St. Paul’s School
Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection
61 (1997), pp. 307-320
The Challenge of Neo-Pentecostalism
An Empirical Study1
Neo-Pentecostalism is arguably the fastest growing religious movement in the world today. In less than a hundred years it has emerged as a mass movement that is 400 million strong. In recent years the membership of the Pentecostal churches has been rising so rapidly that some observers believe that in the next century there will more Pentecostals than Catholics in the world. It is estimated that in Latin America alone eight thousand Catholics leave the Church every day to join the Pentecostal sects.2 In India, I too, the number of Catholics who join the Neo-Pentecostal groups have been growing steadily over the past two decades. It is in this context that the Doctrinal Commission of the CBCI and NBCLC, Bangalore, jointly commissioned a scientific study to investigate the reasons why more and more believers feel attracted to this movement.
The study was designed and administered in 1995 by the students of the second year theology, Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (Pontifical Athenaeum), Pune, under the direction of the Department of Social Sciences and the Faculty of Theology.3
In this study Neo-Pentecostal churches refer to those autonomous congregations, separated from the mainline churches and sharing the following common characteristics: (a) the belief that only those who are born again through the baptism of the Holy Spirit will be saved; (b) the acceptance of the Bible as the sole doctrinal authority; (c) the belief in the imminent second coming of Christ; (d) an antagonistic attitude towards the world; and (e) the adoption of a rigid morality and austere life-style.
The investigation focused on the following aspects of the phenomenon: (a) the socio-religious background of the neo-Pentecostals; (b) the factors which motivated them to join the neo-Pentecostals; (c) their beliefs and moral code; (d) the impact of Neo-Pentecostalism on its adherents; and (e) the organizational structure of the Neo-Pentecostal churches.
The study was conducted in nine different locations in the country: Ranchi, Jalpaiguri, Hyderabad, Tiruchirappalli, Tiruvalla, Calicut, Bangalore, Mumbai, and Pune.4 The main sample included four thousand five hundred and fifty-eight respondents drawn from 328 Neo-Pentecostal churches. The region-wise distribution of the sample is given in Table 1.
Table 1: Distribution of the Sample by Region
Region Frequency Percent
Ranchi 416 9.2
Jalpaiguri 604 13.3
Hyderabad 553 12.2
Tiruchirappalli 458 10.0
Tiruvalla 661 14.5
Calicut 536 11.8
Bangalore 552 12.2
Mumbai 406 9.0
Pune 352 7.8
Total 4538 100.0
In addition to the main sample, the study had also a secondary sample of one thousand five hundred Catholic respondents. The data was collected through interviews using a structured questionnaire, which was pre-tested in a pilot study conducted in Pune.
All the data generated by this study cannot be reviewed here in detail. We shall highlight only the major features of Neo-Pentecostalism as they emerge from the data and then briefly analyse some of its implications for theology, liturgy and pastoral ministry in the Catholic Church.
I. Salient Features of Neo-Pentecostalism
1. A Middle Class Phenomenon
In India Neo-Pentecostalism is largely a middle class phenomenon. Seventy-two percent of our respondents belonged to the middle class or upper middle class; only twenty-eight percent were from the lower class. Nearly half the sample had at least some college education. Only about a third of the respondents had education of middle-school or less. Christian Neo-Pentecostals, that is, those who were formerly members of the mainline Christian churches, generally have a higher education level and economic status than the Non-Christians.
It has been suggested by some sociologists that Pentecostalism is a movement of the underprivileged and the marginalised. Our data do not support this hypothesis.5 The rise of Neo-Pentecostalism, in India at least, cannot be viewed merely as an adaptive response to economic deprivation, a sort of a new opium of the masses in distress.
2. Multi-Religious Membership
Although historically Neo-Pentecostal sects are offshoots of Christian churches, our data show that in India they attract members not only from mainline Christian churches but also from Non-Christian religions. Forty-one percent of the Neo-Pentecostals in our sample were formerly Catholics, thirty-one percent, Non-Catholics, and twenty-eight percent, Non-Christians, mostly Hindus.
Neo-Pentecostalism, therefore, is not a reaction to some malaise that is peculiar to the Christian churches, but rather a response to a need that the Non-Christian religions too fail to meet. However, our investigators could find hardly any Muslims who had joined the Neo-Pentecostals even in those areas where there is a strong Muslim presence. The fact that Muslim communities, much like the sects, are closely knit groups which enjoy a strong sense of fellowship could be one of the reasons why they do not feel attracted to the sects. Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism, like that of the sects, probably gives the Muslims a sense of security and certainty and acts as a shield against the confusion and insecurity that pluralism engenders in the minds of people.
It is also noteworthy that in Ranchi, Neo-Pentecostal sects have been able to attract very few tribal Catholics to their ranks. Of the 416 Neo-Pentecostals in the Ranchi sample, only sixteen percent were former Catholics; forty-five percent previously belonged to other Christian denominations, and thirty-nine percent to tribal religion.
3. Traditional Religiosity and Sectarian Orientation
Three-fourths of our respondents stated that they were perrsonally ‘very religious’ (31%) or ‘moderately religious’ (43%) beefore joining the sects. And more than eighty percent indicated that they were brought up in families which were ‘very religious’ (31%) or ‘moderately religious’ (50%). Less than one-fifth (19%) characterized their families as ‘not-so-religious’. As Tables 3 and 4 reveal, the Catholic Neo-Pentecostals have an even stronger religious background compared to the Non-Catholic and Non-Christian Neo-Pentecostals. Almost eighty percent of the Catholics said they were personally ‘very
religious’ or ‘moderately reliigious’ before their conversion, and nearly ninety percent characterised their families in similar fashion.
Table 2: Family Religiosity by Previous Affiliation (Percent)
Family Religiosity Catholic Non-Catholic Non-Christian Total
Very Rdigious 38 27 24 31.
Moderately Religious 49 55 47 50
Not-so-religious 13 18 29 19
Total 41 31 28 100
Table 3: Personal Religiosity by Previous Affiliation (Percent)
Personal Religiosity Catholic Non-Catholic Non-Christian Total
Very Religious 38 25 26 31
Moderately Religious 41 49 40 43
Not-so-religious 21 26 34 26
Total 41 31 28 100
4. A Growing Phenomenon
The data given in Table 4 about the year our respondents joined the movement gives us some indication of the rate of growth of Neo-Pentecostalism in India. Only about ten percent of our sample had joined the movement before 1980. About one-third of respondents joined in the 1980s, while more than half went over to the sects within the last five years. In India, therefore, the movement picked up momentum in the eighties, and in the nineties its growth has accelerated further.
Table 4: Year of Joining the Movement
Year of Joining Frequency Percent
1950-69 125 3.0
1970-79 298 7.1
1980-89 1453 34.7
1990s 2310 55.2
Total 4186 100.0
The overwhelming majority of the respondents (93.5%) were first generation Neo-Pentecostals as most of them had joined the moveement since the eighties. The movement is more popular among the youth and the middle-aged. The median age of the sample was thirty-seven, with eight-five percent below fifty years of age.
5. Exposure through Experience
The majority of the respondents (55%) said that they were introduced to the Pentecostal groups by their friends. A third of the sample stated that their first contact with the movement was through their family members. For the majority (51%) the first exposure to the Neo-Pentecostal church was through participation in their prayer meetings or healing sessions. Only some were influenced by their public preaching (24%) and Bible classes (19%). The experience they offer rather than the plausibility of what they teach seems to have greater bearing on the decision to join the sects. Conversion is seldom instantaneous. For the vast majority it was not easy to break away from their former church. Eighty-two percent took a year or longer before deciding to become full-fledged members of the Neo-Pentecostal church.
6. Coping with Crisis
The data strongly suggests that for the vast majority Neo-Pentecostalism was a way of coping with crisis. Eight out of ten Neo-Pentecostals we interviewed said that they were going through some crisis when they joined the Pentecostal movement. Seventy-three percent reported personal problems, fifty-one percent faced family problems, and twenty percent had financial problems prior to their joining the movement.
A minority also spoke of disenchantment with modernity and conflict with their former church as factors that influenced their decision to join the Neo-Pentecostal group. As Table 5 indicates, the Non-Christian Neo-Pentecostals seem to have been more troubled by personal, family or financial problems. While few Non-Christians had any conflict with their previous religion, more than a quarter of the Catholics and about one-fifth of the Non-Catholics reported conflict with their former church.
Table 5: Personal Disposition at the Time of Joining by Previous Affiliation (Percent)
Personal Disposition Catholic Non-Catholic Non-Christian Total
Personal Problem 70 67 82 73
Family Problems 47 44 62 51
Financial Problems 18 18 27 20
Conflict with Church 26 19 2 17
Disenchantment with Modernity 25 22 11 20
7. Neo-Pentecostalism and the Catholic Charismatic Movement
The study also sought to investigate how many of those who have joined Neo-Pentecostal sects had been previously associated with the Catholic charismatic groups. Twenty-six percent of the Catholics who left the Church to join the Neo-Pentecostals were previously actively involved in the Catholic charismatic movement. Does this mean that the Catholic charismatic movement opens the door to the Neo-Pentecostal sects? In fact, eighteen percent of the Catholic~ whom we interviewed felt that the Catholic charismatic movement paves the way for Neo-Pentecostalism. However, our data do not provide any basis for checking if this perception is correct. It could be argued, perhaps with equal plausibility, that had it not been for the Catholic charismatic movement more Catholics would have left to join the sects.
8. Quest for God Experience
God experience is the most important factor that attracts believers to Neo-Pentecostalism. Eight out of ten respondents indicated God experience as the reason for joining the sects. Correspondingly, the lack of God experience is the most frequently cited reason for their disaffection with the former church.
While the experience of God in the sect and its absence in the previous church are underscored by the Neo-pentecostals sects as the most important motivating factor, the Catholic perception in significantly different in this respect. When we asked our Catholic respondents why some of their fellow Catholics have joined the sects, less than a third of them (31 %) attributed it to God experience in the sects. A larger number (41%), however, saw lack of God experience as a negative factor that alienated them from the church.
What the Neo-Pentecostals mean precisely by God experience is not clear, although they often characterize it as a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Whether the God experience they speak of is authentic is a moot point. What does seem clear is that the sects enable them to have an experience which is so deeply moving that it brings about radical changes in their values and life-style.
9. Centrality of the Bible
It is well known that the Neo-Pentecostals place great emphasis on the Bible. They are able fo quote verses from the different books of the Bible with amazing ease. About three-fourths of the respondents (76%) highlighted the central place accorded to the Bible in the life and worship of the sects as a positive factor that appealed to them. The importance of this is also borne out by the fact that sixty-one percent of the Neo-Pentecostals stressed that the neglect of Scripture was a reason why they left their former church.
Former Catholics complained more frequently about the neglect of Scripture than the Non-Catholics. And they are more appreciative of the primacy given to the Bible in the sects. In fact, for the former Catholics the centrality of the Bible is even more important than God experience. The Catholics, too, share this perception. In their opinion, the centrality of the Bible is the most inviting feature of the sects.
It should be noted that the Neo-Pentecostals adopt an extremely fundamentalist approach to the Bible. As Table 6 reveals almost all of them feel that “the Bible has answers to all the problems of life”, that “God speaks only through the Bible”, and that “whatevver is said in the Bible is literally true.” Only a few would admit that “the Bible needs to be interpreted critically,” and even fewer would acknowledge that “Scriptures of other religions are also true.” It is surprising that the education level of the respondent has no bearing on the way he or she looks at the Bible.
Table 6: Perspectives on the Bible
Yes No Not Sure
Gods speaks only through the Bible 87 10 3
Bible has answers to all our problems 95 4 1
What is said in the Bible is literally true 90 3 7
Bible needs to be interpreted critically 17 69 14
Truth in Scriptures of other religions, too 10 74 16
10. The Spirit of Fellowship
There is strong evidence to suggest that those who join the Neo-Pentecostal sects are seeking fellowship. Fifty-five percent said one of the reasons why they left the previous church is that they missed fellowship there. Positively, seventy-four percent of the respondents stated that the spirit of fellowship they found in the sects influenced their decision to join them. The majority of the Catholics (60%,) too feel that fellowship is an important reason for the appeal of Neo-Pentecostalism.
Compared to the Catholic Pentecostals, the Non-Catholics feel more keenly the absence of fellowship in their church. Similarly, those who experienced personal problems were more likely to complain about the lack of fellowship in their previous church. Understandably, they also value it more in their new church.
No doubt, there is a great sense of fellowship among the members of the Neo-Pentecostal sects. But our data also suggest that this spirit of fellowship, for all practical purposes, is limited to those who belong to their sect. For example, nearly three-fourths of the respondents (74%) would not approve of their sect members marrying anyone other than a “born-again” Christian. Only eight percent said they would be open to praying with another religious group including Non-Christians. The vast majority (72%) reject the possibility of salvation to anyone who is not a “born-again” Christian. These and other findings confirm the popular notion that the sects tend to be socially and theologically exclusivist.
11. Neo-Pentecostalism and the Clergy
The data reveal a widely shared perception that the clergy of the mainline churches are responsible in several ways for the exodus of the believers to the Neo-Pentecostal sects. This is particularly true of the Catholic clergy.6 Fifty-eight percent of the former Catholics, as opposed to forty-one percent of the Non-Catholics, stated that the lack of pastoral care was a reason for their leaving the church. And among the Catholics themselves, lack of pastoral care is the most frequently cited reason (61 %) for the departure of fellow Catholics to join the sects.
Forty percent of the Catholics and nearly as many (37%) former Catholics believe that the unedifying life of the clergy is also a reason why many choose to leave the Church. Interestingly, the Non-Catholics have a more positive opinion of their clergy.
Only twenty percent feel that their clergy lead an unedifying life. A similar difference in perception is also noticed with regard to the question of the domination of the clergy. A third of the Catholics and former Catholics identified the domination of the clergy as an alienating factor, whereas only a fifth of the Non-Catholics did so.
The teaching function in the church is traditionally exercised by the clergy. The clergy is found wanting in this area too. Thirty-five percent of the former Catholics blamed confusing teachings for their disillusionment with the church.
12. Meaningful Worship
A large number of respondents also testified that they find the worship in the sects more appealing and meaningful than the liturgy or their former church. Nearly half of the respondents said that they found the worship in the sects meaningful, while they characterized the liturgy of their former church as uninteresting and routine. Moreover, the experience of the gifts of the Spirit adds to the worship of the sects a dimension which is virtually absent in the mainline churches.
13. A Born-Again Experience
The “born-again” experience appears to have brought about profound and enduring changes in the lives of the Neo-Pentecostals. An overwhelming seventy-nine percent claimed that they have become more prayerful, while a substantial majority reported that they are now more at peace with themselves (70%), have grown closer to Jesus (65%), and have developed a greater liking for the Bible. Fifty-two percent became more open to the will of God, and forty-nine percent were able to give up bad habits like smoking and drinking as the result of the ‘born-again’ experience.
At the family level, the vast majority now experience greater love and harmony (77%); and the family prayer is said more fervently than before (65%). Although sixty percent feel that they are now able to relate to others better, only one-fourth indicated that they have developed a concern, for those outside their fellowship. This is consistent with the earlier finding that the social circle of the Neo-Pentecostals is limited largely to the members of their own sect. It is interesting to note that relatively few (32%) testified to a greater sensitivity to social evils because of the born-again experience.
Acceptance of a strict, one might even say ‘puritanical’, moral code is another conspicuous change induced by the born-again experience. More than ninety-five percent of the Neo-Pentecostals were of the opinion that the use of alcohol and tobacco are morally wrong. More than two-thirds held a similar view with regard to wearing of jewellery and watching movies. One-fifth considered even medical treatment morally wrong.
14. An Eschatological People
The Neo-Pentecostals are an eschatological people. Almost all of them saw wars, natural calamities, terrorism, and the growth of materialism and immorality in the modem world as signs that the second coming of Jesus is imminent. However, they could not say when exactly it would take place.
Their strong belief that the end of time is near probably explains why the Neo-Pentecostals hardly concern themselves with structural sins and show little enthusiasm for bringing about a more humane and just social order. When asked about the greatest evils of our times, the majority (60%) pointed to personal sins; less than five percent pointed to structural evils like injustice and violence.
The belief in the imminent second coming, coupled with the conviction that only the born-again will be saved, could be the motivating force behind the sense of urgency and extraordinary zeal one notices in their efforts to convert people to their faith. In fact nearly three-fourths of the Neo-Pentecostals claimed that the born again experience made
them more committed to witnessing. Visiting houses and inviting people to their prayer meetings and healing sessions are the most commonly used methods of recruiting people to their movement.
II. Theological and Pastoral Implications
The rise of Neo-Pentecostalism attests to a new spiritual awakening in the world. It is a sign of the times that challenges the church to eschew complacency, examine anew its priorities and explore new ways of being Church. The proliferation of the sects and the growing numbers of the faithful who join them underscore the need for fresh initiatives in several areas of the Church’s life and ministry. Allow me now briefly to outline some of these areas.
1. God Experience
Our respondents across the country have emphatically stated that ‘God experience’ is the secret of their abiding fascination with the sects. Even while granting that this ‘God experience’ may be of dubious authenticity, one cannot deny that the sects successfully satisfy the deep yearning of the humans for a personal experience of God. Furthermore, it is an experience that has the power to move hearts and change lives, often radically.
We need to ask ourselves why the church is not as successful as the sects in mediating a personal experience of God. Is it because in our catechesis we fail to impress upon the faithful that a personal experience of God is, and should be, the basis of all genuine faith-commitment? Have we, wittingly or unwittingly, communicated to them that Christian life consists in the acceptance of a set of doctrines and conformity to certain practices?
Community worship, the Pentecostals point out, is for them the most powerful medium of God experience. Why is it that our liturgy and sacraments often fail to evoke such an experience of God? Is it because the worship of the Pentecostals is spontaneous, affective, participative, while ours tend to be ritualistic, formal, and cerebral? We need to reflect on how our liturgy and sacraments can be effectively transformed from mechanical rituals to meaningful experiences. Here the Catholic charismatic renewal groups can, perhaps, show us the way.
2. Rediscovering the Bible
The Neo-Pentecostals have retrieved the Bible from the book-shelves and enthroned it in the centre of their lives. They have demonstrated that the Word of God has tremendous power to move human hearts. As we have seen, the central place the sects accord to the Bible is the most important factor that attracts the Catholics to their ranks. And the vast majority of the Catholics who left to join them complained of the neglect of Scripture in the Church.
Within the Catholic tradition the study of Scripture has never been vigorously fostered among the lay people. The Scriptures have remained largely an exclusive possession of the clergy. There is today a growing thirst among the lay people for the word of God. And if the Church fails to take effective steps to promote a critical appreciation of the Bible among the laity, many more may be enticed by the literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible in the sects.
Modernization has seriously eroded the traditional moorings of individuals and communities. Socially and culturally uprooted, modem people find themselves in a situation which Peter Berger has aptly termed ‘homelessness’. In this context it is not
surprising that many flock to small, face-to-face communities like the sects in search of fellowship.
The findings of our study make it amply clear that the Neo-Pentecostals value and cherish the fellowship they experience in their churches. A strong sense of community was in evidence in all the churches which participated in our study. Since they are relatively small groups, interpersonal contact is extensive and each member feels a sense of identity and belonging. The pastor, together with the group, constitutes a support system for the individual especially in times of need or distress.
The Pentecostal churches point to a felt need of all worshippers to be in communion with each other. The data suggests that this need is largely unmet in the mainline churches. Owing to the large size of our parishes, the parishioners tend to remain unconnected and anonymous. Hence the experience of fellowship is superficial or at best accidental. Even our liturgical gatherings tend to be so large that the faithful often feel more like spectators than participants. .
Our present parish structures are hardly conducive to fostering fellowship among the faithful. There is an urgent need to consider alternative models of parish organization. Could basic Christian communities be an answer?
4. Pastoral Care
We have seen that nearly sixty percent of the former Catholics pointed to lack of pastoral care as a reason for their leaving the church. And according to the Catholics, lack of pastoral care is the most important reason why fellow Catholics leave the church to join the sects. Furthermore, eighty percent or more of those left the church did so as they were going through a crisis. Clearly, pastoral care in the Catholic Church leaves a lot to be desired.7
Given the large size of the parishes and dwindling supply of priests, it is unlikely that we will able to provide adequate pastoral care to our faithful as long as pastoral ministry is the exclusive responsibility of the priest. Time has come, it seems to me, to induct religious women and lay people in a big way as pastoral agents so that the church can provide pastoral care with a personal touch.
5. Coping with Pluralism
For most humans, religious beliefs and practices are what provide meaning and orientation amidst the ambiguities, puzzles and paradoxes that are endemic to the human condition. The rise of pluralism and the explosion of knowledge in the modern world, however, have severely shaken the plausibility of several traditional religious definitions and practices, leaving many disoriented and insecure. In the Catholic Church the problem has been exacerbated by the profound changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. Today many Catholics are intellectually unsettled; they are not as sure as they used to be of the validity of their beliefs and practices.
Neo-Pentecostalism may be seen as a product of this uncertainty. The exodus of believers from the mainline churches to the fundamentalist sects is in a sense a flight from uncertainty to certainty. By affirming unequivocally that all that is said in the Bible is literally true and that the Bible has answers to all the problems of life, the Pentecostal sects successfully meet modem people’s need for certainty and security.
The Catholic Church and the other mainline churches seem to have failed in this respect. Because of the fast pace of change within the Church and the world at large many Catholics have lost their traditional moorings. The Church urgently needs to address the problem of how to help these Catholics to cope with their sense of uncertainty and disorientation, without yielding to the fundamentalist temptation of interpreting the Scriptures and tradition literally with sectarian certitude.
Finally, what should be our attitude towards the Neo-Pentecostal sects? No doubt, a critical appraisal of the beliefs and practices of the sects is called for. There is also an urgent need to educate the faithful about what is unacceptable in the sects from the Catholic faith perspective. However, we must guard against the tendency to adopt a combative stance vis-a-vis the movement by denouncing it as mere sheep-stealing. In this regard the guidelines issued by the Vatican Secretariate for Promoting Christian Unity about the attitude that should characterize our approach to the sects are instructive.
If we are to be true to our own beliefs and principles – respect for human person, respect for religious freedom, faith in the action of the Spirit working in unfathomable ways for the accomplishment of God’s loving will for all humankind, for each individual man, woman and child ‒ we cannot simply be satisfied with condemning and combating the sects … The “challenge” of the new religious movements is to stimulate our own renewal for a greater pastoral efficacy. It is surely also to develop within ourselves the mind of Christ in their regard, trying to understand “where they are,” and, where possible, reaching out to them in Christian love.8
1 This is a revised version of a paper presented at the North Plenary Assembly of the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI-LR) held in Mangalore, 88-12 January, 1997. 2 See Walter J. HOLLENWEGER, “From Azusa Street to the Toronto Phenomenon: Historical Roots of the Pentecostal Movement,” Concilium, 1996/3. 3 [Then Dr. Paul Parathazham was part of the Department of Social Sciences, and was the main guide of this whole study.] 4 The Pune data is not included in this presentation. Those of the findings from Pune were not significantly different from the rest of the country. 5 See, for example, Nils BLOCH-HOELL, The Pentecostal Movement, Copenhagen: Scanndinavian University Books, 1964; and Walter HOLLEN WEGER, The Pentecostals, London: SCM Press, 1972. [It should be remembered that this study is based on the data collected in India. In other countries, it may well be the poor who flock to Neo-Pentecostal churches, as is now happening in South America.] 6 [Emphasis added. This whole section needs very careful reading so as to respond effectively to the exodus.] 7 [Emphasis added.] 8 “Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge”, L‘Osseroatore Romano, No. 20, 19th May