Renewal Movements in Campinas, Brazil
reflecting trends playing out across the global South
“You said you’re part of a project researching Pentecostalism,” said Renata Strohmenger. “But I’m not sure that’s who we are. What do you mean by Pentecostal?”
A perfectly reasonable question. Strohmenger is a pastor with Igreja Renacer em Cristo (Rebirth in Christ Church)—an indigenous, three-decade-old Protestant denomination with about two million members, mainly in Brazil but also in the U.S. and a few other countries in the global North. Strohmenger’s church in a prosperous neighborhood of Campinas, a booming industrial city about an hour’s drive from São Paulo, occupies a lofty glass, steel and stone commercial space that previously housed a luxury car dealership.
Igreja Renacer’s sunrise logo adorns the pulpit on a stage that also includes a drum kit and guitar stands. But apart from a pair of menorah-esque candleholders, there’s no other religious iconography in a room that could just as easily be the home of a generously endowed community theater.
“Well,” said her interviewer, “by ‘Pentecostal’ I mean someone who seeks the experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and who believes that experience manifests in the form of speaking in tongues, healing, prophesy. Worship and preaching style also figure into it. But that’s the main thing.”
Strohmenger smiled brightly. In her fashionably faded jeans and lace-trimmed blouse, she would not have looked out of place in an upscale mall in Singapore, Orange County, Dubai or Jakarta.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re definitely Pentecostal.” Outside of town, on the highway to Viracopos Airport, the flank of a church is emblazoned with the name of an early 20th century Pentecostal denomination, marking the edge of a large favela. The rising tide of global free-market capitalism is clearly not lifting all boats.
“Urbanization is the main factor connecting Pentecostalism with the spread of neoliberal economics in the developing world,” said Flavio Munhoz Sofiati, a sociologist of religion at Universidade Federal de Goiás. “Humanity spent thousands of years being agrarian, and this shift to the cities has taken place in less than 200 years. We have yet to fully adapt to this dramatic change—that’s why we have so much disease, both physical and psychological. Pentecostalism explicitly offers a direct, personal experience of healing for individuals and a kind of collective therapeutic process as well.”
For this reason, human suffering in the expanding slums on the outskirts of globalizing cities has long attracted Protestant renewal groups like the Assemblies of God, whose promise of the healing power of the Holy Spirit holds strong appeal for people with few other resources to address sicknesses of body and soul. The persistence of poverty in Campinas and other parts of Latin America has also shaped the Catholic Church, which has seen the eclipse of social-minded liberation theology by the Charismatic Renewal movement—essentially Catholic Pentecostalism—with its focus on individual experience and devotion.
“The very poor on the edge of cities are attracted to renewal,” said Father José Antonio Boareto, rector of a local seminary and a professor of theology at Pontificia Universidade Católica de Campinas. “That’s a complete turn from the late 1970s, when promoting social consciousness seemed like the answer. Now people on the margins are disenchanted with that. They believe social engagement brings no practical results, so they turn to the idea of healing.”
This shift within the Church comes at a time when the Catholic portion of Brazil’s population is declining—from 85 percent to about 60 percent
over the last two decades. And this decline has not happened painlessly. In fact, the drama has played out most vividly through a conflict between two ministries to youth—the bellwether of global Catholicism’s future. The Youth Shepherd movement, shaped by the folksy ethos of ’60s-era socially engaged Catholicism, has lost ground to Jesus Youth, a product of Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
“Just like many of the marginal groups we want them to try to help, our young people criticize social engagement for just talking and not changing anything,” said Boareto. “Charismatic Renewal is changing their realities, but the question is whether that experience inside the church will really change the social reality.”
The wave of religious renewal that has swept through Campinas and the rest of the developing world over the past quarter-century has likewise brought upheaval to established Protestant institutions like the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession, which claims about 1 million members in Brazil. During her tenure as a minister and parish administrator, Rev. Neusa Tezner witnessed the long arc of the event first-hand.
She said that the appropriation of charismatic music and worship styles by some pastors and their congregations was acceptable to her and other members of the denominational hierarchy. But the very ecumenism that allowed Brazil’s Lutheran establishment to absorb some of the energy of the Pentecostal movement also put it at odds with another of that movement’s common features: the notion that believers who have experienced the gifts of the Holy Spirit must be re-baptized as a sign that they have become “true” Christians.
Tezner’s denomination acknowledges baptisms from all Christian traditions as valid, and she said that pastors who practiced re-baptism were considered “contaminated.” During this period of polarization, which culminated in an administrative housecleaning in 2002, about 15,000 people left
“I’m happy that era is over,” Tezner said. “It was a painful process. But it strengthened the core of the Lutheran church.”
That, in a sense, is what religious renewal is all about.
Renewal Movements and Christianity’s Southward Shift
How are these trends shaping the religious landscape in other parts of the global South? For about 10 years the headlines have read something like this: Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity is the fastest-growing religious movement on the planet, and it is flourishing most vigorously in rapidly urbanizing, non-Western countries that are bestirred by the equally potent force of free-market capitalism. This southward shift in the center of religious gravity means that formerly “un-churched” peoples now play a bigger role in shaping Christian belief and practice than do their co-religionists in the late-colonial powers that first missionized them.
Closer to the ground, a number of more recent developments become apparent. Neo-Pentecostal or “next generation” churches like Igreja Renacer are now outpacing the growth of traditional Pentecostal churches, particularly among the emerging middle classes. Unlike older denominations, many of which have opened Bible colleges and seminaries to train pastors, these newer expressions of the Pentecostal movement tend to be highly organized without being tied to orthodox ideas about liturgy or theology— in fact, they tend to eschew most formal theological and denominational labels. Thus they have been able to attract highly capable, mission-minded leaders like Renata Strohmenger, a successful graphic designer, who considers her profound experience of calling to ministry as her primary qualification for holding the pulpit.
The Catholic Charismatic movement, by contrast, has been largely absorbed by the organizational structure of its two-millennia-old parent institution. Charismatic retreat centers in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia now host thousands of mostly lower-class retreatants as well as priests and nuns, who are regularly dispatched to them for periods of spiritual renewal.
But if established Protestant and Catholic communities have begun to find their equilibrium after the tumult of what might eventually be considered the First Global Great Awakening, Pentecostal and charismatic missionizing of non-Christian religious groups is sending even broader ripples through developing societies that are already in a state of flux. The cell-group strategies of renewalist “church-planters” in India, China and tribal regions of Indonesia and Brazil often disturb deeply established structures of kinship and belief—a process that exposes tensions between the values of religious freedom and social stability.
The following pages explore these issues in greater depth and detail, looking frequently at how the interplay between Christian renewal movements and the particular elements of a given cultural landscape influence developments in politics, economic equality, gender relations or sexuality. With any luck, the reader will have acquired, by the end, a clearer sense for what believers mean by “Pentecostal”—and for the consequences of the increasing dominance of that form of belief in parts of the world that are changing at a breakneck pace.
Nick Street was a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.