Neo-Pentecostalism and Prosperity Theology in Latin America: A Religion for Late Capitalist Society*

Article excerpt


The 'theology of prosperity' - the belief that God bestows material blessings on the faithful - is one of the most dynamic movements in Latin American Neo-Pentecostalism today. This 'theology' - as much aspirational strategy as actual teleology - is not sui generis to Latin America, nor is its rapid expansion limited to the region; indeed, the transnational flows of ideas the practices is a sine qua non of modern neo-pentecostalism, and part of its dynamism. Unlike earlier missionary movements, however, the energy of Neo-Pentecostalism and prosperity theology in general is multidirectional and polylocal; Latin American practitioners are as likely to be influenced by African or South Korean innovations as they are, themselves, to influence the practices and beliefs of believers in North America or Europe. While the multidirectional currents of Neo-Pentecostal thought are a topic worthy of discussion in their own right, the focus of the article is limited and more narrow, honing in on the expression of a single Neo-Pentecostal doctrine, prosperity theology, within and across the Latin American spiritual landscape. We shall begin our discussion, then, with one of the most vigorous international proponents of prosperity theology, the Brazilian mega-church, the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus.


The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD) is one of the most rapidly growing denominations in the early twenty-first century. Like the other emerging mega-churches, the IURD, which was founded during the mid-1970s, is part of the Protestant movement that emerged not from the Reformation, but from the Neo-Pentecostal1 revival of the 1960s. This is a modern-day variation of Pentecostalism that stresses the miraculous transformation of life, in spirit and body, and even of lifestyle (Hollenwenger 1968). As we shall see, the IURD promotes a type of belief that does not emphasize the traditional kinds of questions posed by theology, such as: What controls the universe? Who or what is God? Why does God permit suffering? Is there an afterlife and who gets in? Rather, it speaks to the material wants and needs of people living in a world in which success is measured almost exclusively by affluence and consumption, where sin and grace are defined, respectively, by poverty and wealth.

The Brazilian denomination espouses what might be called a postmodern version of Christianity, sometimes known as 'emerging church,' in which a malleable theology can be tailored to local spiritual concerns, engagement with society, and where church planners enjoy some flexibility in modifying and reinterpreting church dogma to coincide as closely as possible to local conditions, culture, and expectations (Gibbs and Bolger 2005:15-26). The IURD is one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations in the world, now one of Latin America's most important and perhaps audacious cultural exports. It began its international expansion in 1985 by starting a congregation in neighboring Paraguay; by 2011, the IURD had 'planted' churches in every Latin American country including Haiti, in more than half of the countries on the African continent, in the United States and Canada, in the Far East (Japan, the Philippines, India), and in twelve countries in Europe, building a presence in 180 locations world-wide (Mariano 2004:140). In 1995, the denomination had established an estimated 221 churches abroad, a number that had nearly doubled by 1998 to 500 and doubled again to 1000 in 2001, an astonishing rate of growth that has continued to the present day. Moreover, the expansion of the church into virgin mission territory is more than merely symbolic: in at least ten of these countries, the denomination has fifty or more congregations (2004:141); Mexico, that most 'Catholic' country, has 95 congregations, more than sixty of which are located in the greater Mexico City metropolitan area.

As perhaps Latin America's most well-known Neo-Pentecostal denomination, the IURD expansion in the United States and Western Europe might be taken to evince a type of reverse missionary movement. …