notes that when people join these groups “they become sober, they don't drink, they don’t gamble, they are more faithful to their wives for the men, therefore they are living thrifty lives and automatically they go up the social scale.”

While in Latin America the growth of Pentecostalism has coincided with a large exodus from the Catholic Church – for example, in Brazil Catholics went from being 90 percent of the population in 1970 to just 65 percent in 2010 – in Asia “not many Catholics have left the Church because the Church has been open to accept those groups,” Prior said.

In fact, the official policy of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences and of bishops' conferences throughout the continent has been “very positive.” But in some cases there have been “tensions” with the majority community, be it Muslims or Hindu or Buddhist, because of the sometimes aggressive evangelizing drive of the new movements.

This in turn can impact Christians because often non-Christians “do not make much distinction between those proselytizing groups and the mainstream churches.”

But Prior warned that to tap into the new spiritual energies revealed by the Pentecostal growth the Church is still “too mono-cultural, too clerical, too top down.”

In Korea, for example, Catholics are just 10 percent of the population while Protestant churches, which have been mostly “pentecostalized,” now account for 25 percent of the population and are growing. In Korea, notes Prior, “the charismatic movement is not very strong in the Catholic Church because it is a very clerical church.”

For the Verbite missionary, clericalism just “doesn't work in the modern, cyber, open world. It's dysfunctional.”

On the other hand, simply welcoming the new movements in the Church is not enough.

A German bishops' study presented at the Rome conference showed that “while the charismatic movement is massive in the Philippines and involves all social classes, the classes are segregated according to the different movements. Each movement looks after one particular groups, so in fact they are not in contact with each other.”

Prior noted: “According to surveys a lot of Catholics end up by joining Pentecostal churches because they have a personal relationship with Christ, they are not meeting that in our urban, large parishes with ritual. That's tragic.”

This happens partly because the Church doesn't “ordain a sufficient number of pastors.”

This might call into question – among other issues – the question of compulsory celibacy. But the shift in Asia's Christianity requires action. Otherwise, Prior says, “I think we will see more and more and more people leave [the Catholic Church] to find their spiritual contact with Christ in smaller, warmer communities such as the Pentecostal churches.” 

Alessandro Speciale is the Vatican correspondent for ucanews.com

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