The Good, the Bad and the Underreported

You know you’re a journalism geek when good reporting excites you.

Such was my experience upon reading Sonia Paul’s most recent post for the New York Times’ India Ink blog. I’ve been working with students in Diane Winston’s J585 reporting seminar on issues related to Indian Muslims and the country’s upcoming national elections. Some of the questions in the back of my mind: apart from Salman Khan, is there Muslim support for Narendra Modi and his conservative Bharatiya Janata Party—the primary political expression of Hindu nationalism? If so, what interests motivate those supporters? Does a given community’s collusion with or opposition to BJP’s agenda reflect sectarian tensions within Indian Islam? How do regional politics and class differences figure into the equation?

Paul touches on each of these issues, and she even throws a wry commentator into the mix: Last week, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which Paul describes as “the ideological parent group” of the BJP, arranged a meeting with several dozen prominent Muslims in Lucknow. “’It’s as if the Ku Klux Klan decided to have an interaction with the blacks,’ said Mohammad Rashid, 49, a Sunni activist and writer.”

On the other end of the spectrum is a Reuters piece on megachurches in East Asia. Excited by it I was not. The three focal points of the article—outsized congregations, intimations of clerical corruption and the venal spirituality of the prosperity gospel—are newsworthy only if you’ve not been following the news for the past decade or so. More to the point, the laziness of the reporting actually misleads. It’s true that Christianity is growing quickly in the developing world and Pentecostal movements are the vanguard of that growth, but megachurches are actually in decline, in large part because of the well-reported problems that are repackaged as news in this dispatch. (Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, for example, has lost as much as half its membership as a consequence of schism and restructuring over the past several years.)

The real story is the emergence of homegrown neo-Pentecostal movements in places like the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, China and Brazil. These latest iterations of charismatic Protestant Christianity are outpacing the growth of first-generation denominations like the Assemblies of God as well as second-generation megachurches like Yoido, City Harvest in Singapore and Believer’s Church in India.

And the story within the story: “Progressive Pentecostalism” in places like Indonesia, Nigeria and El Salvador is emerging as a corrective to the increasing formalism of first-generation movements and the insularity and venality of second-generation megachurches.

At this point, probing the finances of scandalized megachurch pastors is ground that has been trod into a rut. A better use of a plucky, globe-trotting reporter’s time might be to inquire whether Pentecostal progressives in, say, Lagos (where pastors have collaborated with Muslims on issues related to healthcare and education) or San Salvador (where evangelical NGOs network with the Socialist-led central government and the fractious Catholic hierarchy) might be willing to temper their country’s Christian animus toward LGBT rights.

The sympathies and sensibilities of leaders in these movements are oriented in that direction. But would their congregations follow them down such a path? Would the political and religious coalitions that are distinct to progressive Pentecostalism collapse, or would the controversy clarify true alliances? These are the sorts of questions a reporter in the mold of Sonia Paul might ask about global Pentecostalism.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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