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Ben Jones

April 11th, 2019

Have we reached Peak Pentecostalism? Social development and the limits of personal transformation

0 comments | 30 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Ben Jones

April 11th, 2019

Have we reached Peak Pentecostalism? Social development and the limits of personal transformation

0 comments | 30 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

An attraction to the exotic has, according to Ben Jones, led many academics to focus on Pentecostalism as the branch of Christianity that best makes sense of religious change in the developing world. Yet its undoubtedly successful language of personal transformation and prosperity has its limitations, and the ‘ordinary’ Christianity of the historic mission churches continues to play an important role in explaining developments in the global South.
Thomas Hawk, Flickr, Creative Commons

There is a sense that Pentecostalism and ‘born again’ is taking over politics in much of the world. The rise of the “religious right” in the US focuses on politics as the place for moral concerns. You find something similar in the fierce campaigning of Pentecostal churches in support of anti-homosexuality legislation. The election of Jair Bolsonaro brings to power a Catholic who has worked hand in hand with the country’s evangelical movement (Bolsonaro’s wife and son are members of the Assembly of God Victory in Christ (ADVEC) church). In a new book on Nigerian politics, Ebenezer Obadare argues that politics in Nigeria has been transformed by Pentecostalism, which has defanged civil society in Nigeria and also helped usher in a period of Muslim as well as Christian revivalism.

In popular culture Pentecostalism also dominates the way much of the world is represented. A few weeks ago when I was in Uganda I saw an item about a corpse being raised from the dead by a Pentecostal pastor in South Africa. In the video a man laid out in a coffin gets up, Dracula-like, from his sleep before opening his mouth to gasp for air. I soon discovered that this footage had gone viral. A colleague at the University of Copenhagen was asked to explain the meaning of this video a Danish audience. A few days later a Catholic priest played me part of a radio phone interview where a woman presenter in Kenya called up a Nigerian pastor. He runs a ministry known as ‘breast and honey international ministry’. A church where, ministering only to women, he ‘sucks the rejection’ out of the breasts of the women who are facing problems in their lives. Pentecostals, evangelicals and “born again” churches seem like the strangest, most exciting, most vibrant versions of Christianity in the world today.

Pentecostalism offers a mixture of what is threatening, different and distinctive. There is also is a strain of the exotic in the way Pentecostalism has attracted so many anthropologists, sociologists and development studies scholars. Pentecostalism is a form of religious practice that emphasises the gifts of Pentecost – speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophesying. Christians take on a “born again” identity, typically receiving a second baptism as an adult and declaring “Jesus Christ as personal saviour”. Some of the more studied churches preach something called the ‘prosperity Gospel’, where church members are encouraged by the promise of great wealth. While Catholicism may be the majority Christian denomination, and there are more mainstream Protestants than Pentecostals, it is Pentecostalism that seems to strike a chord in the way the developing world is portrayed.

One way of understanding what is going on is to talk of what scholars have termed the “Pentecostalisation” of politics and the public sphere in Africa and elsewhere. There is something to this. It is undoubtedly the case that the historical mainline churches (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist) have reformed themselves in response to the Pentecostal challenge. A few weeks ago I attended an all-night vigil led by a charismatic Catholic priest offering deliverance and healing to the thousand or more women who had gathered in a rural parish in eastern Uganda. One of my close friends, a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, was in attendance and declared that it was “just like a Pentecostal service”.

But I think we run the risk of seeing this as very one-sided exchange. In Uganda where I have worked for the past twenty years, historic mission churches – Catholic and Anglican – are part of the landscape and play into people’s lives in a manner that Pentecostal churches in Uganda are not really able to match. For many church-goers in Uganda, Christianity is closely tied to notions of social development, a sort of development that is different from the language of ‘prosperity’ or personal transformation promised by many more studied Pentecostal churches. It is about schools and hospitals, being neighbourly, local politics and being respectable. Moreover, Christians within these churches have, in many ways, always been able to absorb and domesticate Pentecostalism.

Recently at a morning fellowship of the local Pentecostal Assemblies of God church I was struck by the quiet and well-organised manner of the service. The discussion of the day’s readings was similar to that of the Anglican Sunday service. There was little in the way of miraculous testimony. When, at one point the wife of the local MP stood up and tried to get people on their feet clapping, jumping and praying for victory, people were not that bothered. Some slept, others complained. Instead church members showed much more interest when a bishop, visiting the church for the first time, spoke. This was not because he promised miracles or divine healing, instead, in a quiet way, he told them he had come to the church to encourage members to help fund a new university and to support the idea for a church-founded bank. In both cases he referred to Catholic institutions as his inspiration. He asked how many in the church saved with the Catholic-founded Centenary Bank and many raised their hand. And when the bishop said the Pentecostal Assemblies of God should learn from the success of Uganda Martyr’s University, people applauded.

The point being that there remains what we might think of as ‘ordinary’ Christianity in the development world. As churches age, they tend to become more bureaucratic and more concerned with making sure that they keep going over the longer term. It is also worth remembering that churches are about more than religion and, in Uganda at least, people expect their churches to ‘do development’. This is not to deny Pentecostalism’s transformative role in much of the world. But it is to suggest that there are strong reasons for the persistence of historic mission churches, what we miss when always looking for the new, and that if we stepped back a bit we may see that the current Pentecostal wave is dying down a bit.

About the author

Ben Jones is Senior Lecturer in International Development at the University of East Anglia. He has conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork in eastern Uganda. His book, Beyond the State in Rural Uganda was awarded the Elliott P. Skinner Prize by the American Anthropological Association.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author

Ben Jones

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