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Tired spirits? What happens when Pentecostalism becomes middle class?

Pentecostalism is a Christian revival movement. It emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and is marked by a focus on the Holy Spirit and its gifts. Pentecostals believe that the Holy Spirit can award them specific gifts such as the gifts of healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. In terms of membership growth, Pentecostalism has been the most successful religious movement in the 20th century, counting around 600 million members worldwide in 2010. In Latin America, the mass-expansion of Pentecostalism created a new religious landscape: while previously dominated by Catholicism, Pentecostalism has become a viable religious option for many Latin Americans. In particular, it has appealed to the lower classes with its expressive and emotional church services and its focus on spiritual healing practices. During the emotional and highly expressive church services members can feverously shout out their problems, pray in tongues, and seek spiritual healing. The movement’s success among the lower classes was attributed to its ability to help those affected by poverty to cope with their living conditions. During my research in Argentina, I witnessed spiritual healing practices and the expressiveness of Pentecostalism. Church services in lower class neighborhoods resembled an emotional roller-coaster ride with moments of quietness and contemplation, forceful prayers, loud singing, shouting of affirmations such as “hallelujah”, dancing in the Spirit, collective ecstasy with participants trembling, crying and dropping to the ground.

However, today, Pentecostalism is increasingly becoming middle class. But what does this mean for a religious movement that holds particular appeal to the lower classes? Academic narratives suppose that upward social mobility leads to social adaptation: more affluent and educated members want to engage with wider society and seek approval from their social environment. This would mean that Pentecostalism would have to become less fervent and more socially appropriate in its forms of expression.

My research in Argentina reveals that middle-class Pentecostalism is, indeed, different from mass Pentecostalism that we can find in Argentina’s lower class neighborhoods and slums. Middle-class followers of the movement frequently gather in specific churches in middle-class neighborhoods. During the church services, they avoid performing strong spiritual practices such as faith healing, speaking in tongues, and exorcisms that mark mass-Pentecostalism. Their church services are almost as quiet as those of Lutherans and Calvinists, and lack the stereotypical expressivity and emotionality of Pentecostalism. The original spirit seems to have faded away: having developed a more socially appropriate style of Pentecostalism, these middle-class churches appear to have become less Pentecostal.

However, at a second glance, middle-class Pentecostals aren’t any less Pentecostal than others in Argentina. They believe as much as other Pentecostals in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the importance of spiritual practices. Taking a closer look at their practices, they perform the “inappropriate” spiritual practices of Pentecostalism in spaces hidden from the view of others. As such, many middle-class Pentecostals state that they in speak in tongues in the privacy of their home. Furthermore, their churches create specific spaces where members can get involved in emotional and expressive styles: during spiritual retreats or at specific moments after the church services, members may gather together to conduct faith-healing practices and exorcisms. These spiritual practices aren’t absent, but they are banned from the church service. It appears this is to provide a “certain image” to those who may visit the church but aren’t Pentecostal, as one pastor states. To be socially acceptable for their wider social environment, middle-class Pentecostals withdraw practices from church services that may appear as inappropriate to their non-Pentecostal peers.

So, in evaluating the nature of middle-class Pentecostalism, it depends on where one looks: Looking at the more publicly visible church services, one finds a socially accommodated style of Pentecostalism. In contrast, in the more hidden spaces of these churches, the expressive, emotional aspects of Pentecostalism continue to be present. Pentecostalism isn’t turning any less Pentecostal when becoming middle class. It is simply that middle-class Pentecostals are more guarded about which aspects of their Pentecostal practice they allow others to see.

What does this mean for the social mobility of religion more generally? When fervorous religious movements become more middle class, they appear to adapt to their social environment: they withdraw practices that might appear inappropriate to outsiders. However, this is only one part of the story: while adapting to their social environment and becoming socially more acceptable, movements may evolve specific spaces that allow them to maintain original, unadapted elements. As such, becoming more affluent and educated doesn’t necessarily imply an encompassing adaptation process or even secularization. Instead, we may find an adaptation and secularization of visible performances while the given movements remain spiritual and unadapted in the less visible spaces. The spirits don’t become tired, but hide.

Featured image credit:  Church service in Buenos Aires, Argentina, photographed by Jens Koehrsen. Used with permission.

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