Posted on August 7, 2019

Why Charismatic Christianity Is Popular with Migrants

“Erasmus,” The Economist, August 3, 2019

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. {snip}

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.


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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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, {snip}.

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.