Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 346 | Mayo 2010


Central America

Portrait of Pentecostal Evangelicals

There’s talk of a “Pentecostal revolution” in the marginal barrios all over Central America. Are these organizations OF the poor also FOR them? They rescue morally, but do they promote participation, organization and better family economies? Why such rapid expansion? What needs do they respond to? A researcher who decided to enter one of the sectors of this wide world offers us fascinating clues to understand some of the expressions of this religious movement.

Paola Bolognesi

Evangelical Christianity is spreading all over Central America with surprising speed. In the past 40 years the number of Evangelicals increased exponentially in the region. Forty percent of Guatemala’s population is now Evangelical, while the percentages in the other countries range between 15% (Costa Rica) and 36% (Honduras).

The motor force of this rapid expansion is Pente¬costalism, a specific expression of evangelical Protestantism, which reaps its greatest success in the poorest, most excluded layers of society, particularly among urban dwellers grouped together in marginal barrios. According to David Martin, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of London and author of Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Blackwell, Oxford, 1990), Pentecostals make up at least two-thirds of all Protestants in Latin America.

The aspect of the Pentecostal Churches that perhaps most impresses the outside observer is the exaggerated religiosity of their faithful and the promises of their pastors, tele-preachers and simple volunteers, all of whom assiduously pursue their mission of announcing the immediate curing of terminal illnesses, the resolution of serious family problems and economic prosperity as sure results of conversion.

In Nicaragua, 26% of the population is Protestant and at least 73% of them belong to Pentecostal denominations. The most numerous is the Assemblies of God, with 860 congregations and over 200,000 baptized members. I got close to two Assemblies of God churches, one guided by one of the denomination’s four district presbyters in Managua. The following reflections on a topic of such importance, among other things for its massiveness, are based on the literature on the issue and my direct, in some cases participatory observation of the activities of these churches.

Four characteristics

Defining what the Pentecostal Church is turns out to be difficult because the movement is characterized by its fragmented and pluralist religious nature. According to many authors, it would be more appropriate to speak of “Pentecostalisms.” In Nicaragua alone there are more than 200 distinct denominations with theological, hermeneutic, ecclesiastic and pastoral differences. Even within a single denomination, each church has a great deal of freedom in organizing its activities.

The extraordinary variety of Pentecostal Churches in Central America has to do above all with the different ways Pentecostalism arrived in the region. When it first began to spread, between the 19th and 20th centuries, dozens of different missions with different traditions came, fundamentally from the southern United States. After stabilizing, they progressively delegated the organization and management of their activities to native personnel, who syncretically adapted the methods and styles of the foreign evangelizers to their own, thus giving rise to still other versions of Pentecostalism, even within a single denomination. And as no specific formation or particular level of instruction is required to become a pastor and a handful of signatures is enough to found a Church, many independent ones sprang up with their own particularities and singularities, making this religious movement even more eclectic.

Notwithstanding the differences among the different Churches, four common characteristics can be traced that serve to broadly define the Pentecostal religion: 1) Fundamentalism, which leads to a particular interpretation of everything that happens in the world and to clear social roles and a highly disciplined, Puritan life style; 2) a very “emotive” religiosity, based on direct contact with God through momentary possession by the Holy Spirit; 3) strong, charismatic leadership; and 4) the categorical imperative of evangelizing all of humanity.

Among sin and demons

The Pentecostal Churches are fundamentalist because their believers are convinced of the divine inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, and thus interpret it literally. They believe that all biblical accounts really happened and are totally persuaded that God and Satan intervene in the daily life of human beings. Using humans as “soldiers,” the two face off in the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, which they call the “religious war.” This conviction leads to another: all pleasant circumstances in each person’s life—health, work, close ties—are the fruit of blessings from Heaven, and all negative ones—illnesses, premature death, economic difficulties and problematic relationships—are direct consequences of sin.

In this vision of reality, committing sin causes all kinds of problems for two distinct reasons. First, it attracts divine curses that affect both those responsible and their families for up to four generations, thus the suffering experienced today may have its roots in the evil behavior of some relative distant in space or time. Second, it permits a long series of different specific demons to occupy the body of the perpetrators so as to serve Satan in the religious war, pushing them to ever more incorrect behavior that progressively leads to the downfall and ultimately the ruin of those around them.

An example: people who at some point react brutally do so as a result of being possessed by the “demon of violence,” who pushes them to be permanently aggressive and quarrelsome and to incite others to similar actions, finally leading to their participation in highly dangerous fights aimed at making them die as sinners, preventing them from repenting and deciding to serve God, thus condemning their soul to Satan for all eternity.

Obedience and rejection of worldly things

The literal way Pentecostals read the Bible also induces them to consider the family a central and indispensable social institution governed by a precise hierarchy that establishes clear roles for each member according to gender and age. Given that man is superior to woman by “divine will,” according to Genesis and St. Paul, and that fathers enjoy total authority over their children, the father must be honored and served by the other family members and all his decisions must be accepted and obeyed, even when not shared.

To “live according to the Scriptures,” the Pentecostals must also lead a disciplined, Puritan life style that imposes a submissive attitude on them and prohibits behavior destructive to either themselves or others. A long list of behaviors, including innocuous and inoffensive ones, are sins to them and could attract divine curses and demonic possession. In addition to not stealing, lying, betraying, practicing violence or even being the slightest bit aggressive to anyone, the Pentecostal faithful cannot consume any substance that triggers dependence: alcohol, tobacco or even coffee. They cannot follow the dictates of fashions in either clothing or hairstyles, because this is an inadmissible obedience to “worldly” things and diverts believers from their faith. Nor can they practice yoga or possess amulets, use acupuncture or homeopathy or say “bad words” under any circumstance…

Possessed by the Holy Spirit

If the Pentecostal religion imposes on its followers a rigor and sobriety typical of Puritan Protestantism in daily life, all that changes in the liturgy and prayers, where it promotes and encourages emotional involvement, even ecstasy. As underscored by Swiss theologian and author Walter Hollenweger, a recognized expert on worldwide Pentecostalism, experience counts more than doctrine in this creed.

Both Pentecostal preachers and their followers tend to come from the lower social rungs and to have minimal education and a limited capacity for abstraction, which is why their preferred form of communication is oral. They use it not so much to express and clear up concepts and principles of the sacred texts or to recite predetermined prayers, but rather to narrate in a generally very colloquial and spontaneous language stories, testimonials and dreams that refer continually to the listeners’ concrete living conditions and are therefore easily understood.

With such simple and direct narratives, to which the faithful are continually invited to respond with applause and shouts of “Amen! Glory be to God!,” the preachers keep the volatile attention of their listeners, “heating up” the atmosphere in the church and arousing the identification and emotional participation of their followers to “predispose” them to direct contact with God, which is the fundamental objective of the Pentecostal religion. Listening to the accounts of men and women who resolved through religion the same kinds of economic, family and health problems worrying them, believers become even more firmly convinced that the “providing God” of whom the pastors speak can also transform their lives. And it is this that provides the incentive to let themselves be completely and desperately led by prayer, with the hope of receiving the Holy Spirit in their own bodies.

According to the Pentecostals—and this is their most important characteristic in the evangelic panorama—God transforms his “children” by sending the Holy Spirit to their bodies. Briefly taking possession of the believers, the Spirit “liberates” and “purifies” them, breaking the curses tormenting them and exorcising the demons controlling their actions. The Spirit’s “visit” determines a “rebirth in Christ” and involves, among other things, acquiring part of God’s power, which makes it possible to modify the features of their own personality that go against divine will: aggressive people are made docile, womanizers become monogamous. Some even acquire the capacity to perform miracles or cure the sick. People who receive the Spirit and promptly comply with the Puritan lifestyle that the Pentecostal religion imposes are assured of entering the kingdom of Heaven and receiving abundant blessings on earth, among them economic and material prosperity.

When Pentecostals feel they are receiving the Holy Spirit they typically go into a trance, allowing themselves to be led by what have been defined as “wild exaltations.” Each person experiences this differently, but generally Pentecostals have heavenly visions and agitated breathing; they cry, shout and lose control of their body, moving their arms and legs or falling to the ground and “speaking in tongues” (glosolalia), which is the pronunciation of unconnected, meaningless sounds or repeating the same word interminably. At the end of the possession they are happy and relaxed and remember nothing of the experience; they just feel euphoria.

Crazed singing and shouting

Typically these ecstatic states are reached during the “praising” or the collective prayer. “Praises” are glorifications of God through singing and dance, and occupy a prominent place in Pentecostal rites. They are religious hymns based on modern music, from soul to rock, including salsa, bachata or reggaeton. The faithful have to sing them following choreographed steps. For their performance—”explicitly required by God” because they are mentioned in the Bible—the churches gather samples from the repertory of the icons of Latin American Christian music, and provide talented, powerful and also visibly imposing musicians with amplifiers. At times the Pentecostal services resemble genuine modern concerts, like the ones younger people find so impassioning.

Generally the praises alternate and occupy the beginning, middle and end of the services. When a preacher wants to provoke the intense emotive participation of his community he might ask the church’s band to perform a single hymn uninterrupted for an hour, accelerating its beat or obsessively repeating a pair of notes with a few syllables. With that the faithful begin to be carried away by the music and dance with wild abandon. It is on these occasions that the Holy Spirit has greater probabilities of appearing.

It can also happen in the collective prayers, which aren’t the simultaneous recitation of memorized prayers, but rather a spontaneous invocation that each believer improvises at the time and pronounces out loud, with eyes closed and arms raised. During these direct dialogues, the church fills with a deafening and disorienting clamor, accompanied by heartrending music. On these occasions, Pentecostals usually submissively beg God to solve the problems afflicting their lives.

According to Reverend Andy, a US “prophet” who belongs to the Assemblies of God, the correct way to address God is specified in the Bible and anyone who doesn’t respect it becomes stained with the sins of arrogance and iniquity. The “prophet” explains that Christians have to address God while performing the “hallal,” i.e. beating their hands as if provoking rumbling thunder and shouting with enough force to break rocks. In his opinion, you have to exult in a joyous, unleashed, exaggerated way, as you would to fire up your favorite baseball team, letting yourself be possessed by an unconscious state of ecstasy as though drunk or even crazy.

As I observed directly on one “prophetic night” celebrated by this preacher in front of around two hundred people in the church praying like this for hours, dozens of people received the Holy Spirit into their bodies, repeatedly falling to the floor and pronouncing unintelligible sounds.

Under charismatic leadership

Another essential characteristic we find in all Pentecostal Churches is very strong, charismatic leadership. The members of these congregations perceive their pastor as a kind of “saint on Earth.” They are convinced he’s in direct contact with God and enjoys great divine “backing” because his prayers are always heard and often answered. The Holy Spirit appears because he has this privileged relationship with God and is in his presence; because the pastor is able to invoke it; or because he knows how to condition the environment and the faithful to convince them of its materializations in the church.

For all these reasons, the faithful believe that only through the intercession of the pastor will the Lord respond to their demands. He is thus deeply respected and each of his prescriptions is obeyed and executed. As David Martin stresses, his true role is to be the chief, the caudillo who organizes the life of the community in an “extremely authoritarian” way. If he didn’t, the participation of the faithful would wane.

Pentecostal leaders typically have very little theological and doctrinal formation. They “seduce” and win over the believers with exalted and sometimes also very entertaining preaching, showing great expressiveness and eloquence and considerable theatrical talent, both comic and dramatic.

Winning souls away from the Devil

For three closely linked basic reasons, no Pentecostal Church can put off the mandate of evangelizing humanity. In the first place, this effort is dictated by philanthropic considerations: the Pentecostal faithful feel that they solved their problems through religion and want others to experience the same wellbeing they obtained with conversion. If the Holy Spirit produces miracles in people—curing illnesses, transforming personal attitudes and social behaviors—they believe that persuading others of the veracity of these dogmas provides them support and the concrete possibility of bringing about positive change.

Second, this mission is dictated by more specifically doctrinal and scatological considerations: given that Christ died for all humanity, they have the duty to convert the greatest number of people possible to prepare for Christ’s next coming. They believe it is their task to “win souls” to prevent them from being consecrated to the Devil and Hell. They feel they are fighting on the side of the angels in the war of Good and Evil, and that their struggle will guarantee God’s victory over Satan.

Finally, their dedication is influenced by “logistical” and ritual evaluations: they believe that the Holy Spirit appears more easily if simultaneously invoked by a large number of people and gives priority to visiting large concentrations of the faithful. An evangelization campaign of major scope permits not only the expansion of their congregation but also better communication with God. This perspective explains the Pentecostal tendency to build huge churches, in order to accommodate thousands of people.

Seeking converts door to door

The Pentecostal churches adopt precise and careful strategies to gradually insert new proselytes into the community. To attract new affiliates, they use the volunteer labor of “community leaders” specifically prepared for this work. To convert and keep the faith of those brought in, they use a three-day spiritual retreat called a “gathering,” employing techniques that seem to have been taken from psychology.

The Pentecostal mission of evangelizing humanity begins at the bottom, with the direct contact that the community leaders, and to a lesser degree all the faithful—try to establish with people who have yet to adopt their religion. Well dressed and with their inseparable Bible under their arm, the Pentecostals pound the pavement, calling on houses and visiting hospitals and jails to preach their interpretation of “God’s word” to unbelievers and offer them consolation with friendly ways and attractive promises.

The special targets of these first visits are people with serious problems; the ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, recluses, individuals with exceptionally unhappy family situations… The objective, although implicit, is to attract them to “cells,” which are also called “family meetings” in some churches. These are religious “mini-functions” that the community leaders put together every Saturday in houses of different barrios during which they try to “promote their product” among people who, for different reasons, are still reluctant to attend two- or three-hour services or leave their barrio to go to a far-off church. Over the course of these meetings, which themselves last an hour and a half, a community leader and his “assistant” receive a dozen potential new converts, offer them refreshment, learn about their difficulties and needs, counsel them—without ever openly criticizing their decisions and actions—and invoke the divine Spirit’s intervention in their lives.

Preparation to convince

On these occasions they offer the potential affiliates acceptance, friendship and also concrete psychological and material support. On the one hand, they listen to them, accept them and make them feel important. They try to strengthen their self-esteem, diligently repeating formulas and expressions such as: “You are very valuable because Christ also died for you” and the evergreen “God has great plans for your life.” On the other, they give them food and other basic goods.

The community leaders never improvise when holding these cells or the preceding visits. They are trained in specific preparation courses and instructed by “coordinators” responsible for controlling their activity and correcting their errors to obtain quantifiable results.

The preparation course for community leaders—called “Academy” by the Assemblies of God—has distinct cycles and lasts between three and six months. These courses have three goals: provide the participants with an inconsistent knowledge of the sacred texts; prepare them in the right attitude—manners, language, discussion topics—to awaken the interest, attention and confidence of the people who will attend, whether individuals or groups; and correct “not very orthodox” aspects of their personality that could compromise their image as irreprehensible leaders and prevent them being valid representatives of their church.

The work of these volunteers is also directed by a few coordinators who organize the church’s expansion strategy down to the last detail, following the directives of the pastor who guides the congregation. The coordinators entrust the leaders with responsibilities and areas of intervention according to their characteristics and aptitudes, impose on them the pursuit of clear objectives and results and constantly monitor their work. The basic mandates a cell leader receives from his coordinator are to convince newcomers to leave the cell after a few months to attend the church services, continually attract new people to the cells to permit the recycling of their participants and “multiply” their own cell by seeking a contact—a host—to create a new group in a different barrio, turning the original cell over to their assistant.

To answer for their activities, the leaders have to meet weekly with the coordinators to discuss the difficulties encountered in their field work and inform them of the number of people they benefited, specifying what kind of intervention is involved: “You only have to bring them to the church; we’ll take care of the rest.” The coordinators use these data to do comparative statistics of what was effectively achieved with what had been set out in the programming phase. That way they can evaluate and correct the strategy to increase the number of affiliates.

Converted in the “gathering”

The work of the leaders is just to draw in new potential proselytes and convince them to attend the church. It is up to the pastors to convert the people they attract and definitely absorb them into the community. To do so, the pastors subject them to an extremely efficacious gimmick: “the encounter [with God].”

This is a 48-hour spiritual retreat that the Pentecostal Churches organize one weekend a month—from Friday night to Sunday night—aimed rotationally at men and women. It typically takes place in a hotel outside the city where those taking their first steps toward the Pentecostal religion are provided lodging and food, and participate from 8 in the morning until 11:30 at night in a long series of conferences called “plenaries” that last around two to three hours each and conclude with “liberation rites.”

Throughout the plenaries—each one dedicated to a specific topic (sex, marriage, parent-child relations, social rejection, economic wellbeing…)—the participants receive intense indoctrination: they are enlightened about the foundations of the Pentecostal religion, told about all the sins that can be committed and taught the rules of life they must respect to achieve salvation in the hereafter and peace in the here and now.

The liberation rites with which they each conclude are very intense collective prayers, in which the participants must repent of their errors and pardon the slings and arrows they have suffered to obtain pardon and divine grace. According to the Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit briefly “visits” the body of the newcomers during these rites, purifying them of their sins and curses, defects and flaws, sanctioning their “rebirth in Christ,” the end of their suffering and a radical improvement of their lives.

A supernatural experience

The gathering is a very effective instrument of conversion because for the vast majority of people who experience one, it represents a kind of practical and tangible demonstration of the veracity of the Pentecostal dogmas. I participated in a gathering of 40 women and interviewed dozens of individuals who tried this experience in churches other than the one I attended, and I almost always received enthusiastic opinions. In the liberation rites the participants really feel they are receiving the Holy Spirit and if—as I was able to observe—they initially don’t exactly go into a trance and fall to the floor, they do let themselves be taken over by totally uncontrolled and extemporaneous expressions, including outbursts of glosolalia, plenary after plenary.

When they recover they feel a physical and internal wellbeing so great they can only explain this unprecedented sensation in supernatural terms. They experience such a strong euphoria and optimism that they are firmly convinced they have been redeemed by the Spirit and are now starting a new, happier and more radiant stage of their existence. They feel they are glimpsing a future full of blessings during which they will be able to fully reaffirm themselves as individuals. Indoctrinated by the preachers and galvanized by these mystical experiences, many participants decide to join the community after this retreat and from then on follow the orders of the pastor guiding them.

How do the pastors manage to convince these people that they received the Holy Spirit? How do they arouse in them such a strong sensation of wellbeing that they believe they have been blessed by God? How can this sensation make them dependent on the pastor’s orders? I offer some hypotheses based on my observation as a participant in a female gathering.

The pastors of that Church, and surely those of others, convince people not yet inside the Pentecostal religion that they have received the Holy Spirit in their bodies by using multiple well thought out mechanisms. To predispose them to this conviction they first submit them to intense emotional stress, making them feel deeply dissatisfied with their life, thus pushing them to intensely desire direct contact with God, who will instantly resolve all their problems. Second, they subject them to strong physical stress, sending them into the liberation rites so exhausted and confounded that they can’t recognize the subtle games being used to influence them.

Emotional stress:
The guilty and the victims

The novices get to the liberation rites in conditions of such strong emotional stress because throughout the plenaries they suffer a kind of “demolition”: the preachers make them feel both guilty and victims at the same time. The demolition is possible because the plenaries consist of long sequences of testimonies, life histories and role-playing that relate the misfortunes of incredibly hardened sinners finally redeemed thanks to conversion. The ticking off of such a vast number of behaviors “expressly censured” by the Bible leads every last person present to identify with the protagonists of these sins.

The self-blame comes from the condemnation of serious behaviors—homicide, statutory rape, violence—that at the same time lists innocuous practices such as jokes, pride, sexual fantasies and admiration of “in” music groups as negative. Also criminalized are behaviors that extend beyond the people who committed them: a raped woman has in any event committed the sin of fornication; a woman who has a miscarriage is nonetheless guilty of homicide and one abandoned by her husband is guilty of divorce. The pastors make the participants feel guilty because through these actions they served Satan and have allowed the demons to act through them to corrupt and send their relatives and friends to Hell as well. They are also guilty because their sins led to numerous curses beating down on their families. They are made responsible for the illnesses and problems experienced by both themselves and their relatives.

Victimization is inculcated through the very same mechanisms: the participants are considered corrupted by the people around them and by all the curses they had to suffer because of their relatives’ sins. All their problems and sufferings lead back to the intervention of the Evil One in their life.

It is in this incredibly charged atmosphere that the liberation rites are held. At the end of the plenary the pastor proposes that the participants “break” with their curses and sins and erase all their problems just as the protagonists of the narrations they heard had done. To transform their lives and leave behind the suffocating sense of guilt and oppression matured over the course of the plenary, all they have to do is repent of their sins, forgive those of others and beg God to send them the Holy Spirit. The participants are convinced this can happen because, after having been emotionally demolished over the course of the plenary, they desire it so much that they reach the point of self-suggestion. They feel so bad and so uncomfortable that they desperately cling to religion and let themselves be completely led by the prayer until they convince themselves of having obtained divine grace.

Physical stress:
Sweating and crying

At the moment in which they are so desirous of receiving the Holy Spirit in their bodies, they are also subjected to intense physical stress. The conditions in which the collective prayers that open the liberation rites are organized are extreme: for 20-25 minutes the participants pray with their arms held over their head and their eyes shut. Thus they dialogue aloud with God in a destabilizing superimposing of voices over background music so loud it makes one’s body vibrate.

Throughout the gathering I participated in, the women around me were visibly befuddled by the abundant wailing provoked during the plenaries, the lack of fresh air and oxygen and the exceptional heat in the hall, resulting, I was able to observe, from the pastor turning off the three gigantic acclimatizers that were functioning perfectly during the rest of the retreat. Sweating and crying, the women were weakened by losing an important part of the little bit of liquid they had been given. During the three meals we received each day, we were given one 20-centiliter glass of juice and 5-10 centiliters of water, and only if we expressly asked one of the “servers”—the volunteer church personnel. We were told that this was so we would have to use the bathroom as little as possible and not lose a moment of the retreat.

Anxious to be instantly purified by the Spirit—to definitively shake off the feelings of guilt and oppression triggered by the life stories narrated in the plenaries—and at the same time totally fatigued and muddled, the participants experienced the liberation rites without realizing the subtle maneuvers the pastors were using to favor their suggestion.

The Holy Spirit has come!

While the participants are praying aloud with their eyes closed, the servers—an average of 15 for 40 participants—predispose them for the Spirit’s “visit” by taking away the chairs in which the participants were seated throughout the plenary and quietly distributing them in two parallel rows in the hall. After placing them like that the servers begin to pray for them, circling their bodies and rapidly moving their arms. They flex their arm, hitting their ribs with their elbow and immediately afterward project it toward the faithful, almost hitting them in the face with the palm of their hand. The displacement of air this creates has a disorienting effect on those who feel it with their eyes closed.

At this point the pastor steps in front of each participant and whispers a few words to them, tilting them backward with very slight pressure, as I was able to verify in three liberation rites. The participants’ rigid bodies fall backward without flexing their legs, the way a parallelepiped would fall. A server who goes behind them as soon as the pastor initiates these dramatic gestures blocks their fall. The server lowers each person to the floor, positions their head delicately on it and crosses their hands over their chest as if they were deceased. The participants remain either immobile, as if sleeping, or move making incoherent sounds until, after a few minutes, the servers raise them up.

All the women who participated with me told me they had felt the Holy Spirit in their body at least once in the three days of the retreat. None recognized that they were pushed, or admitted that they had manifested skepticism toward these rites before participating in them. Almost all told me of their possession explaining that they had initially felt a suffocating heat and a strong heaviness throughout their body and immediately afterward an intense tingling in their extremities and a strange sensation of relief, liberation and wellbeing. They experienced this “encounter” with God as one of the most famous praises in Latin America describes it: “It has come, it has come, the Holy Spirit has come, I feel it in my hands, I feel it in my feet, I feel it in my soul and in my whole being, like lightning falling on me that burns, that burns and burns…”

It is logical that the suffocating heat these women told me about (that “fell on them like lightning that burns”) was due to the high temperature in the hall and that the tingling (“I feel it in my hands”…) was closely linked to the uncomfortable posture—standing with their hands lifted to the sky—they assumed for the long collective prayer that preceded possession. The sensation of physical relief they described was due to the fact that, made comfortable on a cold cement floor, they were finally able to refresh their hot bodies and relax their exhausted arms and legs.

Through the time tunnel

If these small details help explain the sense of physical wellbeing the participants described to me, they don’t explain the sensation of liberation, serenity and internal peace they experienced during and after the possessions. The emotional wellbeing they mentioned could be from the kind of psychological therapy they’re subjected to through the retreat activities.

Over the three days of the retreat, the pastors help the participants alleviate their own existential unrest. In addition to favoring an intensive indoctrination, the different activities seem also aimed at stimulating a process of introspection and reinforcing their self-esteem.

Most of the participants—like Pentecostals in general—belong to the poorest and most marginalized strata of society. Their life has always been one of scarcity and of the abuse and violence typical of the authoritarian family model in a profoundly macho culture. Those who participate in these retreats have often been abandoned by one or both parents and cruelly abused in their childhood. In many cases the women are victims of domestic violence and/or sexual abuse and the men are incapable of externalizing their own emotions for fear of seeming effeminate.

One example of this is the 23-year-old girl who shared my room during the retreat I participated in. She wasn’t recognized by her father, was abused during her childhood by her mother, who always showed a clear preference for her brother, lived alone with her two children with no support from anyone and prostituted herself with a drug dealer in her barrio to feed them. She couldn’t be affectionate with her son because the boy, the result of statutory rape, looked surprisingly like his father. To use her words, “It’s all I can do to look him in the face.”

The pastors use the gathering’s activities to try to lessen these profound sufferings and change the people’s attitude toward both past and present problems and thus “transform” their life. Convincing them that a positive change is the work of the Holy Sprit, the pastors are able to attract them definitively to their “flock.”

The participants undergo a drawn-out introspection process over the course of the retreat because they identify with the testimonies and role-playing presented during the plenaries—narratives of lives tormented by continuous disappointments, disputes, mistreatment and abandonment. This leads them to reflect on the dismal aspects of their own existence, which they have tried to forget. Reliving these episodes, they sobbingly unburden themselves of frustration, sadness, fear and guilt probably repressed for years, predisposing themselves to the recomposing of their traumas.

Repetant and forgiving

The recomposing of their past life takes place in the liberation rites, at the moment in which they sincerely repent of their sins and pardon those of others. The acceptance of injustices suffered is facilitated by the indoctrination received in the plenaries, through which they are induced to forgive the errors of their relatives and friends—interpreting them as a result of the Devil’s work—and to internalize age and gender stereotypes that allow them to consider as normal certain roles in the family and thus justify the outrages they have suffered.

Submitting to this introspection process, the participants will experience emotional wellbeing by feeling completely freed of all sense of guilt and “assimilating” the rancor they harbored against others, and finally consider themselves ready to rethink their interpersonal relations based on reciprocal respect and thus begin a happier life.

The church organized a special dynamic over the course of the retreat I participated in to allow the participants to repent, pardon and practice their “new life.” At the end of the liberation rite related to parent-child relations, we were made to kneel on the floor with our eyes closed. When they ordered us to open them, some 30 church members of all ages—from 1-year-old children to 70-year-old people—brought to the gathering for this occasion were standing in front of us. Upon seeing them, we had to go to the people most like our relatives, embrace them and ask forgiveness or forgive them. It was a very painful moment for the women who attended the retreat with me. All were very moved and reacted with desperate crying. Some fainted.

This example showed how participants can be induced, even forced, to resolve their relationship problems with forgiveness. This dynamic seems conceived to train the participants to make these same gestures with their real family members and friends once they return home, giving them tools to end difficult situations and even crimes committed at home.

Making them feel free of blame and resentment, the pastors stimulate emotional wellbeing and generate self-esteem. The spiritual leaders also achieve the same sensation by making them feel loved by God and the community. They repeat to them that God will help them like a good and loving father and that Christ sacrificed his life for them. They try to persuade them that worth is not measured by academic level or social position, but rather only by a person’s profound religious dedication, thus teaching them all a clear, simple and accessible path to obtain status and prestige.

They also make the participants feel loved by the welcoming community, as demonstrated to them by the eagerness of the congregation volunteers. The participants are continually attended to by the servers, who give them imitation jewelry, candies, massages, small handcrafts they made themselves, and during the night polish their shoes so they find them gleaming the next day. In addition, the participants are entertained with very festive rites during the opening and closing ceremonies and with a “gala dinner” on Saturday night, prepared in the hotel in which the event is held. The participants’ self-esteem and self-confidence is also stimulated by being inserted into groups that take on the style of self-help groups.

As they arrive at the site of the retreat, the participants are divided into groups of around 10 people, organized by age (17-24, 25-30, 30-40, 50 and over) and entrusted to some servers. Each group shares a room with bunk beds and a table in the dining room, and goes through the experiences of the gathering together. In addition to sitting together in all plenaries, the members of each group share what they consider their problems and limitations various times during the day. Throughout the retreat I participated in, the women in my group listened attentively and with a look of empathy while one after another spoke of intimate and in some cases even humiliating aspects of her life, trying not to make her feel guilty or strange, but rather admiring her for the courage she showed by shaking the weight off and telling us. During those days the relations among us were buttressed, and in the most difficult and moving moments, we held each other’s hands or caressed each other’s shoulders as a comforting gesture.

The objective of these groups, in addition to encouraging and bolstering the participants so they’ll go through this experience as serenely and happily as possible, is also to favor the collective joining into the community. Attending the church services later on is, for obvious reasons, much more agreeable if you find people there with whom you have previously established a solid friendship, a “brotherhood in Christ.”

Why are they so successful?

Why do these cooptation and conversion techniques win over so many people? The “special effects” the pastors used only explain part of the reasons for their success. But it must be admitted that if the Pentecostal preaching and messages have an effect on people it is because they satisfy needs felt by vast social sectors.

Pentecostalism has spread in contexts of rapid modernization, disorientation by the sectors excluded from this process and accelerated urbanization as a result of rural-urban migrations. According to French socialist Le Bot, the sects proliferate in decomposing socioeconomic fabrics and in an institutional vacuum because they restore solidarity, reciprocal support and community cohesion, ensuring their members a social security network. In marginal barrios in which youth gangs dominate the public spaces, obliging people to live closed up in their houses, the Pentecostal churches are effectively the only arena and occasion for socialization and forging stable social relations from which to extract emotional and in some cases even material support. In rural contexts, all this is obtained from the family itself, friends and close mates.

According to David Martin, the explanation for the spread of these churches is that they offer the marginal subjects who have migrated from the countryside into the teeming and alienating world of the cities clear and unambiguous paths to assure them of a solid certainty in the hereafter as well as a form of protection from the hostile and overpowering real world in which corruption, machismo, violence and personal and family destruction dominate.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has a very similar explanation for the enormous success of Christian fundamentalism, although in his judgment the entrenching permitted by the Pentecostal sects responds not simply to a need for protection from the problems of urban or existential insecurity, but rather to a more or less conscious attempt to resist the individualization and social atomization that grow out of the dynamics of globalization. According to Castells, by joining these closed communities, people who occupy a subordinated social position develop a sense of belonging in which they find meaning and reaffirm control over their lives, thus defending themselves from the unpredictable nature of the unknown.

In his opinion, the identities generated in the Pentecostal churches have a clearly “defensive” quality, because they are based on principles different or opposed to those pervading society’s institutions—the indispensable nature of faith, the centrality of family and patriarchy, the sanctity of marriage, men’s authority over women and due obedience from the children. Inverting the value judgments permits “the exclusion of the excluders by the excluded.”

Meaningful, dignified,
virile and heroic

If true that the Pentecostal religion is based on principles opposed to the socially prevailing ones and that this implies that its followers must alter their value judgments, then we can agree with Thornton when he says that belonging to a church allows people excluded by the system to acquire status, prestige and a firm moral victory.

Conversion grants dignity to the poor and involves a kind of moral rescue, because sanctioning their entry into a community blessed and redeemed by the Holy Spirit erases and subverts all criteria that oppress them in daily life, replacing them with a single principle: “God’s grace is accessible to all.” If we add the fact that the Pentecostal faithful see themselves as warriors fighting on the side of the angels in the eternal battle between Good and Evil, these persons get more out of religion than just a sense of dignity and enlightenment; they also get profound heroism. They feel courageous and, in the case of the men, virile, even though they also externalize their emotions with frequent wailing during religious activities. This crying assumes a meaning exactly contrary to what the macho culture attaches to it because by professing their faith in this way they feel involved in “combat” against an “enemy” who uses “lethal weapons”—lies, deceit and confusion. They believe that respecting the severe life style imposed on them by this struggle demonstrates the greatest audacity.

The conquests Pentecostals convince themselves they have obtained as members of a community of believers aren’t limited to the religious and moral spheres. Belonging to a church also offers the possibility of great satisfaction by participating in innumerable opportunities for voluntary enlistment and protagonism in the organization and implementing the activities of their own congregation. Performing as community leaders makes them feel they “count for something” and are developing capacities that give them self-confidence. According to Martin, this is truer for women, who begin to express abilities and play roles in the church that they don’t have at home.

The social effects of
the Pentecostal revolution

The Pentecostal Churches provide an important service to the communities into which they are inserted by dedicating themselves with great commitment to recovering people who have problems of alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic and street violence.

People with deep needs are the prime target of the evangelization mission and the Pentecostals try to help them resolve their difficulties, absorbing them into communities to convince them to adopt a puritanical lifestyle through religion and follow the moral precepts it imposes. These Church members not only pull in marginalized and excluded individuals who get no aid from anyone, but also take charge of following up on them until they have completely transformed their attitudes and conduct. Although they have a peculiar conception of the causes of peoples’ problems and their possible solutions, these Churches are now the main source of social assistance in Central America. Due to their capillary presence in all the marginal urban barrios, they bring some sort of support to people who for different reasons are reached by neither the government nor private secular organizations.

The Pentecostals’ many successes in recovering and socially reinserting these individuals is due to their strong community component and the radically positive image of “conversion.”

Pentecostal congregations are an environment in which it is easy to change one’s behavior, precisely because of their close and protective nature regarding the outside world. Governed by rules and values that differ from those of the rest of society, the community of believers makes individual transformation easier. It separates them from factors and people that could divert them and places them in a context in which it is simple to adopt the direction prescribed by the faith, since all respect it. Moreover, it permits rapid and solid integration into interpersonal relations with an emotional underpinning and an incentive, as well as the vigilance and control necessary to stop them falling back into past errors.

“Conversion” facilitates the social reinsertion of individuals with problems of dependence and violence because it involves their clear physical and behavioral transformation. This transformation becomes immediately perceptible to neighbors and others through evident external signs, such as changing the way they dress and wear their hair, going through the barrio with the Bible under their arm on their way to services… All this gives their effort to change their life more credibility. As I myself was able to observe in a marginal barrio of Managua, adopting the Pentecostal religion can have almost immediate effects on a person’s image. In contexts in which at least half the residents profess this religion, many end up believing that anyone can change radically through the Holy Spirit’s intervention in the three days of the retreat

Recovering gang members

While the efforts and successes of the Pentecostals in recovering people with difficulties are undeniably considerable, it is necessary to ask what pushes them to dedicate so much energy to these people. Officially, the reasons are mainly philanthropic and scatological, but we have reason to believe that this attitude also responds to the fact that “converting” and “transforming” notoriously violent, anti-social people, making them adopt an extremely disciplined life style, is good publicity with their relatives and neighbors. These results will probably convince them of the thaumaturgic powers of the Pentecostal religion and the divine predilection of a Church that achieved such a thing. They will then decide to place their trust in it to resolve all the problems afflicting their own lives.

Pastor R.—a former gang member who now guides a congregation in Managua—is seriously committed to socially rescuing gang members in his barrio and has supported dozens of youths. But he expresses very well the contradictions and perverse relations linking the activities to recover these people to the Pentecostal spiritual chiefs’ expansionist aims. In his own words: “At first sight, the conversion of gang members may not seem very profitable for someone like me, because they never put money in the plate during the service; only a few coins once in a while. But if you convert one of them you’re sure of converting ten more.” The pastor’s unquieting reference to the money offerings they expect to receive from their faithful indicates the instrumental value for these congregations of efforts to recover problem kids.

Are they a social movement?

Some authors see the Pentecostal Churches as having a positive impact on the societies in which they are inserted because bringing people with unfavorable social conditions together in communities opens the way for associative realities that can offer political representativeness to marginal and excluded sectors.

Seen in these terms, the presence and spread of these Churches could contribute to the variety and complexity of the third sector, unanimously recognized as indispensable for the democratic definition of any political agenda. According to Bernardo Campos, editor of and writer for Revista Pentecostal, Pentecostalism makes a positive contribution to civil society because it creates communities that provide the poor with “power” and a “role in society.” Álvarez goes even further, arguing that this religious current can be understood as one of the new social movements defining the parameters of democracy and the limits of what precisely defines the political arena: its participants, institutions, processes, agenda and scope.

If the Pentecostal Churches are undeniably creating associative experiences whose protagonists are the neediest strata of the population and that translate, among other things, into activities that rescue people with serious difficulties, we need to keep in mind that these institutions give rise to a very particular expression of civil society with a highly circumscribed field of action. Although their existence favors the pluralism of the third sector, they do not offer a necessarily positive contribution to the democratic consolidation of the political systems into which they are inserted.

To understand the kind of impact the Pentecostal Churches produce on society, their exclusive/excluding nature needs to be highlighted. The sole objective of their action is the development of their religious community and social advancement of its members. Their attention is not oriented in any sense to the problems of the rest of the residents of the barrio in which they are located or to the challenge of fighting poverty at any broader, more national level. Their efforts are concentrated only on expanding the physical structure of the church and increasing the number of congregation members. It is this single objective that governs all work they do in the field of recovery and social rehabilitation, even if it initially benefits subjects outside the community of the faithful.

Pentecostals provide support and underpinnings only to their congregation members or those they are trying to absorb. If the latter don’t adopt their religion, the attention ends. Unlike Catholics, who propose responding to the problems of all humanity—even if only to maintain hegemonic control in society—with a perspective that Martin calls “socialistic,” the Pentecostals act according to a pattern that never favors autonomous and isolated individuals, but rather groups, which end up adopting the features of a sect.

Are they civil society?

In addition to being “excluding” associations, these Churches also express a civil society that takes no active part in defining the political agenda. The indifference of both pastors and faithful toward issues of public interest is dictated not only by being totally absorbed in strategies for expanding their own congregation, but also by more specifically religious considerations.

For Pentecostals, injustice, inequality and abuse of power are the consequences of individual sins and/or divine curses. It makes no sense to organize to seek a solution to social problems because they are beyond human capacity. The only contribution possible is to pray to God to resolve them by direct intervention.

This doesn’t mean that, with the dimensions it has already acquired in the Central American countries, the Pentecostal population doesn’t have a certain electoral weight and is therefore taken into account by the governments on some public policies such as, for example, the criminalization of abortion. The important thing to make clear is that these Churches do not aspire to political spaces and also discourage any form of political participation by their faithful. By promoting a fatalistic interpretation of reality and dissuading their followers from any political commitment, these institutions “produce” passive citizens with a lack of critical spirit who not only fail to present proposals to those with power, but also make no effort to oversee the conduct of their rulers beyond the use of their vote in elections, which is the faintest form of control in the entire democratic system.

While they are organizations of the poor, the Pentecostal Churches are not organizations for the poor, because the kind of solidarity they create only helps rescue their members morally, not materially, concretely. They are institutions that produce vast grassroots mobilization that contributes precious little to either social debate or social change.

Tithing is a categorical imperative

The Pentecostal Churches are lauded for their ability to transmit behaviors and customs to their followers that can help them improve their generally very poor living conditions. In fact, in addition to pushing their faithful to adopt a submissive attitude toward others, the rules of conduct promoted by these Churches also alter their consumption habits and spending priorities. It seems unarguable that the Pentecostal congregations orient the poor toward a more efficient management of their economies, but it’s hard to figure out who benefits most from these shifts in the use of economic resources. Following the norms indicated by the pastor, who gets the money the Pentecostal faithful save in the end?

To understand how the Churches can influence the management of their flocks’ savings, it is necessary to consider that the Pentecostals must renounce all addiction or dependence and put their family’s welfare before their own personal interest. Making them renounce alcohol and tobacco and questioning the macho values that legitimate men’s spending of most of the money earned on themselves surely results in a palpable increase in household financial resources and their use by the women and children.

Nonetheless, we also need to bear in mind that one of the categorical imperatives imposed by the Pentecostal faith is the obligation to “tithe”: to give at least 10% of one’s income to the pastor. The faithful have to respect this duty because it’s the only way they can expect to receive “economic blessings.” Tithing can literally “open a savings account in the kingdom of Heaven” into which God will dip to financially help them in difficult moments, sending them a check or paying off a debt.

The offering of the tithe is an imperative duty that functions according to the “natural principle of sowing and reaping” and must be honored. As they explained in the encounter I participated in, “You can’t sow coins because then God will only send you coins. If you sow bills, God will send you bills, and if you sow dollars He will send you dollars.” People who don’t have money are free to offer other possessions, but “he who sows thongs will reap thongs, while he who sows shoes will reap shoes.” The congregation is told that you can’t “dishonor God offering coins.” In Nicaragua the faithful have to put in at least a 20-córdoba bill (roughly one dollar) and can’t give “old, wrinkled bills, only those in good condition.”

It isn’t easy for the Pentecostal faithful to escape the imperative of the tithe both for spiritual reasons and for practical reasons having to do with the concrete way the donations are collected in the services. In Catholic churches the offering are usually collected by an altar boy or a woman who passes among the church pews. The faithful deposit their money discreetly in a little cloth bag or some other recipient. In the Pentecostal churches this particular liturgical moment is different. In all the different Pentecostal denominations I visited in Nicaragua, the faithful have to deposit their donations in a large visible basket located at the base of the pulpit. To do so they have to get up, stand in line and wait their turn, just as Catholics do to receive communion. Those who do not tithe not only exclude themselves from this offering rite, but publicly show the pastor, and the whole community, their inability to comply with the divine will.

Money is the be all, end all

For people living in extreme poverty who earn barely enough to sustain their family, the offering to the pastor is a major expense. One father confessed to me that more than once he had found himself torn between whether to feed his children or tithe. This makes it easier to understand why Pentecostal leaders preach fasting as a powerful method of praying that God will listen to happily. Certainly, if an entire family renounces eating several times a week, they can more easily tithe.

Pentecostals offer money not only during the services, but also in many other circumstances. They have to pay to attend the community leader formation sessions and to participate in the spiritual retreat. In Nicaragua, taking part in this gathering costs US$30, the equivalent of an entire month’s income for 48% of the national population, according to the United Nations Development Program. “Servers” at the retreat even have to pay $25 to perform that work, an average 18 hours per day. No one participates without paying. Those who have no money are financed by a fund fed by church members. And if that weren’t enough, the faithful give a sizeable gift to their spiritual leader on “Pastor’s Family Day.” On that date in 2008, Pastor D. received an all-terrain vehicle. In 2009 it was a three-week vacation for him, his wife and two children in Costa Rica, where the cost of living is much higher than in Nicaragua.

To analyze whether belonging to a Pentecostal Church has a positive impact on the economic situation of the poor, it is also necessary to stress that pastors do not put the money they obtain from the offerings of the faithful at the service of their community. They keep it exclusively for themselves. Cell leaders have to finance their own evangelization mission, paying all costs (transport to the site of the cell, the refreshments they offer participants…) and when the congregation celebrates particular events, the faithful have to buy the materials to decorate the church. When I asked people of Pentecostal faith what they believed the pastor used the money from the offerings for, they immediately replied that he invested it in the construction or expansion of the church. But, the slow progress of these construction works makes it clear that this expense only absorbs a laughable part of the income.

Believers betray no suspicions about the important transfer of resources they make to their leaders. As the tithing imperative is written in the Bible (Leviticus 27:30 and Malachi 3:10), it is an indisputable question of divine will. Their leaders’ enrichment is the fruit of that supreme will and explains the enormous favor with which God “blesses” them.

It is difficult to grasp whether on balance the adoption of Pentecostal norms helps the poor manage their money more efficiently and improves their living conditions, just as it is hard to get a clear picture of whether the spread of the Pentecostal Churches could have any positive impact on the societies into which they are inserted. What is obvious is that the propagation of the Pentecostal religion is considerably favoring the economy of the congregations’ spiritual leaders. Guiding one of these churches is a profitable business. In Nicaragua, the retreats alone, attended by an average of 40 potential new members and 20 servers, guarantees them monthly earnings of $1,550. 

Paola Bolognesi is a social researcher and special envío collaborator.

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