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Dr David Lehmann
University of Cambridge
Emeritus Fellowship

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God: a worldwide motivational apparatus

Neo-Pentecostalism is the driving force behind the growth of Christianity in the Global South and among migrant populations in Europe; David Lehmann aims to describe how this church manages its vast motivational apparatus across the world

Temple of Solomon in São Paulo, Brazil.
Temple of Solomon in São Paulo, Brazil.

In the twentieth century, Pentecostalism grew exponentially, inspired by episodes of extreme fervour announcing the presence of the Holy Spirit in regions from California, India and Australia to Latin America, Africa and Scandinavia and later Russia and China. Pentecostal worship styles were instantly recognisable for their uniform characteristics, yet they also ‘plugged in’ to the most varied cultural contexts. Proliferating small communities devoted to evangelisation bred grassroots missionaries, driving self-perpetuating growth. 

In the last quarter of the century, a notable innovation, neo-Pentecostalism, emerged in Latin America and soon after imitated in Africa. Leaders now undertook their own expansion by establishing centralised global hierarchies and developing distinctive doctrines and preaching styles. Known for their very public insistence on tithing and on the threats posed by diabolic forces against people’s lives, they distanced themselves from the austerity of community-based chapels. They told their followers that Jesus could help them achieve material security and a stable family life. Their churches have become multinational organisations, following migrants from their countries of origin to Europe and North America and building impressive media and online presences. 

My project is an inquiry into the management of the original neo-Pentecostal church, the Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Founded in 1977, it is present in 142 countries and has a hierarchy of 300 bishops, thousands of pastors and tens of thousands of assistants. At its head sits the founder, Edir Macedo. He combines his church leadership with ownership of Brazil’s second-largest free-to-air TV network, business interests in banking and a discrete but highly influential political involvement. My main question is how has the church developed the ‘motivational machine’ of my project’s title: a corps of pastors and bishops, all men and primarily Brazilians, whose wives usually also work for the church, who rarely have children, and who spend many years away from their home country. They abjure ownership of assets and live on a church subsidy rather than a salary. The pastors, in turn, manage volunteer uniformed assistants who take care of the congregation, collect tithes during services, and help organise prayer groups, youth groups, women’s groups and more. My second question is, what does the church do to enable its ethos and conception of the supernatural to transcend so many cultural, linguistic and geographical frontiers? Are they beating anthropologists at their own game?

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