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When Sects Become Middle Class: Impression Management among Middle-Class Pentecostals in Argentina


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Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 3, 1 September 2017, Pages 318–339,https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srx030
Published:
 
04 July 2017

Abstract

Sect-to-church theory assumes that sects will become more church-like as members’ socioeconomic status improves. By abandoning tension-related characteristics, they decrease the level of tension with their social environment. Studying Pentecostal middle-class congregations in Argentina, this article shows that the reduction of tension involves impression management: the studied middle-class congregations display middle-class features (e.g., educational training) and selectively shield tension-related practices (e.g., glossolalia) from the glances of non-Pentecostal peers. Instead of abandoning tension-related practices to reduce tension, middle-class congregations strategically adjust their religious practices depending on the extent to which these are accessible for relevant outsiders, switching between sect-like and church-like styles of religion.

Sect-to-church theory describes the circumstance under which sects turn into churches. Among other factors, social upward mobility of sects is thought to provoke such a transformation. When improving their socioeconomic status (SES), sects are assumed to leave behind the key attribute that distinguishes them from churches: high tension with their social environment. Abandoning tension-related characteristics (e.g., faith-healing, exorcisms), they turn increasingly into churches (cf. Niebuhr 1929; Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Iannaccone 1994; Stark and Finke 2000). However, when reducing the tension with their social environment, sects may leave behind distinctive characteristics, weakening the satisfaction that members experience from their participation (Iannaccone 1994; Poloma 2005:59; Tracey 2012:92).

This study argues that religious organizations which experience upward social mobility may not necessarily abandon tension-related practices but selectively shield them. Drawing on the notion of impression management (cf. Goffman 1959; Elsbach, Sutton and Principe 1998; Bolino et al. 2008; Joosse 2012), the study suggests that selective shielding processes allow for the simultaneous withdrawal and maintenance of tension-related practices: specific sect-like practices are transferred to protected back regions, thereby shielding them from exposure to the social environment; whereas church-like styles of religion are performed on the more visible front regions. Accordingly, performing sect-like or church-like styles of religion does not only depend on the long-run change of the SES of the group, but on the extent to which religious practices are potentially visible for relevant outsiders at a given moment in time. The possibility of switching between sect-like and church-like styles of religion mitigates the need to abandon distinctive, tension-related characteristics. Highlighting the impression management of religious organizations that face pressure to adapt to their social environment, this article proposes to regard these as moving flexibly between different points on the sect-to-church axis, rather than being located on a specific position on this axis.

This contribution studies sect-to-church transitions among Pentecostal middle-class congregations (MCCs) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pentecostalism is perhaps globally the most widespread religious movement that falls into the sect category, while at the same time experiencing a growth in middle-class membership. Representing the fastest growing branch of Christianity in the 20th century, it has spread massively in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and, today, counts close to 600 million followers worldwide (Johnson 2013). Originally known as a lower-class movement that particularly attracted those most affected by the “pathogens of poverty” (Chesnut 1997:172), Pentecostalism is gaining momentum among middle classes (Martin 1995; Freston 1997; Stewart-Gambino and Wilson 1997; Martin 2002; Bastian 2008; Berger 2009; Hasu 2012).

The impact that growing middle-class membership is having on the shape of Pentecostalism, however, is not well-studied: while middle-class Pentecostalism is more researched in the context of U.S.A. and megachurches (cf. Ellingson 2009; Poloma 1989), in Latin America, where the movement is the most prominent religious option after Catholicism, there are few empirical insights about the characteristics of Pentecostal congregations with high middle-class appeal. Scholars studying Latin American Pentecostalism have raised divergent assumptions regarding its shape: while some suppose social adaption processes among MCCs (cf. Corten 1995; Schäfer 2009a), others expect them to be inclined towards neo-Pentecostalism (cf. Martin 2002:4; Robbins 2004:121–122; O'Neill 2010:10; Ihrke-Buchroth 2013).

The contribution of this article is two-fold: (1) on a theoretical level, it contributes to sect-to-church-theory by highlighting the impression management of religious organizations that face pressure to adapt to their social environment, and (2) empirically, it explores middle-class Pentecostalism in Argentina, examining assumptions about the development of middle-class Pentecostalism in Latin America.

The article is structured as follows: the first section discusses sect-to-church theory, while the second section summarizes the two main academic perspectives on middle-class Pentecostalism in Latin America. The third section describes the methods of the research and the fourth section portrays empirical results on middle-class Pentecostalism in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The last section discusses the results against the background of insights on middle-class Pentecostalism in Latin America and draws conclusions for sect-to-church theory. The article employs specific abbreviations for Pentecostal MCCs and middle-class Pentecostals (MCPs): while “MCCs” refers to Pentecostal congregations that are composed by a majority of middle-class members, “MCPs” stands for middle-class individuals adhering to the Pentecostal movement.

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https://academic.oup.com/socrel/article/78/3/318/3924339

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