Just as Christian renewal movements are shaping the cultures where they are growing, they are also shaped by the imperative to find common values in pluralistic societies.
“Joy is in the house!” declared Sister Florence Aviso, a worship leader at Kings Revival Church International in Dubai.
Aviso kept a crowd of roughly 800 on its feet singing praise songs for over an hour at the start of KRCI’s Sunday evening English-language service. The church’s Filipino band took the stage that night, but African, Indian and Middle Eastern musicians have their turn over the course of a weekly roster that averages a couple of services a day in half a dozen languages.
KRCI rents a fellowship hall at Holy Trinity, an Anglican compound near Oud Metha and Karama, neighborhoods that are populated by some of the millions of mostly working-class expats who enable Dubai’s bigger-taller-faster ethos to thrive. Accordingly, the English-language service was as ethnically eclectic as a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly—the packed hall included sub-Saharan Africans, South and East Asians and surprisingly robust contingents of Anglos and Arabs.
“It’s mostly a transient population,” Rev. V. Dilkumar, KRCI’s senior pastor, said the next day. “We have about 9,000 members in Dubai, but no one stays permanently. They return to their own countries sooner or later.”
Dilkumar is both a reflection of and an exception to the particular regional dynamic behind the phenomenon he sketched. In 1983 he came to Dubai from his native Sri Lanka as an engineer with a British multinational and was soon making plenty of money. But what he described as the dispiriting isolation of Dubai—like most expats, he left his family back home—began to wear on him. A textbook tale of a soul’s dark night drove him first to drink, then to a nondenominational church that became the model for his own ministry, which he started in 1991. Unlike most people who end up in Dubai, Dilkumar eventually brought his family to the UAE and put down roots.
Or at least he has become as deeply rooted in the Emirates as an expat can hope to be. More than 80 percent of the population of the UAE is composed of non-citizens—a remarkable statistic that accounts, at least in part, for why the restiveness of the Arab Spring made barely a ripple there. Bringing to mind American mill villages of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of those millions of itinerant workers live in company-owned labor colonies, like the sprawling cinderblock housing units opposite Dubai’s huge landfill.
Without the rights that come with citizenship, and under the governance of a tribal sheikdom keenly focused on the preservation of its own hegemony, the Russian plutocrat with a flat in the Burj Khalifa is ultimately no more secure in the UAE than the Pakistani workers who clean the Burj’s windows after one of Dubai’s epic dust storms.
Still, the relative tolerance of the UAE’s governing regime makes for some fascinating contradictions. Non-Muslim religious movements like King’s Revival Church are tightly constrained in where and how they conduct their activities—for example, land may be allotted but not sold to church organizations, and proselytism apart from Islam is illegal. But if they play by the rules, groups that cater to the spiritual needs of the Emirates’ vast expat population can easily flourish. The Holy Trinity compound rents worship halls to more than a dozen renewalist groups, including Assemblies of God and India Pentecostal Church congregations. And St. Mary’s, also in Oud Metha, is the anchor for a growing Catholic Charismatic community in the Gulf Region.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the main attraction at KRCI is “signs, wonders and miracles”—weekly, revival-style spiritual healings that have helped the movement to grow not just in Dubai but also in many of the countries to which its expat congregants have returned. The economic nodes of the globalized age attract and disperse not just cargo containers but also religious phenomena that, for many, serve as the best available medicine for some of the spiritual ailments peculiar to our unsettled times.
Notes from the Formerly Underground
John, the leader of a small house-church movement based in Shanghai, is familiar with such forms of disease.
“In the urban areas,” he said, “people are stressed, they are depressed. In the rural areas the issues tend to be physical sickness and family problems. So the rural people need miracles and experiences of the supernatural. In urban churches, they want fellowship and to know the principles of Christianity.”
There are roughly 1,000 churches in Shanghai, but fewer than a dozen are registered with the State Administration for Religious Affairs. This handful of “official” churches is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which began in the 1950s to promote “self-governance, self-support and self-propagation” among Chinese Christians in order to insulate them from foreign influence and ensure their loyalty to the communist regime.
According to John (who chose not to use his full name to avoid running afoul of the authorities), the rest of the churches in Shanghai vary in size from 30 to several hundred members. Though unregistered churches faced persecution in the recent past, they are no longer “underground” and in fact don’t like this terminology since they now operate very much above ground, in full sight of religious regulators, who know they exist.
They are very decentralized, which allows them to operate without encroaching on the prerogatives of China’s single-party political apparatus. Were they to coalesce into a formal movement in order to evangelize and to engage in social outreach, the government could potentially perceive them as a threat and drive them back into the shadows.
House churches, most of which tend to exhibit some of the traits of Pentecostalism, refuse to register with the Three-Self Movement because that would mean that they are “under the Community Party,” which would violate the nature of authority that they perceive in the Bible. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, but reasonable sources suggest that there are probably about 50 million Protestants in China—half of whom are scattered among various house-church movements— and about 15 million Catholics.
Jason, another leader of a house-church in Shanghai, said that while rural churches are disappearing as more people move to China’s booming cities, urban churches are beginning to attract professionals from the country’s expanding middle class.
“They have been influenced by the Western world,” he said. “We have a ‘seekers’ group where we discuss topics like ‘who is God,’ ‘who is Jesus’ and ‘is there ultimate truth?’”
Women constitute a large majority of Jason’s congregation, which is a common phenomenon within newer Pentecostal and charismatic groups in other parts of the developing world. But for fear of attracting unwanted attention, worshipers in most Chinese house-churches shun the lively music and overt emotionalism that are often the main attractions of Pentecostalism elsewhere.
Still, quieter manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit—healing and prophecy, for example—are common, and several house-church members said they often pray in tongues on their own.
Whether by accident or design, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs has developed what could be called a policy of containment for Christian renewal movements, which are neither officially recognized nor actively suppressed by the government. This has had the effect of dampening fervor without triggering the sense of martyrdom that is deeply encoded in the lived mythology of apostolic Christianity.
From Margins to Pulpit
Ironically, the mythological roles are reversed in Brazil, where politically empowered mainstream Pentecostals—most notably Silas Milafaia, the jet-setting pastor of one of Brazil’s largest megachurches—have vowed to undo the Brazilian judiciary’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage. That step in the direction of social inclusivity as well as the conservative reaction against it are both closely related to the emergence and surprising growth of a handful of LGBT-inclusive next-generation Pentecostal churches.
In the fall of 2012, Marcio Retamero, the pastor of Betel Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Rio de Janeiro, was invited to testify before members of the Brazilian Congress, where he talked about human rights generally and the rights of sexual minorities in particular.
“At one point I said that if theocracy were to be imposed in Brazil,” Retamero recalled, “I would take up arms. Silas Malafaia twisted my words to make me look like the biggest gay terrorist in the world. Now he wants to sue me, and I have to go to court to defend myself.”
Malafaia, who has come to embody the increasing influence of Pentecostalism in Brazil, has stridently opposed the advance of LGBT rights. Indeed, his bullying of Retamero has inspired similar behavior among other conservative Pentecostals—the pastor of an LGBT-inclusive congregation in one of Rio’s working-class neighborhoods remarked that the only locals who have ever harassed his parishioners were members of a nearby Assemblies of God church. But while many conservative Pentecostal leaders in Malafaia’s mold boast about their “men in Congress,” the social and political tides in the country are generally running against them.
The same trends have also created a space for Betel and other LGBT-inclusive Pentecostal groups—a religious phenomenon that is flourishing in very few other places in the developing world.
MCC—a second-generation movement that was started by a former pastor with the Church of God of Prophecy in the U.S.—has been in Brazil for about a decade. There are now 8 churches with roughly 3,000 members.
Retamero describes Betel’s worship culture as “Presbycostal.”
“We believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gifts that come with that,” he said. “It’s a Pentecostal spiritual life, but not a Pentecostal way of life. We don’t have a list of cans and can’ts.”
That reluctance to impose rules on congregants is similar to the anti-orthodox impulse that attracts younger worshipers to next-generation renewalist churches in India and elsewhere. But in Brazil’s LGBT-inclusive Pentecostal culture, the trend is reversed. Like the India Pentecostal Church and Assemblies of God, MCC’s “Presbycostalism” places a high value on rationalism and theological training for its clergy. But unlike those traditional institutions, MCC doesn’t discourage members from drinking, smoking or having premarital sex. By contrast, next-generation LGBT-inclusive movements such as Igreja Contemporanea (Contemporary Church) and Cidade de Refúgio (City of Refuge) push youthful worshipers to find partners and refrain from many of the activities that tend to attract young gays and lesbians in Brazil’s increasingly cosmopolitan cities.
“My friends ask me if I’m straight now,” said Silas Moraru, a 21-year-old singer in the praise band at City of Refuge. Pointing to the ring on his left hand, he said, “But I have a boyfriend!”
Moraru grew up Pentecostal—his father is an Assemblies of God pastor—and said he has never chafed at the expectations that Lanna Holder and Rosania Rocha, the married co-founders of Cidade de Refúgio, have of their members.
“There aren’t too many rules,” Moraru said. “I think they make me a better person. They help me feel closer to God.”
Marcus Gladstone, the senior pastor of Igreja Contemporanea, echoed that belief. He left MCC in 2006 because he felt it “needed to be more Brazilian”—both more overtly spirit-filled and more traditional in its approach to personal mores. Thus a Saturday evening service at his headquarters church included both speaking in tongues and a request for a show of hands from congregants who were married.
The overwhelming majority of the roughly 300 people in the church responded affirmatively.
When asked to explain why social conventions most often associated with heterosexual religious conservatives were so important to the life of his community, Gladstone, who has adopted two sons with his partner, was at once earnest and mindful of the need to find a way toward conciliation with the likes of Silas Malafaia.
“We are an evangelical church,” he said. “And we have more credibility if we live our lives by these rules.”
The Good (Religious) Minority
That imperative to find common values in a pluralistic society has also shaped Christian renewal movements in Indonesia, where Christianity is a minority religion tolerated by the Muslim majority and protected by a secular government committed to religious freedom.
Which is to say that, like LGBT-inclusive Pentecostals in Brazil, mainstream Indonesian renewalists have learned to highlight the ways they are like the more numerous “others” that dominate the surrounding religious landscape.
Indonesia is officially 87 percent Muslim and about 10 percent Christian. But observers on the ground have suggested that Islam’s portion of the population has dropped to 80 percent or below in recent years—a controversial trend in a country where Catholics, mainline Protestants and Muslims all commonly view Pentecostals as sheep-stealers.
On the other hand, in parts of Indonesia where moderate interpretations of sharia law govern aspects of local life, many Pentecostals have readily assented to prohibitions against alcohol, pornography and immodest dress.
That point of contact provides an opening for the social outreach programs of Representative of Christ’s Kingdom (ROCK), a next-generation church in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
Like most next-generation leaders, Daniel Tanudjaja obtained a professional degree and started a career—in his case, a B.A. in psychology, which led to work in human resources—before he co-founded ROCK with senior pastor Timotius Arifin in 2004. They affirm healing, speaking in tongues and prophesying as gifts of the Holy Spirit, but ROCK’s worship culture is also strongly influenced by Tanudjaja’s experience in the corporate world.
The headquarters congregation meets in a large ballroom in a mall on the edge of a prosperous neighborhood, and church literature features “Successories”-style affirmations. For example, the church’s value-statement is summarized in the acronym LIGHT—loyalty, integrity, generosity, humility and truth.
“We try to be less exclusive and more open,” Tanudjaja said. “Our goal is to equip people with practical values and send them into the marketplace to be a blessing to others.”
That notion of “kingdom values” shares some rhetorical similarities with factions of right-wing Pentecostalism in the United States. Market-Place Apostles, the New Apostolic Reformation, Kingdom Theology and Christian Reconstructionism are all expressions of a worldview shared by a loosely allied group that includes religious conservatives like Rick Perry, Peter Wagner and Johnny Enlow.
But in shaping the idea of “kingdom values” to work in the Indonesian context, Tanudjaja has undertaken a project that is fundamentally distinct from the kind of Christian triumphalism promoted by Enlow, Wagner and their fellow travelers. Most of those activists envision an American national polity shaped by a conservative interpretation of the Bible rather than a pluralist, at least nominally secular government that does its best to protect individual rights in a way that both empowers and delimits groups with conflicting points of view.
The difference between the two iterations of “kingdom values” is most apparent in the broad-minded ecumenism that frames Tanudjaja’s vision of national transformation.
“The role of Christians is to be a blessing to all people,” he said. “This means we work with Muslims—with everyone—toward the goal of making Indonesia a better place. We pray for the best president, not a Christian president.”
This remarkable expression of Kingdom Theology as an imperative for cooperative social engagement is perhaps not surprising where Pentecostals are a relatively small minority in a fairly tolerant country. But similarly humane movements are emerging in places where Pentecostalism exerts a powerful influence on culture—and where the effects of that influence are potentially far-reaching.
Nick Street was a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.