Why charismatic Christianity is popular with migrants

IT IS A well-established fact among religion-watchers that charismatic forms of Christianity, including the Pentecostal churches, are the fastest-growing variety of the world’s largest monotheism. Another widely agreed statement: these churches’ success reflects their appeal to people in transit. That includes migrants from rural areas to big cities like São Paolo or Lagos, and travellers from the global south to the prosperous north.

Perhaps 700m people, more than a quarter of the world’s Christians, attend charismatic churches. What this fluid religious reality generally encompasses is faith in an activist God whose power can be experienced through miracles, prophecy and speaking spontaneously in unfamiliar tongues. These phenomena are believed to reflect the action of the Holy Spirit, one of three divine persons (along with the Father and Son) who according to Christian doctrine make up a single God.

That total includes the well-organised Pentecostal movements that grew directly out of a religious revival that started a century ago in Los Angeles; groups large and small that have sprung up much more recently, often at the behest of a gifted pastor; and members of mainstream churches, say Catholic or Anglican, who worship in a charismatic way. Especially in the New World, the term “evangelical” is used as a catch-all for Protestant churches which invite believers to make a personal decision to accept Jesus Christ as Saviour. Some of the churches follow the charismatic style, with its emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, others not.

So much for the big picture. But how at a human level do these passionate communities draw in so many followers? Three studies published this year throw some helpful light.

Johanna Bard Richlin, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, did her research among Brazilians who had moved to the environs of Washington, DC. Many had been middle-class in Brazil but emigrated after some personal or macro-economic disaster. They found manual or domestic work but were homesick and had a feeling of being trapped. The United States seemed cold and atomised compared with home.

For such people, evangelical churches, including charismatic ones, offered a sense that they mattered as individuals, which was absent elsewhere in their lives. They formed a personal bond with pastors, who were usually compatriots, and were urged to feel a personal relationship with God. The dignity which they had lost by emigrating was restored to them as they dressed up for Sunday worship and were given tasks in the religious community. Many described the church as a “hospital” and God as a “consoler”, as Ms Richlin writes in the journal Current Anthropology.

Rafael Cazarin, a scholar at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, looked at African Pentecostal communities both in his home town in Spain, and in Johannesburg. The scenes in the two cities were quite similar: pastors from Nigeria or Congo ministered to economic migrants from their native countries, offering a connection with home in a familiar style. The fact that the pastors themselves had made difficult journeys across several countries made them credible as purveyors of “spiritual power”.

The pastors “played successfully with ambivalence” as they delivered messages that were designed to restore self-understanding and self-respect, Mr Cazarin says. They encouraged a sense of pride in being African, and in African notions of gender and family; but they also stressed the advent of a “new Africa”, which renounced witchcraft and superstition. Especially in Spain, the faithful were also warned against the decadent secularism of the modern West. Congregations were separated, for part of the time, by generation, sex and marital status, and each group got instructions as to how to behave at their age and stage. Structures were imposed on an otherwise chaotic social reality, as Mr Cazarin describes in the journal Religions.

Pentecostalism’s appeal to the transient and insecure is also portrayed in a study of a little-known micro-community: Brazilians of Japanese descent who move to Japan (ie, the land their forebears left a few generations back) to work in the car industry. Speaking Portuguese better than Japanese, and feeling economically and socially insecure, such people found comfort in the warmth, dignity and inclusiveness of Latino-style Pentecostalism, says Suma Ikeuchi of the Art Institute of Chicago, writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. She has set out her conclusions in a book called “Jesus Loves Japan”.

Ms Ikeuchi faces head on an oft-heard critique of charismatic Christianity’s success among migrants. The argument holds that by offering individualistic messages of salvation, this form of religion dovetails perfectly with the needs of global “neoliberal” capitalism and distracts the vulnerable from fighting for their collective rights. As a case-study of the deference to the existing order that Pentecostalism can foster, Ms Ikeuchi describes a preacher who urges the faithful to work diligently even when the boss is not looking, without admitting that he has just been abruptly sacked from his assembly-line job for failing to enforce quality control.

But Ms Ikeuchi also looks at a counter-example, showing Pentecostalism as a source of power: a preacher urges people to avoid borrowing and hence becoming enslaved to debt. On balance, both she and the other two researchers give charismatic Christianity credit for endowing people who would otherwise be helpless with a sense of agency and purpose.

As Ms Richlin discovered in Washington, there was no huge difference between her informants who attended charismatic churches and those who followed other sects. This suggested to her that ecstatic experiences like speaking in tongues were not a decisive factor in meeting migrants’ psychological needs. What counted more was finding a religion that addressed their personal insecurities and fears, in a language they understood.

As she sums up the social reality that she investigated: “Evangelical churches taught believers how to choose love over pain, happiness over suffering and gratitude over resentment…they strived to move migrants from passivity, vulnerability and distress into activity, power and health.”

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