Research

Movements behind bars in Brazil (4)

I’m following the story of multiplying movements in the prisons of Rio de Janeiro as told by Andrew Johnson.

We’ve seen how prison Pentecostalism provides broken men with dignity and the hope of a new life in community.

Johnson went behind bars and witnessed how Rio’s most stigmatized residents, had built a church where they experienced joy, brotherhood, and dignity in one of the city’s most apparently god-forsaken places.

How do these prison churches survive and function?

The prison churches were independent, self-sustaining organizations. They set the membership bar high. Members are easy to identify, they dress differently, they quit drugs, and spend them time studying the Bible.

Many gang members have parents, aunts, cousins, and siblings who are active in Pentecostal churches. The social and class differences that exist between gang members and other institutions—the government, politics, universities, middle-class employment, for example—do not exist between the gangs and the Pentecostals in poor neighborhoods. And conversely, many pastors and active Pentecostal church leaders were once gang members themselves or have family members currently in the gang.

According to Johnson, the relationship between Pentecostal churches and the narco-gangs is characterized by mutual respect. The Pentecostals do not challenge the gang’s power in their neighborhoods. Nor do they condone the gang’s drug traffic, violence, and hedonism. They treat gang members as people worthy of redemption.

The gangs in turn command their members to treat the church members and pastors with respect and to acknowledge their authority in the community.

As long as the Pentecostals were known as a group who practiced what they preached, they would be protected from prison violence and allowed to occupy space in the prison.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (1)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (3)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (5)

Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)

“The church is ours. It belongs to those of us on the inside.”

I’m following the story of Pentecostalism’s impact in Brazil’s prisons as told by Andrew Johnson. Only a movement could thrive in such a harsh environment.

Throughout Latin America, Pentecostalism flourishes because it adapts itself to the local culture and produces local leaders.

Pentecostalism thrives behind bars because it has adapted to this harsh environment by taking on the structure and function of the prison gangs.

According to Johnson,

“Both gang and prison church claim part of the prison as their own, each implements and enforces a set of rules for their members, and each provides a strong identity to participants and offers them protection and community.”

The music in the churches has the same beat as the music in the streets, and pastors preach in the same language used in conversations at the bus stop, in corner cafés, and in the local markets. Leaders can rise from the congregations without having to go through seminaries or other educational institutions that are available to the middle and upper classes but largely closed to others.

The incarcerated leader preaches, sings, prays, fasts, suffers, and praises alongside the other church members. Inmates not only set the vision for the future of the prison churches, they also negotiate with gang and prison officials and make themselves available to meet the spiritual and sometimes physical and emotional needs of inmates twenty-four hours a day.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (1)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (3)

Movements behind bars in Brazil

Sociologist Andrew Johnson wanted to understand the impact of Pentecostalism in Brazil’s prison system. So he went behind bars to find out.

Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas are ruled by drug-gangs. The police dare not enter. The prison system is an extension of the favelas. It’s the gangs, not the prison officials who rule on the inside. Wherever the gangs are strongest, Pentecostalism thrives.

Carlos was born to alcoholic parents in one of Rio de Janeiro’s /favelas/. As a boy he would head down to Copacabana Beach and rob tourists. By the time he was fourteen, both of his parents had died, and Carlos had found a new family—the drug gang that controlled his neighborhood.

Carlos graduated from petty theft to armed robbery. One night he was ambushed by police who were after the proceeds of an armed robbery he’d committed—around $20,000. They took the money and let him go. Carlos went looking for the neighbor who had tipped off the police in return for a cut of the money—and killed him. The police arrested Carlos, and he was tried, convicted of murder, and jailed. But Carlos knew how to survive in difficult places, so he survived in prison.

One night about ten years later, Carlos was listening to a group of prisoners sing and clap their hands in worship. He had heard them hundreds of times before, but he had no interest in religion. He thought Christians were crazy.

But prison had worn Carlos down. He later said,

“I was already tired of the life I was living. I didn’t know who to turn to and I found myself desperate, in a dead end. I was looking for something that would embrace me, something that would help me. I saw the brothers from the church and I saw their sincerity and I saw their commitment to God. I went to see if God would truly set me free.”

Carlos left his cell and joined the worship. The pastor, who was an inmate, read from John’s Gospel, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 10:10).

Carlos surrendered his life to Christ, and as his fellow prisoners prayed, he fell to the ground and was freed from a legion of demons. Immediately he gave away his last cigarettes and stopped snorting cocaine. He no longer used prostitutes. He traded membership in a prison gang for membership in the prisoner-led church.

Carlos walked out of prison two years later, a free man and a follower of Jesus. Back in the favela, his former gang offered him work that would pay ten times what he could earn legally. He turned them down and spent the next month sleeping under a bridge. He joined the local Pentecostal church and rebuilt his life. His faith didn’t magically catapult him out of poverty, but it provided him with a new identity and a new community.

Carlos is one of thousands of people who have been converted in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious prisons. It takes a movement to penetrate and thrive in the gang-controlled prisons and favelas of Rio.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)

 

Are Arabs turning their backs on religion?

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The BBC reports:

Since 2013, the number of people across the Arab world identifying as "not religious" has risen from 8% to 13%. The rise is greatest in the under 30s, among whom 18% identify as not religious.

 
 

The trend in North Africa is significantly greater than the rest of the Arab world. Iranians aren’t Arabs, they’re Persians, but it would be interesting to know the trend there. I think the drift to secularism in Iran would be even greater in response to an oppressive Islamic regime.

Another indicator of rising secularism in the Arab world is the declining fertility rate. In general, the more religious you are the more children you have, the more secular, the lower the fertility rate. Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, Iranians are disillusioned with Islam and becoming secular. They’ve also become the most responsive people to the gospel on the planet. Perhaps the same trend is emerging in the Arab Muslim world.

50 Countries Where It’s Hardest to Follow Jesus

Image: Open Doors USA

Image: Open Doors USA

A report on the 50 most dangerous nations in which to be a Christian in 2019.

Christian persecution has worsened in the most populous countries in the world, China and India, putting millions more believers at risk for their faith.

The two Asian nations moved up on Open Doors’s annual ranking of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. India entered the World Watch List’s top 10 for the first time, due to a growing Hindu nationalist threat stirring anti-Christian sentiments. Meanwhile China, where the Communist government continues closing major congregations and detaining Christian leaders, climbed from No. 43rd to No. 27 on the list.

Researchers calculate that 1 in 3 Asian Christians now experience high levels of persecution for their faith.

read the whole thing

Southern Baptists vs United Methodists

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Mark Tooley challenges the conventional wisdom that evangelicalism should become more progressive to prevent its decline.

The popular conventional narrative asserts that young people in droves are quitting evangelical Christianity because it’s too socially and politically conservative. Of course, the implication is that if only Evangelicalism would liberalize, especially on sexuality, then it might become more appealing.

But all the available evidence as to what happens to liberalizing churches strongly indicates the opposite. Mainline Protestantism is in many ways what critics of Evangelicalism wish it would become. And yet the Mainline, comprised primarily of the “Seven Sister” historic denominations, has been in continuous free-fall since the early to mid-1960s. Its implosion accelerated after most of these denominations specifically liberalized their sexuality teachings over the last 20 years.

  • Episcopal Church peaked in 1966 at 3.4 million, now 1.7 million (50% loss).

  • Presbyterian Church (USA) peaked 1965 at 4.4 million, now 1.4 million (68% loss).

  • United Church of Christ peaked 1965 at 2.1 million, now 850,000 (60% loss)

  • ELCA (Lutheran) peaked 1968 at 5.9 million, now 3.5 million (41% loss)

  • Christian Church (Disciples) peaked 1964 at 1.9 million, now 400,000 (80% loss).

  • United Methodists peaked 1965 at 11 million, now 6.9 million (40% loss).

  • American Baptist peaked 1.5 million, now 1.2 million (25% loss).

What unites these denominations in decline? The undermining of Biblical authority. Tooley points out that the two Mainline denominations that have not officially liberalized on sexuality, United Methodism and American Baptists, have declined the least.

In contrast, All growing denominations in America are conservative, including the Assemblies of God, which in 1965 had 572,123 and now has 3.2 million (460% increase), the Church of God in Cleveland, which in 1964 had 220,405 and now has 1.2 million (445% increase), the Christian Missionary Alliance, which in 1965 had 64,586 and now has 440,000 (576% increase), and the Church of the Nazarene 1965, which in 343,380 and now has 626,811 (82% increase).

What about the Southern Baptists, America’s largest evangelical denomination? They have been in decline for the last 18 years from 16.4 million to 15 million. That’s a loss of 8% compared to the average Mainline loss of 50%. While SBC membership figures are down, its worship attendance was up by 120,000 in 2017.

Meanwhile the Southern Baptists have been planting churches with a 20% increase in the number of churches over the last twenty years. There’s been a strong focus on planting black and hispanic churches. Something the liberal/progressive Mainline denominations find impossible to do.

I’ll have more to say on this topic soon. Over January I’m working on my next book which is on the Lifecycle of Movements — how they rise and fall.

10 fruitful habits of multiplying movements

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Researcher, Jim Haney on the habits that result in fruitfulness in multiplying movements of disciples and churches.

  1. Ghanaian Proverb—“If there is anything between you and power, remove it.”  Fruitful practitioners deal with the things that prevent the Holy Spirit from empowering them. 

  2. Share the Gospel often, and invite people to receive Christ on the spot. 

  3. Gather those you share with into groups, whether they are believers or not.

  4. Plan for groups to become churches.

  5. Do not overly complicate witnessing, discipling, and forming new churches.  Jesus said, “Follow me; I will make you fishers of men.” 

  6. Train for what you want; follow up for what you expect. If you are a leader who sends people for training, guarantee that they have opportunity to use their training and report their results.  

  7. Speak so they understand.

  8. Scratch where they itch.

  9. Expect and plan for results.  If you abide, fruit will come.

  10. Live among those you want to reach.  How close?  As close as Jesus was to his disciples.

The flip side: Ten habits that stifle a movement.

Interview with Jim Haney.