Where have all the Pentecostals gone?

I was away at a conference for the last five days, and while I was there, I got the shock of my life. There are Pentecostals out there--lots of them.

How did I discover this? By picking up a copy of Charisma magazine, which covers Pentecostals and discovering that it was filled with stories and ads about a whole world of people I knew nothing about.

About ten million of them, according to the latest statistics from the National Council of Church's yearbook.

According to the NCC's yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, these are the four largest Pentecostal groups:

The Church of God--944,857 members;
The Church of God in Christ --5,499,875 members;
The Assemblies of God -- 2,687,366 members
The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc. - 1,500,000 members

That's about 10.6 million people.

I am a voracious consumer of religion news--but in the past 3 or 4 years, I can only remember a handful of major stories about Pentecostals, a 100 year old movement with more than 400 million adherents worldwide.

There was the story about Bishop Carlton Pearson of Tulsa being labeled a heretic for preaching a gospel of "inclusionism"

Joyce Meyer's questionable financial practices.

The flap over the post-Passion sign at Lovingway United Pentecostal Church.

John Ashcroft's faith in this Atlantic Monthly piece

Since my memory's not the most reliable in the world, I decided to do a small unscientific study of news stories about Pentecostals, using Yahoo News and Proquest's national newspapers.

Here's how it worked--I typed in the name of a denomination, and then wrote down the number of stories Yahoo News found. I tried several Pentecostal churches, then some mainline/evangelical churches for comparison.

This is what I found (with membership #'s in parentheses)

  • Church of God in Christ (5.4 million members)- 71 stories
  • Presbyterian (3.5 million members) - 2,826 stories
  • Assemblies of God (2.4 million members), 553 stories
    Episcopal Church, (2.3 million members) 1,891 stories

  • Latter Day Saints (5 million members) 636 stories
  • Southern Baptist (16 million members) 632 stories
  • United Methodist (14 million members) 3,658 stories

The Proquest list of national newspapers was even more interesting:

  • Presbyterian(3.5 million members)--14,735 stories
  • Episcopal--(2.3 million members)--17,853 stories
  • Assemblies of God (2.4 million members)--1,656 stories
  • Church of God in Christ (5.4 million members)--868 stories
  • Latter Day Saints (5.5 million members)--4,088 stories
  • Southern Baptist (15 million members)--4120

It's dangerous to make conclusions from an unscientific study that you finish at midnight. So I won't make any--except to give some of my own gut reactions. They are based also on a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review in the current issue called "The Great Divide."

The piece is on class which posits that most journalists are middle class or upper middle class people, and have little to do with (or commonality with) poor or working class people.

So here's my great thought for the day--we journalists want to write about people like us. Nice normal, middle class people, who live nice normal lives. So we write about Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and Catholics, Methodists and Mormons, or Willow Creek and Saddleback evangelicals because we can "get them." Their churches are structured (for the most part) and for the most part, don't get too far into the supernatural or the odd. And we write about Muslims and Sihks and Buddhist because their faith can be interesting or exotic.

But the poor, working class, swinging from the rafters Pentecostals--who speak in tongues and believe in healings and "the name it and claim it" blessing of God scare the bejeebus out of us. So we stay as far away as we can.


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