In May 2020, a 2018 documentary on Netflix sent shockwaves through the United States. Pentecostal and Evangelical circles. Titled American Gospel: Christ Alone, the movie offered a searing commentary on the prosperity gospel with its heavy emphasis on health and wealth, which had become popular in the United States since the 1960s and then exported throughout the world since the 1980s through wide-reaching televangelist networks such as TBN, Daystar and others.
Some Pentecostal and neo-charismatic pastors derided the movie, calling it “demon-inspired”, whilst others applauded the brutal honesty. The movie argued that the prosperity teaching corrupted the actual Gospel message, and is now taking over the rest of the world, just like every other undesirable American cultural export.
If you really want to witness the impact of the explosion of prosperity gospel-driven growth in Pentecostal and neo-charismatic Christianity, you often need look no further then your own backyard. For Australian readers, Prime Minister Scott Morrison belongs to Horizon Church, a Pentecostal Church teaching the prosperity gospel. And no one can ignore the Pentecostal superpower that originated from Sydney, Hillsong.
Today, Hillsong’s music is sung from schools to churches of many different denominations, and Hillsong’s branch in New York city boasts followers like Justin Bieber and other Hollywood stars. Despite the fact that they are often accused by opponents of being wishy-washy on key doctrines such as salvation and homosexuality, and embracing disturbing “name it and claim it” beliefs which are arguably not biblical, Hillsong has continued to explode in popularity around the world, and its anthemic rock-like music and the occasional “Christian electronic dance music” are now the staple of worship music from South Africa to the US.
Meanwhile in America, despite being derided on late night comedy shows for their predatory teachings such as “seed faith” (where if one plants seed money with the church/pastor, they will yield far better returns), ridiculous requests for their congregation to help them buy private jets, and disturbing behaviour manipulating the most vulnerable to ignore their health conditions and instead trust in their healing power, Pentecostal pastors like Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and Mike Murdock continue to live in extreme luxury, tax-free.
The wildest variations of how far and even how predatory prosperity gospel Pentecostalism has become are in Africa. African Pentecostal churches have helped their pastors rake in millions just like the American televangelists. But here in Africa, the scandals are even more egregious. Pastors have claimed to heal people from HIV, which often led to congregants ignoring actual treatment; blatantly lied about resurrecting people; ordered their congregants to drink petrol, eat grass and have insecticides sprayed in their faces to “heal them”.
Some prosperity gospel pastors in Africa are the poster boys for the term “false prophet”. Yet this version of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity has grown so exponentially that many other Protestant leaders such as Anglican bishops in Africa are becoming extremely concerned about a tide of “Jesus-ignoring” prosperity gospel teachings sweeping away their congregants.
Moreover, notwithstanding Pentecostal churches being supposedly more socially conservative and affirming the traditional teachings of Christianity, that is not reflected significantly in metric-birth rates. Despite Pentecostalism sweeping across formerly Catholic Brazil and the rest of Latin America in recent years, fertility rates there have plunged. Pentecostals have the same, if not lower birth rates in most of these countries.
In 2006, a Pew survey of Pentecostals worldwide show that Pentecostals in countries like South Africa, South Korea and Nigeria have around the same number of children as the general population, though in the US and Brazil there is a very slight fertility advantage. Eric Kaufmann, the author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, which made the case that conservative religious sects would outbreed secular folks, quoted that Pew survey to indicate that there is seemingly a lack of religion-fertility link of higher fertility in Pentecostals, though he did point out more data and research needs to be done.
But there are Pentecostals who do have a significant fertility advantage, are socially conservative and match Mr. Kaufmann’s theory of a religious demographic takeover. But they are definitely not churches that teach the prosperity gospel and are not charismatic in worship style. They have preserved the traditions of Pentecostalism when it first came into being through the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles.
Romanian and Russian Pentecostals
Classical Pentecostals believed in doctrines such outward holiness and Christian pacifism; they did not believe in the prosperity gospel teachings, which only emerged and reached popularity after the Second World War. Many Pentecostal churches back then had strict moral codes, rituals and dressing rules, such as segregation of the sexes during church service, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, feet washing among fellow congregants, and bans on dancing and music.
The rise of charismatic and neo-Pentecostalism after World War II has eliminated these taboos and also ushered in contemporary worship music, Word of Faith preacher Benny Hinn-style revival meetings, an obsessive emphasis on material successes, health and wealth, and Hillsong-style “happy clappy” megachurches. In many countries, Pentecostalism looks nothing like what it originally did.
However, in formerly Communist-ruled Romania and Russia, Pentecostalism appears to have had a completely different experience. When Pentecostalism came to Russia and Romania in the early 20th century following the rise of the movement in America, it came under decades of Communist rule and suffered persecution and repression. And yet, when the Iron Curtain fell in the 1990s, Pentecostalism had deeply ingrained itself in the villages of Romania and Russia with a distinctly different flavour.
In the time capsule that is Romanian Pentecostalism, the genders remain segregated during church services. Many churches use a capella singing in worship and enforce strict dress codes. Women wear head coverings and skirts, and are not allowed to wear jewellery or makeup during services; birth control is forbidden, and the tradition of feet washing for fellow believers has been retained.
These traditions survived probably because of Communism and the Iron Curtain, because that prevented the Western neo-Pentecostal and Word of Faith movement from accessing the Communist half of Europe effectively. The paradigm shift in Pentecostalism which occurred pretty much everywhere else during the 1960s to the 1980s never came here.
Traditional Romanian Pentecostal churches also continue to aggressively convert the Roma (formerly called “Gypsies”) in a country where the Orthodox establishment often ignores or discriminates against them. Roma people are encouraged to change their religion, which then causes a change in behaviour.
Pentecostal Roma turn away from alcoholism, drugs and tobacco (taboo for the original Pentecostals), and are also challenged in their customs of child marriage and fortune-telling. Pentecostal Roma villages in Romania are said to fare better in education and have fewer instances of violence.
And it is now paying off. In a country where the population is fast depleting thanks to massive emigration to Western European countries after Romania’s accession to the EU and a plunging birth rate following the fall of Ceaucescu, Pentecostals are holding their ground and increasing demographically.
Between 1990 and 2019, Romania’s population plummeted from 23.2 million to 19.4 million. Orthodox Romanians have decreased from 19.8 million in 1992 to just 16.3 million in 2011. Meanwhile, Pentecostals have increased their population from 220,000 to 370,000. Between 2001 and 2011, according to the Romanian census, Pentecostals were the only religious group to grow in Romania. This, despite the fact that Romanian Pentecostals have also emigrated in large numbers to Western Europe and North America, so much so that the biggest and fastest growing church in Ireland, of all places, is the Betania Romanian Pentecostal church.
Romanian Pentecostals achieve this through not just high conversion rates from the Roma/Gypsy people, but also high birth rates of both ethnic Romanian and non-Romanian believers. Romanian census figures show that Pentecostals have a fertility rate of 2.568 in 2011, in a country where the national fertility rate was 1.51.
Pentecostals have the highest fertility rate of any religious group in the country by far, with the majority Orthodox population only having 1.5 children on average, and the Reformed and Roman Catholic population around 1.6. This reflects Pentecostal views on birth control, family and marriage, something that is not reflected among modern day Pentecostals in Australia or the United States and even Brazil.
Some would argue that Romanian Pentecostals have such a high birth rate only because of the relatively high proportion of fecund Roma people in the church. But it is actually the other way around — when Romas join Pentecostalism, their fertility rates are boosted (sometimes exponentially).
In the 2011 census statistics, one can find that the Roma people do have much higher fertility than ethnic majority Romanians, a trend that is true across Eastern Europe. Roma had a TFR of 2.38 in 2011, lower than the 2.568 for Pentecostals. Moreover, a 2014 University of Manchester survey among Romanian Roma migrants living in the UK showed that Roma women had 2.7 children on average. But when Pentecostal Roma women are excluded from the statistics, things get very interesting. Non-Pentecostal Roma women only have 2.0 children, which is not that much higher than the UK national average of 1.7-1.8. But Pentecostal Roma women have 4.0 children, with Roma Pentecostals from the town of Tandarei being particularly fertile.
All of this indicate that the religion is the fertility boosting factor at play, not ethnicity. Moreover, out of the 362,000 Pentecostals in the 2011 Romanian census, only 71,262 are Roma. The majority of Pentecostals in Romania remain ethnically Romanian, with these 276,678 Romanians probably being the most fecund Romanians on earth.
Elsewhere in the Iron Curtain, the original Pentecostal spirit is also being preserved in Russia. Russian Pentecostals are divided into three factions, which neatly illustrates what happened to Pentecostalism in the past century. The traditionalist Pentecostals do not accept the prosperity gospel, as they believe it is a distortion of the Gospel; they insist on modesty and feet washing; and they are wary of contemporary Christian music in worship.
For decades, they had suffered intense persecution, so much so that well into the 2000s, some conservative Pentecostals in Russia continue to refuse to register themselves with the government. Meanwhile, the moderate and charismatic New Pentecostals are pretty much the same as what we can find in much of the rest of the world, since they only came into being after the 1990s through Western missionaries, with their emphasis on health and wealth, emotional worship, and healing miracles.
Dr Denis Mukwege
A shining example of classical Pentecostal pacifism and holiness is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Denis Mukwege.
Many know Dr Mukwege from him winning the Prize with Yazidi rights advocate Nadia Murad back in 2018, but very few people know that he is a Pentecostal minister, and his Pentecostal faith motivated him for his extraordinary work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at Panzi Hospital.
Since 1999, Dr Mukwege and his staff have treated more than 80,000 women in rape or birth-related complications and vaginal repair operations in the eastern Congo province of South Kivu. This is a region run by warlords who have committed some of the worst war crimes on the planet. Mass rape and gratuitous sexual violence against women is often used as a tool of intimidation in war, and the thousands of women who have been brutally raped often have nowhere else to go but Panzi Hospital. Mukwege has operated in the worst of security conditions and faced assassination threats from warlords furious about his work.
However, Panzi Hospital would not have been possible without funding from Swedish Pentecostals, who have close ties with Mukwege and operated missions in the Congo for decades. Today, there are about a million Pentecostals in eastern Congo, and Dr Mukwege continues to serve the people of South Kivu despite challenging circumstances. He is in stark contrast to the many, many African Pentecostal and prosperity gospel pastors who take advantage of their flock and engage in greed and corruption. Christian pacifism, a principle long abandoned by many contemporary Pentecostals, is living through Dr Mukwege.
Pentecostalism is the fastest growing branch of Christianity, particularly in the Global South. But, at least from a demographic point of view, it is the original spirit, exemplified by people like Dr Mukwege, which owns the future.