Tomorrow at 1.30 pm BBC Radio Ulster will air a documentary, “Tongues of Fire: How Pentecostals are Changing the Church.” Presented by Robbie Meredith, the programme is framed around investigating the steady growth of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Northern Ireland, focusing on their expressive worship and – increasingly notable among Christian denominations – ability to attract young people.
“Tongues of Fire,” the title of which plays on the Pentecostal/charismatic practice of speaking in tongues, promises to feature snapshots from various congregations in Northern Ireland, including Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast, Exchange Church in East Belfast, Vineyard in South Belfast, Life Church in Belfast, and Green Pastures Church outside Ballymena.
The word ‘charismatic’ derives from the Greek for ‘gift’, and these churches all share a common belief in a post-conversion experience where believers are “filled with the Holy Spirit”, receiving spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy or the ability to pray for God’s healing.
Pentecostals and charismatics can be found in independent congregations or in denominations like the Assemblies of God or Elim Pentecostal Church, as well as within “traditional” or “mainline” denominations like the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches.
As a sociologist of religion, I provided Meredith with some data and background information on Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in Northern Ireland, some of which is quoted in a BBC article promoting the programme.
Using census figures, their numbers have grown from 11,986; .75% (1991) to 13,476; .78% (2001) to 15,457; .85% (2011). (Thanks to Chris Morris for helping me isolate the 2011 figures.) These figures almost certainly contain very few Catholics who would identify as charismatic, as they are based largely on denominations known to be charismatic. While these denominations/congregations often prefer to think of themselves as Christian rather than Catholic or Protestant, most people in them come from Protestant backgrounds. These figures also under-count Protestants in other denominations who may consider themselves charismatic or who may have experienced some ‘gifts of the spirit.’
So the ‘growth’ in Northern Ireland is not astronomical, especially compared to its growth in other parts of the world. It also should be pointed out that some of these new churches seem to have a younger demographic so growth is likely a combination both of people leaving other denominations and of people in these new churches ‘dying off’ less quickly.
Worldwide, it is estimated that Pentecostal/charismatic groups combined make up 584 million worldwide, or 26 percent of all Christians. (Research by World Christian Database). If we date the birth of the modern movement to the Asuza Street Revival in Los Angeles around 1905, as most scholars do, that’s pretty impressive growth in just over a century.
I think part of the reason for such impressive growth is the ability of these churches to adapt so well to their local contexts. Their reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit rather than ‘old’ church traditions or structures gives them a great deal of flexibility.
I look forward to Meredith’s programme to provide some insight on how that’s happening in Northern Ireland.
(The programme will also be broadcast on Thursday 4 July at 7.30 pm)
(Image from BBC website)