Why we should be interested in the rise of the Pentecostals

Maybe it’s my Latin America background, but I’ve always been fascinated by the rise of evangelical Christianity, and pentecostalsits potential social and political impact. Religion in general is an inexcusable blind spot for a lot of the aid business, and activists are particularly alarmed by the kind of happy clappy Protestant churches who go in for guitars, ecstasy, speaking in tongues etc. But they play a huge and growing role in the lives of poor people and communities around the world, so we need to get over it. To help, there was a fascinating series of articles in a recent Economist about the state of Global Pentecostalism.

There’s an overview, and then country profiles on Brazil and South Korea (both hotbeds). For those of you unwilling to hand over your dosh to the evil neoliberals for a subscription, here are some highlights:

‘Like migrants in search of safety and prosperity, charismatic Christianity has proved adaptable, almost chameleonic. To people whose lives are in flux, it offers a mix of ecstasy, discipline and professional and personal support. In Brazil an initially sober kind of Pentecostalism has been replaced by a brasher kind. In South Korea, a style of worship that suited a poorish, insecure country has been replaced by one that flaunts success.

Whatever their style, Pentecostal pastors are culturally closer to their flock than are the learned clerics of the Catholic or Lutheran churches; and they are numerous. A study in 2007 found that in Brazil Pentecostal churches had 18 times more clerics per believer than the majority Catholics. Older churches move slowly because they are lumbered with hierarchies and rules; the Pentecostal world is one of quick startups, low barriers to entry and instant reaction to change.

pentecostals fig 1At worst, this flexibility shades into opportunism. In every country where Pentecostalism has thrived, its leading practitioners have faced investigations of their finances. In 2011Forbes magazine estimated the combined worth of five Nigerian pastors as at least $200m. In Brazil the faithful seem tolerant of pastors who are light-fingered with their tithes; many see giving as a virtuous act, regardless of the money’s ultimate destination. Estevam Hernandes, one of Brazil’s best-known preachers, cheerfully resumed his career after returning, in 2009, from five months in an American jail for smuggling undeclared cash.’

The link to migration: ‘In the past migrating religious groups either merged into their host societies or else pickled the culture of the old country in aspic. Thanks to technology, today’s roaming worshippers have no such dilemma; a Nigerian or Brazilian in transit can adapt while maintaining contact with home. Globally dispersed Pentecostal churches meet both those needs. An outlying branch of the RCCG can offer job advice and a way to keep links with home. Global charismatic movements act as transmission belts along which ideas and worship styles can travel quickly.’

Are evangelical churches always right wing?: ‘Politically, Pentecostal churches tend to be pragmatic rather than consistently conservative. Brazil’s globally successful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) initially resisted the rise of the centre-left Workers’ Party, but went on to back its presidential candidates, including Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent. In Ukraine Mr Adelaja was close to the 2004 Orange revolution but also wooed the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Peru’s right-wing authoritarian leader, Alberto Fujimori, enjoyed Pentecostal support, but in El Salvador, Pentecostal preachers strike a leftist tone. In America Latino Protestants (mostly charismatic) are contested electoral terrain. Almost all Pentecostal churches are anti-abortion and anti-gay, but the UCKG has made statements that are pro-choice and comparatively gay-friendly’

In Brazil Roman Catholics remain more numerous, but ‘One study found that in 2002-03, when they made up 13% of Brazilians, Pentecostals gave 44% of tithes collected by churches in Brazil; Catholics, then 74% of the population, paid less than a third.’

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7 Responses to “Why we should be interested in the rise of the Pentecostals”
  1. Chiara

    Thanks Duncan, really interesting. With my colleague from Sao Paulo we have been looking at the Brazilian context and what the rise of Pentecostal churches and the power they hold in parliament means for women’s rights and for progressive churches working for gender justice in a forthcoming article for the Gender & Development Journal. Most progressive churches, including on issues of women’s and LGBT’s right tend to attract a urban and middle class (not always, of course) congregation whereas the Pentecostals are huge in more deprived areas of cities and also big on TV, they’ve like about 20 TV channels. Also interesting that the population in Brazil is shifting from the Catholic church to Pentecostals basically in equal numbers of women and men.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Chiara, the gender angle is really interesting on this. My experience in Latin America was that many poor women drag their husbands to Pentecostal services to hear about why they should stop drinking (and then beating up women)! Wd be interested in wider comparison btw Catholic and Pentecostal churches on women’s rights.

  2. The rise of Pentecostalism is a compelling trend but it is important to note that once demographic change is factored in the much reported shift of Catholics to Penetcostalists is over stated both are growing in absolute numbers, because of population growth, and thougyh there is slippage from Catholics to Penetcostals, it is usually overstated. In some countries indeed the decline in absolute Catholic numbers noted in the 1990s (e.g. in Mexico) has gone into reverse in the ’00s and over 80% of Mexicans are self-identifying Catholics (and this surprised the researchers we commissioned last year to crunch the numbers). Presently 1 in 7 people in the world are self-identifying Catholics and this will remain true in 2050 (when as the Pew Foundation, recently noted, the number of Christians and Muslims will be roughly similar). Meanwhile the ‘secular’ will grow in absolute numbers but actually decrease relative to the whole. So much for the onward march of secularisation!

  3. Jon Lunn

    Apologies for coming late to this particular party… if anybody wants to delve into Pentecostalism in Nigeria, another country where Pentecostalism has been well and truly on the up (the new-ish Vice-President is a senior Pentecostalist), I heartily recommend Ruth Marshall’s “Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria” (Chicago, 2009). The book certainly helped to mitigate my own ‘blind spot’ on the issue!

  4. I see this as an area of critical work in the development field. I wrote a chapter of my PhD dissertation on Pentecostals in participatory development in Nicaragua. http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/59798

    While doing my research, I heard that the pentecostal churches were among the most effective aid organizations, as they 1. have presence in many of the poorest communities of the country, and 2. have a reputation of having quite honest members (something that deserves further inquiry). State agencies and NGOs often do not have either. As such, during natural disasters such as hurricanes, they were very effective in providing relief and developed a great reputation as a result. There are of course concerns that they help their members more than others, another topic that deserves further inquiry.

    Also, I’m happy to hear of others working on the topic. Thanks for providing a forum to connect with them.

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