Exchange in a Secularized Religious Setting

The exchange in Pentecostalism is with the Church, which expects members to contribute tithes amounting to 10 per cent of their income (before tax). In small chapels where congregants are part of a network of known individuals, contributions can be thought of as a way of affirming membership in an identifiable group and church, and of funding a pastor with whom the members are all familiar. According to observation in the early 1990s, in the large-scale also Brazil-based Deus é Amor church, people who are not up-to-date with their tithe (dízimo - recorded in a little notebook called the Caderneta da prosperidade - 'Prosperity Notebook') are not allowed to take part in the monthly ritual of the 'Holy Supper' (Santa Ceia) - a ritual common among Pentecostals which mimics the Catholic Holy Communion, distributing grape juice and a wafer. In the Universal Church there is no such concrete exchange, nor can congregants be said to form a community: they are too numerous to know one another, the churches are located increasingly in non-residential areas which can accommodate their imposing size, and the organization itself discourages communal interaction for example by constantly rotating its pastors and preachers - a 'Church of Strangers' as in the title of a remarkable book on its expansion into South Africa (van Wyk 2014).

But how then can such churches persuade people to become regular attendees and workers? They do not want them to drop in for a 'fix' and never reappear, thus circumventing the commitment to make contributions or pay their tithes. As an illustration, in September 2011 in a large temple of the Universal Church in the Boa Vista neighborhood of Recife (capacity c. 3,000 plus offices and underground car park) I asked an attendant whether they still distributed plastic bags with water from the River Jordan to be used in purifying a dwelling: the reply was that they had been instructed to stop this practice because people would just come in to pick up the miraculous water but would then not return. It may sound like a detail, but the underlying structure is important: these churches may seem to offer well-being and God's blessings for free but attracting and retaining converts is their raison d'etre. They have to persuade their followers that adherence and contribution are part of the effort at 'helping themselves'. The exchange is not with the supernatural, but with the organization itself, whose agents are the volunteers, the preachers and the pastors. It is not easy to interpret what congregants think they are getting out of the Church: in interviews the standard narrative is about the renunciation of vice-ridden ways, about a life which changed in a fundamental way, about the healing of physical and mental illnesses but it sounds too much like a ready-made formula to be entirely convincing, as do the life stories told by followers on their TV programmes which all seem to follow a standardized format culminating in eventual rescue and financial success notably in small businesses like hairdressing and skincare. Maybe what people really mean when reciting the narrative is that they found someone to listen to them - and pastors and preachers sometimes say they offer counseling as if they were doing so in a quasi-professional way. It is not uncommon to observe these consultations, which are not very prolonged and tend to conclude with a brief invocation or a cry of 'Out!' to free the individual of demonic possession. They may even offer a house visit by a team to remove evil spirits.[1] The leadership no doubt hopes that its services - personal and collective - will encourage people to become regular members and regular contributors.[2] A recent newcomer to the Brazilian Pentecostal field, the Igreja

Mundial do Poder de Deus (World Church of God's Power) led by Valdemiro Santiago, a breakaway from the Universal Church, has had a meteoric success offering a reduced diet of little but healing: people are exhibited in outdoor events as having recovered from all sorts of ailments and these are broadcast on the Church's own cable television channel. Since 2013, however, this venture seems to have fallen back, apparently ceding physical and especially mediatic space to the Universal Church.

In her remarkable account of the Universal Church in South Africa, Ilana van Wyck devotes a lengthy section to explaining the rationale for giving large sums, often sums which the giver cannot afford, to the church. She begins by quoting the church's leader, Edir Macedo who defines sacrifice both as 'the shortest distance between a wish and its materialization' and as 'the act of voluntarily giving something up in exchange for something else of much greater value'. Macedo also reminded his followers that 'giving and receiving has always been present in the relationship between man and God' and the greater the benefit one wants to receive the greater the sacrifice. This last of course is quite out of keeping with liturgical practices where the sacrifice is a matter of symbolism and ritual not of quantity (viz. the red bull of the Temple or the goat sacrificed at Yom Kippur - the 'scapegoat') (Macedo 2003: 70-71, van Wyck 2008: 185). The element of gambling is also there in the immediacy of the (desired) return and in the disproportion between the value of the sacrifice and that of the desired return. The church displays its psychological insight by separating the moment of promising from the moment of giving: followers, or for that matter incidental visitors, are invited to make an extravagant promise of donation and to bring the donation at a later date. This plays on a sense of guilt which in some cases will haunt them if they do not make the donation. Thus van Wyck quotes the case of a desperately poor follower who promised far more than she could afford: her friends were divided as to the 'efficacy or wisdom' of her sacrifice, but all agreed that 'you had to fill your campaign jar with the amount you promised because it was God's money'. In addition, the churchgoers whom she frequented lived in constant fear that forces of evil would be transmitted by objects and money which they received, whatever the good intentions of those transmitting them. This extended to bank loans, and so they chose to take a wager by making a donation to the church in the hope of receiving a boon from God (van Wyck, 2014: 192).

If a person publicly contributes money, responding at the extreme by giving more than he or she can afford, for all that it is part of an exchange, the experience of failure will also be an experience of shame or guilt, and so the incentive to overcome his or her misfortune is increased, an incentive accentuated by the churches' own message that each person must give yet each person is responsible. To say, in the wake of disappointment, that it is all the fault of the Church is to expose oneself to the accusation of gullibility, to feel a fool, something most people would prefer to avoid. This is unlikely to be the rationale consciously followed by all adepts of the neo-Pentecostal churches, who may donate for all sorts of reasons, but it does offer a coherent structure to explain what many observers believe to be incomprehensible behaviour or else simply the actions of suckers. To dismiss the actions of millions of people in this way is to abandon the task of explanation.

In constructing a model of an adept's motivation, we must recall the extreme diversity of evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and remember that we are referring principally to Latin American and Africa. Innumerable small Pentecostal churches still account for the vast majority of Pentecostal faithful in Brazil (Almeida 2004) and probably everywhere, and in these the motivation to make donations is probably simply to enable the chapels to exist and to fund a pastor. There are no doubt other motivations as well, but that one is the simplest. Neo-Pentecostal churches are quite different: they are almost business ventures. The explanation offered here in terms of exchange and self-respect as well as fear of the powers of darkness, is not intended to be more than partial: motivations are many and varied, but the pattern is by now so standardized across geographical and cultural boundaries, that a model is nevertheless called for.

  • [1] I watched as a preacher arranged this with a family of women who came to the Universal Church in Boa Vista, Recife, in September 2011. The mother described how her son had killed their dog and their cat and drank the animals' blood. The pastor concluded the house was under the power of the devil and promised to send a team along to exorcise it. He spoke to me in quite a matter-of-fact way about this exchange immediately afterwards.
  • [2] Ronaldo de Almeida has conducted some analyses of a 1998 Ministry of Health survey on the sexual behaviour of the Brazilian population and of his own 2003 survey in the Sao Paulo Metropolitan Region and these showed that respondents had changed their religious affiliation during their lives - indeed the Sao Paulo survey showed that one third had done so. It also showed that Pentecostal churches were the primary gainers from these shifts, but neither survey distinguished between Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal adherents and retention rates cannot be deduced from the analysis. It should be said that in a fast-moving and crowded environment it would be very difficult to capture retention. Putnam and Campbell did chart changes of affiliation in their US survey but they did not attempt to describe the retention rates for different types of churches (Almeida and Monteiro 2001; Almeida 2004; Putnam and Campbell 2010).
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