by Paul B. Hoff
According to the Jesuit-sponsored Bellarmino Center and the Chilean Department of Sociological Research, Protestantism has exploded in Chile. In 1970, the “evangelicos” (synonym for Protestants) comprised 5.1 percent of Chile’s people; in 1980, 7.5 percent, and in 1985, 9.6 percent.
According to the Jesuit-sponsored Bellarmino Center and the Chilean Department of Sociological Research, Protestantism has exploded in Chile. In 1970, the "evangelicos" (synonym for Protestants) comprised 5.1 percent of Chile’s people; in 1980, 7.5 percent, and in 1985, 9.6 percent.
According to the latest statistics supplied by La Communidad Teologica, an ecumenical seminary in Chile, Protestants number 1.5 million, or 11 percent of Chile’s 13 million people. I think the figure is closer to 1.1 million evangelicals in Chile today.
Some regions of Chile have a very high percentage of evangelicals. For example, Concepcion has about 16 percent, and in the poverty-ridden mining cities of Coronel, Lota, and Arauco, it is close to 28 percent.
About nine of every 10 evangelicals are Pentecostals. Significantly, almost all of them (97 percent) are in indigenous (nonmissions-related) churches. Although missions such as the Assemblies of God, Foursquare, and the Church of God have made modest gains, together their churches include no more than 35,000 people.
In contrast, the Pentecostal Methodist Church—the largest evangelical denomination in Chile—numbers close to 300,000. It has the largest Spanish evangelical temple in the world, the Jotabeche (Cathedral) Church, which seats 7,000 people. Close behind comes the Evangelical Pentecostal Church with 180 "mother" churches, 1,500 local branch churches, and about 200,000 members.
I want to examine what happens to an indigenous movement that develops largely isolated from other Christian bodies. Some of the things we see in Chile’s indigenous Pentecostalism are a result of typical Pentecostal and cultural factors, but others result from its being indigenous and insular. First, a bit of history.
The Chilean Pentecostal movement began with an "outpouring of the Holy Spirit" in a Methodist church in Valparaiso in 1909. Clergy and denominational officials took a dim view of the charismatic manifestations and promptly expelled the "enthusiasts." Although these believers lacked church buildings, they could not be silenced. They took to the streets, singing, testifying, and preaching. They met in homes for worship and all-night prayer meetings.
They soon formed congregations, and lay pastors emerged—strong, self-sacrificing, tireless workers, without formal training but with total dependence on the Holy Spirit. Dreams, special revelations, and prophecies played a conspicuous part in their decision making, and, along with their testimonies, comprised much of their preaching.
These powerful preachers, backed by their earnest followers, blanketed every nook and cranny of Chile. They concentrated on the poor. Like Ezekiel’s river, the indigenous revival widened until it flooded the land.
But this movement has mostly been cut off from other evangelical groups, both within and outside Chile. Consequently, it has conserved some of its original characteristics, developed its own traditions, and perpetuated some of its early weaknesses. What are the major characteristics of this isolated indigenous church?
1. Spontaneous, improvised, uninhibited worship. Indigenous Chilean Pentecostals worship spontaneously. Their worship is improvised and uninhibited. The people clap as they sing, encourage their preachers with loud "amens," pray together loudly, and some of them dance at the close of the service. Leaders tell the people to stand up, raise their hands, and shout three times, "Gloria a Dios" (Glory to God)!
The gifts commonly associated with Pentecostalism are rarely exercised, partly because the Chileans see speaking in tongues as only one of the many evidences of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, this phenomenon has largely disappeared. Some gifts have been misused because of the lack of teaching and so are generally discouraged. However, prophecies persist in some churches,but they are mostly personal.Healings are also declining.
2. Lay pastors. As noted above, when the movement began, inspired laymen took leadership. This led to a contempt for formal preparation. They could see their great success in evangelism compared to the more modest results obtained by trained clergy in other churches.
The idea that sermon preparation is unnecessary, that the preacher merely needs to open his mouth and the Lord will fill it, still prevails among many of these pastors. To them, Bible school is not only unnecessary, but also a detriment to the work of the Holy Spirit. In many such churches, no sermon is complete without a blistering attack against the world, the flesh, and the Bible school. Yet, to be fair, we must acknowledge that the lay pastors’ total dependence on God has been an important factor in their amazing growth.
Pastors gain leadership not only because they have some natural talent, but also because they work their way up through the ranks. For example, a pastor may start as the church doorkeeper, then lead a street-preaching group, then be put in charge of an annex. The final step is to serve on the local church board. Few men are ordained before age 40; the average age is about 55. Their formation consists largely of observing and imitating the pastors.
3. A dynamic witnessing community. Every Pentecostal is a street preacher. They pray and then spend time winning souls. Often you’ll see one of them standing alone in a public place, fearlessly proclaiming the gospel. More often, they go in groups and hold organized street services. They play their guitars, sing, and invite people to the church services.
In some ways, indigenous Chilean Pentecostalism closely approximates apostolic Christianity with its simple, uncluttered theology, unlimited faith, absolute dependence on God, emphasis on direct revelation, and total mobilization of its members for evangelism. However, is has some grave weaknesses that imperil its progress and threaten its future.
1. Lack of teaching. Lay pastors without formal training are seldom able to provide biblical teaching. This problem is intensified because the pastors’ knowledge of the Bible is limited to what they hear from the older men, who themselves have had no systematic teaching and know little about proper biblical interpretation. The slim knowledge of the original leaders has gradually deteriorated.
Further, dreams, visions, and personal revelations often are placed on a par with the Bible. Many sermons are simple exhortations and the biblical text is just a kick-off; the preacher utters whatever comes to mind and he believes it is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Although many of the churches have Sunday schools, they lack adequate literature. Usually, the class reads a Scripture portion in unison and then designates class members to expound the verses. Each one preaches on a verse, without reference to context or the train of thought in the passage. Children learn Bible verses and choruses. However, teachers make little or no effort to lead them to Christ.
2. Limited to the poor. While middle-class Chileans often admire the zeal, faith, and sincerity of the Pentecostals, they are repelled by the lack of preparation of their preachers. Once when I urged a school teacher, who was sympathetic to the gospel, to go to a nearby Pentecostal church, she replied, "I have already gone there. There was much rustling in the trees, but few nuts."
Street preaching has produced many bold witnesses, but has not strengthened believers for modern life. Parents complain that their college-age children are bored with the sermons and leave the church. When they get to college, few survive spiritually.
However, we must not minimize ministry to the economically crushed, poverty-stricken masses. Mario Pizarro, an educated Chilean layman, observes that the indigenous Pentecostal message offers analternative to the only other sources of comfort to the poor: wine and communism. The author of a book about the movement aptly entitled it"El refugio de las masas" (the refuge of the masses).
3. Fragmentation. One missionary aptly observed that the Chilean Pentecostals are like chalk that falls to the floor—they multiply by division. A government official reported that an average of two new denominations apply for corporate status each week.
Why such constant division? Tom Houston, head of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, has a theory about this: "Where there is a lack of serious study of God’s word, the believers tend to form personality cults."
Divisions are rarely over doctrine, but over leaders. When a strong pastor fails to make bishop, often he breaks away and starts his own denomination, carrying along a number of sympathetic pastors and their congregations with his.
4. Governing abuses. The pastor of a typical indigenous Chilean Pentecostal church has absolute authority. For example, any member wanting to miss a service has to get permission. Of course, some members fit well into this system, but others find it intolerable.
Outside evangelicals are turned off by what is seen as "bishop worship" at some annual conferences. Sometimes the lauding of bishops approaches idolatry. The people, however, accept the bishop’s words as direct revelations from God.
On the other hand, most of their bishops are humble, sincere servants of God, who are more concerned about his glory than their own. Glory-seeking bishops are the exception.
Although the "mother church" system is one of the secrets of the movement’s unusual growth, it lends itself to certain abuses if the pastor tends to be selfish. The mother church receives the tithes of the branch churches and its pastor has absolute power over their workers. He can appoint, transfer, or dismiss them at will. This system works well when the group is young, but it usually hinders development if the process is prolonged. Fledgling churches need their autonomy.
In Santiago, for example, the pastor of a large church refuses to give autonomy to some 50 satellite churches. He relegates their shepherds to "guides," takes their tithes for himself, and forces these unpaid preachers to bring their people to the central church once a month to fill the pews. Some of these satellite churches have 1,000 members and beautiful temples, but they are only recognized as "classes." Most of them have struggled for a long time to build their churches because their resources are drained by the pastor of the mother church.
5. Vulnerability. Lack of theological training in the church opens the door for false teaching and proselytizing by false cults. A few years ago, the Mormons reported making 1,500 converts a month and that their membership had passed 180,000 in Chile.
When Manuel Saez, a former president of the board of an indigenous Pentecostal church, later studied theology at the mission-sponsored Pentecostal Institute, he was amazed to learn that Jesus eternally existed with the Father. For 25 years he had held the Jehovah’s Witnesses version of Christ’s beginning. Other doctrinal aberrations, taken from the cults, occasionally surface.
Liberation Theology is penetrating some of the churches. Social help offered by SEPADE (Evangelical Service for Development), a branch of the World Council of Churches, is tempting to the poor churches. One church official asked, "Why should we live on crumbs when we can sit at the table (join the World Council) and eat abundant bread?" Pastors, ignorant of doctrine, tend to overlook the liberalism of the ecumenical seminary, La Communidad Teologica.
In many indigenous Pentecostal churches, there’s more emphasis on legalism than on holiness of heart and Christian ethics. Many pastors lay down strict rules about women’s clothing and make-up. Insome cases, pastors slip into the Galatian heresy of mixing works with grace as a means of salvation.
6. Perils ahead. After depending for years on street meetings to attract people to their churches, the Pentecostals are finding diminishing returns. In middle-class urbanareas, they are virtually useless. Ubaldo Montecinos, president of the Vitacura denomination, observes that few people are being won by street preaching. It’s not uncommon to see Pentecostals preaching to empty street corners. Yet, they continue to rely on this method and seem incapable of adapting to new circumstances, or even of knowing that changes are needed.
Another possible peril arises from both political and religious issues in Chile. The Pentecostals were often loud in their praises for former President Pinochet and his military government, and there are some fears that the new government could crack down on evangelicals. The political left has not forgotten the Pentecostals’ support of Pinochet.
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholics are smarting over the loss of 20 percent of their members between 1980 and 1985. Catholics do not necessarily leave because they want to join the evangelicals; many leave because they are tired of Catholic politics and the radical leftist priests. Bishop Pablo Lizama, writing in the communist magazine APSI (Feb. 23, 1986) complained about the government’s allowing the evangelicals to evangelize and have services among the armed forces. He was also angry because the evangelicals did not join the protests against the military regime.
The indigenous Pentecostal movement would be wiped out overnight if the government were to require every minister to have a diploma or title in theology, because only a few of their pastors would qualify. Government officials may be leaning this way because of their desire to lift the cultural level of the indigenous church.
What does the future hold for indigenous Chilean Pentecostals? There are some hopeful signs. For one, they are buying and reading more Christian books, which could help to overcome some of their doctrinal weaknesses. Also, some churches are trying new methods of evangelism. Pastors are learning about new methods from Christian books, at conferences, and from other churches. Some of their isolation is being broken down.
Bible training is beginning to find some acceptance. La Facultad Latinamericana de Estudios Teologicos (FLET), an interdenominational institute that offers Bible extension courses, has enrolled several hundred indigenous Pentecostals.
Perhaps the most significant hopeful sign is the opening of the Pentecostal Bible Institute of Chile. The Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Holiness International denominations have joined to provide a school exclusively for the indigenous revival movement.
The institute cannot be identified with any denomination, because Chilean Pentecostals have long shunned denominational institutes, even Pentecostal schools. They are afraid of losing their young people to the denominations that sponsor the school.
The Pentecostal Bible Institute has obtained two classroom buildings in Santiago and has opened 14 branch schools in the provinces. Pastors’ councils invite PBI to start study centers in their areas. The school now has 700 on-the-job, non-intern students, but the potential goes far beyond that. Although resistance to formal training is beginning to weaken, most pastors still ignore the need.
That’s why the indigenous Pentecostal movement in Chile is at the crossroads. These churches and pastors could go on as they have for the last 80 or so years, or they could accept change and get in step with the future.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 244-251. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.