King's Evangelical Divinity School

1 October 2009

Latin American Pentecostalism's Success

I'm trying not to allow this blog become a one-issue arena, my original stated aim being to discuss my two primary areas of writing and research (the Church and Israel, together with Pentecostal Studies, particularly Pentecostals and politics, and more narrowly Pentecostals and politics in Latin America), as well as dipping once in in a while into my "bread and butter" teaching focus: biblical theology's contribution to hermeneutics.  Looking back (and at the post category states) I guess it's so far so good, with fairly equal treatments of both research areas. But not quite. I am also aware of a need to fulfil a promise in an earlier post to explain briefly why Pentecostalism is so attractive sociologically. So here goes.

In Latin America Pentecostals are increasingly involved in party politics, either running for parliamentary seats, voting for existing parties, or even new ones. But Latin American Pentecostal participation is not always expressed so explicitly. Across that continent (and indeed increasingly elsewhere) there is often an unintended political outworking of a Pentecostal worldview, permitting us to speak of implicit Pentecostal political activivity. Consider especially how Pentecostalism has impacted strongly the poorest sectors of Latin American society, leading Pentecostal scholar Veli-Matti Karkkainen to state Pentecostals do not go around vocalising a preferential option for the poor; rather they are the poor, Pentecostalism is the church of the poor.

Attempts to explain why Pentecostalism attracts the poor and its effect on that sector of Latin American society yield a somewhat homogenous response. Argentinian Pentecostal Lidia Susana Vaccaro de Petrella has highlighted a strong sense of community in Latin American Pentecostal churches. Pedro Moreno states Pentecostalism provides a sense of community to Latin American peasants migrating to cities, while Joseph Eldridge believes those travelling from the countryside to the city “recover a sense of family”.

Pentecostalism also offers transformed lives, not just spiritually but also temporally, for its adherents, contributing to personal and social transformation. Husbands cease to beat their lives, drink or gamble, hence families become wealthier and eventually enjoy social upward mobility. An emphasis on reading the Bible marks improved educational opportunities. One study even demonstrates the movement’s success in domesticating Salvadoran youth gang members, both in El Salvador and the US (Manuel Vazquez 2001). Moreover, an emphasis on spiritual gifts and the view that everyone has a role to play in the church leads to strong sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Finally Pentecostalism, while not a feminist movement, also views women differently from the typical machismo Latin American culture, emphasising self-worth and autonomy. In short, newly converted Pentecostals begin to see the positive effects straight away.

The above represents a short and somewhat simplistic sociological explanation of Latin American Pentecostalism's success in that continent. There are, of course, theological reasons for its success and effects. But the above at least helps to demonstrate why external-observer sociologists, historians and political scientists are interested in the movement and its social and political effects. The above brief comments are explained in considerably more detail in the final chapter of my Revolution, Revival and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua. I also have an article on related issues coming out soon in a  peer-reviewed journal and when copyright rules pemit me to reproduce it I will do so here.


elloco said...

Maybe Pentecostalism places more emphasis on feeling rather than thinking, so you don't have to be educated and understand tricky concepts, as you might have to to integrate into a middle-class evangelical church. It's your experience, rather than what others tell you that counts. Also Pentecostalism maybe provides a spiritual release from all the pressures and hardships of everyday life for the poor.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Hi elloco (or should that be "El Loco"?). You are very welcome.

You mean a kind of "opiate of the masses"? There is something of that, I suppose. It does provide relief in what is in parts a harsh continent. Its orality rather than literary nature also make it more conducive to the socioeconomic group it predominantly attracts.

But aside from such sociological explanations, we musn't forget spiritual ones.

Anyway, I think your comments are perceptive. Thanks. Nice to have someone get involved on the Pentecostal/Latin America side.