Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

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Back in August, a memo by The Religion Guy outpointed the value of the “Ethics + Religion” section at theconversation.com, where scholars reconfigure their  research in terms lay readers can grasp.

A good example is an October 11 item about what two professors claim “is the fastest-growing Christian group in America and possibly around the world.” The authors are Biola University sociologist Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, senior research director at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Their label for this is the “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” movement, described in detail in their recent book “The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape” (Oxford University Press).

Props to colleague Bob Smietana for grabbing the importance of this for an August 3 interview with the two authors at christianitytoday.com, which interested writers will want to peruse.

INC is a particular subset of the independent, non-denominational congregations that are the growing edge of U.S. Protestantism. The authors calculate that over four decades ending in 2010, regularly attending Protestants of all types declined by an average .05 percent per year, which is “striking” since the U.S. population was growing by 1 percent per year.

Meanwhile, adherents of “independent, neo-charismatic congregations,” the category that includes INC groups among many others, grew an average 3.24 percent per year. So INC is a distinct sub-category within an already thriving segment of U.S. Protestantism that shuns traditional forms and provides a particularly intense form of Pentecostal-flavored experience.

The movement has expanded for the most part under the radar. Have you seen many news stories about such influential INC personalities as Che Ahn, Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, Cindy Jacobs or Chuck Pierce, or about Bethel Church, Harvest International Ministries (HIM), or International House of Prayer (IHOP)?

INC is more about fellowship than building conventional Sunday congregations and empires, and avoids the customary rules and regs required by denominations. It is organized around, and led top-down by, authoritative figures recognized as “apostles” and “prophets.” Crucially, it mostly disseminates its message and tactics, and raises funding, through Internet networking, alongside teaching conferences large and small and specialized schooling as opposed to graduate-level seminaries.

Like other Charismatics but often more so, INC gatherings emphasize the “signs and wonders” of miraculous healings of mind and body, physical manifestations like tongues-speaking and falling to the ground “in the Spirit,” exorcisms, and proclamations of prophecies regarded as direct messages and guidance from almighty God.

Thus, an economically efficient system provides flexible forms of Christian fellowship focused more on experience than theology, forms that appeal to younger Americans and rely on social media for networking and expansion -- a neat 21st Century formula.

In the Donald Trump epoch, this rising category of believers could affect U.S. politics as well as faith. INC’s approach to society seeks command over “seven mountains” of cultural impact (business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family, religion). Instead of old-style liberal and conservative lobbying for political nostrums, this young movement emphasizes placement of “kingdom” Christians in positions of influence. Thus it hails Trump Cabinet members like Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos and Rick Perry.

One segment believes prophecies proclaim President Trump as God’s man, not necessarily a devout Christian himself but akin to biblical King Cyrus as an outside helper.

For example, Steve Shultz of elijahlist.com preaches that God “both appointed and anointed President Trump to take the reins during the time and season when many of God’s prophets” anticipate “the Greatest Awakening of All Time.”

Surely INC is worth careful press scrutiny and more of it.

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