John Allen has reported here on the surge of Pentecostalism across Africa and the threat it presents to established Catholicism.
Here is what he has to say:
Today the primary competition stems from Africa’s sprawling galaxy of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, some part of global denominations but most home-grown. In many parts of the continent, these churches dot every village square and street corner, and signs, billboards, and flyers touting their high-octane worship and miraculous claims are ubiquitous.
A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found there were 122 million Pentecostals and 110 million Evangelicals in Sub-Saharan Africa, meaning their combined total at 232 million outpaced the number of African Catholics at 200 million. Given explosive growth rates, it’s likely that gap has widened over the six years since the survey.
Catholic prelates and professionals ponder the success of the Pentecostals with a mixture of dismay and frustration.
Why are so many Catholics attracted to the Pentecostal churches? What is the secret of their success? Should we mimic their style to keep the Catholic flock from straying? Should we simply dismiss them as heretics and schismatics? If Pope Francis is right that they are essentially our brothers and sisters, should we simply extend them a loving embrace?
The problem, of course, is not unique to Africa. Catholics worldwide are deserting the church for various forms of high-octane Protestantism.
As a former Evangelical, I can explain some of the strengths of Evangelical churches.
Evangelicalism has always been a primitivist movement. That is to say, Evangelicals are energized by the belief that they are returning to the essential, primitive forms of Christianity.
Their conviction is that they are going back to basics, and while this is largely an illusion, it does create eight characteristics that attract Catholics and which provide a critique of a Catholic Church that is too often institutionalized and ossified.
- A belief in the supernatural – Evangelical Christians believe religion is about an interaction between the spiritual world and the physical world. They believe in miracles. Evangelicals (and Pentecostals especially) are convinced that through the Holy Spirit, God is alive and active in the church and the world.
Too many Catholics, on the other hand, have allowed their religion to degenerate into “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” Their Christianity has become a mixture of suburban good taste, a self-help-do-gooder lifestyle combined with a vague belief in a distant God, who is rather like a celestial Santa Claus.
Catholics, of course, are supposed to believe in the supernatural, but when was the last time you heard a sermon about Eucharistic miracles, incorrupt bodies of saints, exorcism, the ministry of healing, or the supernatural power of the sacraments?
- A Belief in Sin and the Devil – Evangelicals are firm believers in the reality of sin and Satan. Their worldview is one in which a cosmic spiritual battle is a daily reality, and part of their calling is to be engaged as warriors on the side of Jesus Christ and the angels. Heartfelt repentance is required and a vivid awareness of one’s sinfulness is acute.
While Catholics are supposed to believe in sin, the teaching has been watered down and too often replaced by a bland mishmash of pop psychology and positive thinking. Satan has become a symbol, and sin is not much more than a mistake or a misunderstanding. Repentance is an outdated concept and confession is a forgotten sacrament.
- A Personal Encounter with Christ – Evangelicalism is predicated on each person’s personal encounter with the living Lord Jesus Christ. That is why they ask you, “Have you been born again?” or “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” While such questions make Catholics cringe, is this not what the gospel is all about? Is not the gospel a collection of stories of individuals who met Jesus Christ and were transformed by the encounter?
Someone has well said, “Catholics are sacramentalized but not evangelized.” For too long we have been content to push people through the sacramental conveyor belt, trusting that the sacraments are sufficient. Objectively speaking they are sufficient, but they become more real and active when the person also engages personally through faith.
- Personal Commitment to Christ – Not only do Evangelicals expect each individual to have had a personal encounter with Christ, but they also call for each person to be an intentional disciple. In other words, they expect the members of their church to take seriously Christ’s call to “leave all and follow him.”
Too many Catholics, on the other hand, are content with polite conformity. They are part time Christians—punching the time clock on a Sunday morning, then living their lives like anyone else for the rest of the week. As one convert from Catholicism to Evangelicalism has observed, “That’s not religion. That’s fire insurance.”
- A Congregational Form of Church Governance – Evangelicals own their own churches. They don’t simply own the building, they have ownership of their church. They govern their local communities. An entrepreneurial spirit empowers them. Because they are local, they know the needs of the people on the ground. Because they are self governed, they relate quickly and are not burdened by expensive and overweight bureaucracies.
Catholics say they believe in the principle of subsidiarity, but too often we fall into the trap of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The diocesan staff gets bigger every year and the bishop’s budget burgeons. The local church is expected to donate ever increasing amounts to the bureaucracy and instead of the diocese serving the parish, the parishes end up serving the diocese.
This discourages dynamism at the local level, saps energy and resources, and suppresses the enthusiasm and dynamism that should exist in the local church.
- An Emphasis on Fellowship – By “fellowship,” Evangelicals mean the warm, family atmosphere that their churches enjoy. Evangelical congregations tend to be smaller and to attract people from the same socioeconomic bracket.
Consequently there is a strong family atmosphere. In smaller communities the congregation is often made up of an extended family or tribe. These social conditions make for a strong and sympathetic community where fellowship, loyalty and mutual caring is strong.
Catholic communities, on the other hand, are usually larger, more diverse, and less focussed on fellowship. Catholics find their fellowship in smaller sub groups within a parish community. Therefore when they gather for worship it can sometimes seem impersonal and unwelcoming.
- A Commitment to Tithing – Money matters, and Christian giving indicates where a person’s treasure lies. Evangelical Christians are unapologetic about the call for sacrificial financial giving. The fact that their church governance is congregational encourages high levels of giving because, as a group they then decide how their money is spent. When they give sacrificially they live sacrificially, and by putting God before money their spiritual dynamism soars.
Catholics, on the other hand, see large percentages of their donations funneled off to the diocese. The priest holds the checkbook, and too often the people have no say in parish expenditure. Consequently their enthusiasm for giving is undermined.
In addition, Catholics too often have a merely utilitarian approach to financial giving: they write a check so Father can pay the electric bill. The spiritual benefits of sacrificial giving are overlooked and therefore what could be a source of spiritual dynamism is lost.
- A commitment to Evangelization Evangelicals take seriously the great commission—that all of Christ’s disciples are called to go out into the world and spread the gospel. They love their faith and love to share it with others.
Liberal Catholics consider it poor taste to evangelize—seeking instead to “dialogue” with non-Catholics and non believers. While this has its place, it sometimes takes the place of evangelization. In addition, most Catholic lay men and women consider evangelization to be the concern of professional religious. They expect the parish priest and religious brothers and sisters to do that work while they remain “just an ordinary Catholic.”
These eight strengths of the Evangelical movement all have obvious weaknesses. They lead to individual interpretation of religion, schism, financial malfeasance, internal power struggles, emotional manipulation, aggressive proselytism, and sectarianism. In contrast, the long experience of the Catholic Church provides perspective, balance, stability, and oversight.
While recognizing the difficulties inherent in Evangelicalism, we can also acknowledge the obvious attraction and strengths. The answer to the Pentecostal challenge is not to mimic their outward successes, but to re-invigorate the Catholic faith by renewal from within and a return to the vital essentials of our One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic faith.