by Charles H. Troutman
The relationship of evangelical Christianity to the middle classes of Latin America is a new field of study, although the same problem has been debated for several decades in the English and German speaking world.1 This is a relationship which some would call bondage.
The relationship of evangelical Christianity to the middle classes of Latin America is a new field of study, although the same problem has been debated for several decades in the English and German speaking world.1 This is a relationship which some would call bondage. There is no lack of objective, sociological study in tribal areas but we do not have the same clear understanding of middle class cultural presuppositions within which the eternal gospel is presented.2 Consequently this article cannot claim to be definitive. It has been composed from scraps of information, from the experience of men concerned with evangelism, and from any insights, intuitive or rational, which appear relevant.
Two events occurred during the latter half of 1969 which raised the question of the extent to which evangelical churches in Latin America are confined to the forms and limits of the middle classes. In July the first comprehensive survey of church growth in this part of the world was published, providing statistical evidence of tremendous growth in certain sectors of each country.3 In November the first Latin American Congress on Evangelism was held in Bogota, Colombia, at which 800 evangelical leaders met for ten days for fellowship and study.4 These two events produced common observation:
1. The striking advances of Latin American evangelical churches are among the Pentecostal-type groups and that largely among the lower classes.
2. The churches founded by the older denominational boards and independent missionary societies (both of which are called "missionary society oriented churches" in this article) show little if any growth over the past eight years in comparison with adventist and Pentecostal groups.
3. Most of the missionary society oriented churches were founded as, or have become, churches of the middle classes and it is suggested that their stagnation is due largely to their confinement within the attitudes of this class.
The correlation between Pentecostalism and the lower classes is neither automatic nor direct. There are other factors to be considered. Not all lower class groups are receptive to the Pentecostal approach, nor are all charismatics within their fold. In Brazil both urban and rural mobility played a decisive part in this growth.5 In northwest Colombia the Pentecostals appear to be most effective in urban areas and in a missionary society oriented church in the rural sectors, both groups being charismatic. Nevertheless, the general statement that Pentecostalism is "the refuge of the masses" is accurate.6
At the risk of oversimplification, the above observations present the current evangelical situation in Latin America and pose serious and urgent questions demanding some resolution by church and missionary leaders. At first glance the problem appears to be:
How can missionary society oriented churches in Latin America move out of the boundaries of their middle class sub-culture, not only for the sake of their own health and growth, but for the sake of the gospel?
When we realize that these churches are usually simple carbon copies of the sending churches in North America, it is not surprising that even a casual Sunday visitor can detect the resemblance between Mennonite, Southern Baptist and Episcopal churches in Latin America and their counterparts in the U.S.A. In the light of this, the question must be rephrased:
How can North American-based missionary societies break their unconscious bondage to their own backgrounds, whether it be lower, middle or upper class, in order that the gospel may be freed from sociological encumbrances to become a vital force in Latin America? How can biblical Christianity move beyond its middle-class image and be presented for what it is, the everlasting gospel, without class confinement?
The problem, then, does not lie so much in the churches and congregations of Latin America, but with missionary societies and their members, with us. We are not dealing with someone else’s problem.
A. Biblical Imperative
Much contemporary theological discussion claims that salvation lies somehow in the restructuring of political, social and economic systems, to the neglect and at times the denial of the spiritual dimension. Since any discussion of the problems of Latin believers must consider the whole of their lives, we find a considerable overlapping of concern on the part of conservative evangelicals and representatives of this new theology. Precisely for this reason, biblically oriented missions must be certain of God’s revelation regarding the nature and function of the church in the world. Perhaps the finest recent statement of this matter was given by Osvaldo Mottesi during an evening message at the Bogota Congress of Evangelism. He came to the heart of the subject without encumbering it with twenty centuries of church history. It was a powerful "Thus with the Lord." He then made a forceful application of eternal truth to the present situation. His five points are summarized as follows:
A renewed Church is incarnate in the world, not as a fortress or a convent, but as a people without walls; it is a servant of the world, not a society of experts, but of slaves; it is united before the world and in the midst of organizational diversity lives in a unity of purpose, faith and fellowship; it is crucified before the world, not seeking its own advantage, but living sacrificially; and is resurrected before the world to bring forth a new quality of life, telling depressed slaves of a ranscendent life.7
At the same Bogota Congress a few days later, Samuel Escobar spoke clearly on "The Social Responsibility of the Church". He summarized his message as follows:
Historically, the neglect by evangelicals to study and comprehend the social responsibility of the church is explainable, but not justifiable. In order to fulfill the social responsibility of the church, it is neither necessary to abandon evangelism nor adopt a liberal or non-evangelical theology. The process of evangelism takes place in concrete human situations. The social structures have an influence upon the church and upon those who receive the gospel.
Evangelicals must find the incarnational form of their faith in Latin America, relating their message and its application to this. Lacking this incarnation, the gospel becomes an ideology of the middle class that does not appeal to vast sectors of Latin America, nor does it communicate anything to them. The orientation of the whole of life as a vocation of service is an imperative that flows from faith and new life in Christ, and obedience to Christ ought to drive us to explore the many opportunities for service in Latin America. It is not the role of the church to adopt a political program. Nevertheless, the believers’ testimony of service has definite political and sociological dimensions. Society is more than the sum of individuals. The most urgent social changes in Latin America will come about through the change of individuals and structures. Evangelicals are not hoping to build the Kingdom of God on earth nor to "Christianize" society. Their hope is eschatological, but their service and testimony are the sign of this hope and of the Lordship of Christ in their lives. Evangelicals respect the state and the structures within which they live, but they do not fear change or link the destiny of the church to the stability of existing political and social forms.8
These two very different messages combined to present the biblical ideal for society. Though its achievement cannot be realized apart from Christ’s personal return, we do have some understanding of the mind of God for his people in this present world. God’s ideal society combines individuality and diversity with community and cooperation in a transformed mankind. We see only the beginning of this process now but enough to know the direction in which God is moving.
The purpose of God is not fulfilled through class values per se: the claim to superiority of the upper classes, the spiritual contribution of a clerical hierarchy, the ethical values of a middle class, the simplicity of the lower classes or the brilliance of the intellectuals. The purpose of God is worked out in transformed lives in every class.
The Scriptures are trying to say to us who naturally and unconsciously formulate its message in the language of our own class, that the church of the living God is infinitely more than the criteria which we use in our evaluations. It is more than growth, although it grows; more than activity, giving, teaching or evangelism, although it will be characterized by all these. No single one or all of the many ranges of our sociological classes will ever completely exemplify or exhaust the meaning of his church. This does not necessarily imply a classless church, but the Bible is clear that its message applies to men of every class both in judgment and in promise. The church transcends all subcultures but must be operative in each.
B. Church History
Church history gives us additional insights into the problem of the entanglement of the gospel within the confines of a single class. No matter how we interpret the three-year ministry of our Lord, the records and his own words show that he worked among the downtrodden, the captives, the hungry, diseased and oppressed. He was, nevertheless, open to everyone, rulers, scribes, Pharisees and occupation forces. The great summary of the gospel came from a conversation with a ruler, and the highest example of faith from an army officer. Even though social strata in first century Palestine were not classified in twentieth century terms, we must not forget as we consider our own societies that our Lord’s ministry was almost exclusively with the lower classes. This observation is most pertinent in Latin America where the policy of the Roman Church has been to concentrate on the social and economic elite in order to provide an environment in which common people may be Christian. The same attitude is true in the extreme Protestant left, which places the hope of redemption in a political elite.
Recent studies of the sociology of Christian groups in Asia Minor and Greece in the first century indicate a different pattern of ministry.9 Paul, for instance, began at the synagogue and then moved quickly to reach the patrons of the large, extended households. Once the patron or his wife believed, it was automatic that there would be a church in their household whose members would soon come from the whole range of the household – the upper class on whose property they met, artisans, household help, students; bureaucrats, teachers, farmers, peddlers and slaves. It included a host of followers who came under the patronage of the great one. Class gradations as we know them did not exist, only these great patronal households. In some of these there were thousands of persons, but the average number at the time of Christ appears to have been around 400. These heterogeneous groups were held together by strong interdependent bonds of mutual responsibility which transcended what we now know as class loyalty or identity.
The church in Jerusalem included many levels of society. James’ admonition against preferential treatment of the wealthy was necessary because both rich and poor were attending the same church. Today a wealthy church is embarrassed if a beggar enters; or a poor church when well-dressed people appear.
Medieval society was feudal in its structure, which provided an intricate web of dependent inter-relationships from the lord of the manor to the serf. The lord and serf knelt at the same communion rail and received the wafer from the same plate, even though after the service one went to the mansion and the other to his hovel. Modern problems rising from a class structure were not important for the church because of the strong interdependency of all parties. Not until the Renaissance began to erode this feudal pattern did private chapels for the nobility appear.
The Industrial Revolution initiated what are now known as the various social classes. As a consequence, each class level tends to build its own subculture in which it lives in relative isolation from others; and the chief personal relationships are now reduced to an economic level-the giving and receiving of wages. This process of fragmentation is seen in Latin America not only in the break-up of the old haciendas into something like an industrial economy, but in the gulf that exists between men who work with their hands and those who wear neckties and coats. A consequence of the modern class structure, especially as it affects the work of the gospel, is that communication becomes increasingly difficult across subcultural lines within the same general culture. And the population explosion is only aggravating the confusion. For many years missionary societies have recognized differences among various nations and have adjusted their work accordingly, even among those which spoke the same language. These differences between national states on the horizontal level are easily recognizable. But it is more difficult to recognize the vertical stratification which is growing up within each country producing greater differences than now exist between national states, and with less internal communication. Sociological studies indicate something of this trend and its implication for evangelism is obvious.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the church has accommodated itself to this growing class structure in several ways:
1. In countries with an established church, whether Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican, certain parish churches have become known as "fashionable churches." This has provided a convenient de facto segregation on the religious level that corresponds to the social conditions of the country. In smaller places, a similar arrangement is obtained by holding services at different hours, it being understood that the earlier the hour, the lower the class. Yet in more than a superficial sense, society here has been homogeneous. It is a Catholic culture. The Roman Church has created a bond of solidarity among peones and capitalists, prostitutes and family planners, teachers and illiterates, who, despite the concession to class snobbery, all consider themselves "good Catholics."10
2. In countries without an established church, this same concession to class consciousness has usually been accomplished through the founding of new denominations. Richard Niebuhr has documented the story in the United States showing the descending average income and social prestige ranging from Episcopalians to the new ghetto sects.11 From an historical perspective, it may be said that this differentiation is the way the Holy Spirit is making up for human pride in the present age. But as a rationale for setting mission policy, strata churches in themselves are both nonbiblical and self-defeating.
3. In areas of religious openness such as North America, there is another factor which is relevant to the situation in Latin America. This is an almost inevitable social and economic upward mobility of lower-class believers. This may be due in part to a new way of life which avoids excessive expenditures on such things as alcohol or tobacco, and develops new patterns of work. But more important is a new motivation toward achievement tied in very closely with the idea of service. For instance, in colonial America the Baptists were found among the lower classes. In the nineteenth century the Methodists and Baptists were the churches of the frontier. Today neither church is considered lower class and the Pentecostal types and urban sects have taken their place. And now only sixty years after the founding of the first Pentecostal church, many of its branches have developed their own colleges. Such strong upward motivation seems to be an accompaniment of the gospel, but studies have yet to be made to disentangle the spiritual factors from the human and sociological.
In conclusion, it appears that one of the irreversible characteristics of present-day society is its stratification. This is true of every country in the world, whether highly-developed or emerging. The limits of each level and its characteristics are not the same from country to country, but the established fact to which evangelicals must give serious attention is that classes are here to stay. Modern technological society makes this so. Marx and Engles were the first to recognize this fact, to criticize and offer a solution in communism.12 Yet even in so-called classless societies, inherent pressures force society into classes. Even Russia is developing its own categories: bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, peasants.13
This irreversible trend, then, demands a greater diversity within evangelical missions than has ever been known. It requires an understanding of sociology which few North American missionaries possess, as well as training in the techniques of investigation necessary to enter new areas of work. It will also require personal dedication to particular strata within each country. These are the least of the requirements if missions are to undertake the work of the whole gospel for the whole range of society and at the same time encourage the vitality and unity of the Body of Christ.
II. THE MIDDLE CLASSES
A. The Middle Classes of North America
Since so many missionary society oriented churches in Latin America are composed of believers who have reached middle status or are striving to do so, it is necessary to be clear about the characteristics of this group. The original concept of a bourgeois or middle class was popularized by Marx, and since it represented a considerable social reality it has been a convenient term ever since. The picture of this middle class, as found in Das Kapital (1848) seems distorted to a North American who sees his own middle class as the dominant force in his social, political and economic life. He thinks in terms of the men and women whom he can find anywhere in the country, the typical American. One writer has described this large, dominant group as follows: "has strong traits of generosity, mixed with occasional fits of parochialism, peacefulness with strong fits of belligerence, tolerance with strange prejudices and friendliness tinged with suspicion."14
Who cannot see in this short quotation a dozen settings for missionary-national conflict! In the absence of a single definitive statement15 the following characteristics of middle class North America described by a number of sociologists in both Americas point to general agreement:
1. Individualism, referring to the ruggedness of those men who pioneered the wilderness, commerce or industry, making a virtue of standing on one’s own feet.
2. Thrift, as a necessary prelude to the building up of capital which in itself is good to use.
3. Time as money, a consciousness that time is a valuable commodity which must not be wasted and put to the best use possible.
4. Progress, seen as an inevitable trend whose promotion is always good and becomes a moral obligation.
5. Good citizenship, considered the basis and bulwark of all that is good in society, with membership in the middle class considered a virtue in itself.
6. Democracy, considered not only the perfect government, but an attitude and a technique which applies to all areas of life as the one great solution. The problem of the world is that it is not democratic enough.
7. Acquisition, the attitude that consumption of all that society offers is an important goal of life which is both necessary and right for advancement.
8. Participation, the necessity of putting down roots in a place, of being homeowners with club activities and leadership in the community.
9. Manual labor, something that is valuable not only for production purposes but is an honorable occupation and somehow good for the soul.
10. Organization. Since society requires form and order, it is necessary to formulate plans, think ahead and make such long-range calculations as are needed for maximum development.
The above list of middle-class characteristics is far from complete but it serves as a point for common understanding. We recognize this class and ourselves in it. Our purpose will be served if we see that these characteristics and the infinite possibilities of their combinations represent the general categories of thought, conduct and attitude of the large majority of evangelical missionaries who have come to Latin America. This list of "virtues" represents their unexamined and unconscious mold which they impose on the churches they found.
B. The Middle Sectors of Latin America
It is a common mistake to think of the so-called middle class of Latin America as being identical with the middle class of North America or Europe in its attitudes and aspirations. This Latin middle sector includes 15 percent of the population set between the 80 percent of the lower classes and the upper class 5 percent.
"The new middle mass in Latin America is different in ways that may persist for a long time. The frontier with its individualistic ideals has persistently colored the ideals in North America. In Latin America, feudalism, with its emotional dependence of little men on their patrons and strong personal bonds among persons of rigidly marked class differences, will likewise persist. Mr. Gillan (in one of the papers of the book Ed.) lists nine dominant values which will be more or less carried over into middle-class life no matter how much shift there may be to urban living and wage economies. They do not sound like the values of an average North American. The Latin American cares more than the North American for personal dignity, for family cohesion and social hierarchy, perhaps even more for tangible possessions, although materialism is a trait in both cultures. The other five values which are stronger in our southern neighbors than in ourselves are shown in an interest in spiritual experience and emotional expression, a tendency to fatalism, a strong sense of propriety or decency in mode of life, and a scorn for manual labor."16
It may be that a description of the middle sectors of the great metropolitan centers, such as Buenos Aires or Mexico City, approximate the middle class of North America, but for the rest of Latin America, the differences are significant. It is no longer believed that these differences are due simply to a different degree of development so that, given enough time, the classes will be identical. History has given the European and North American middle classes a distinctively different background. They have had sufficient time to develop a discernible subculture of their own and have followed a progressive line of development from the Renaissance through the Puritans to our own time. In addition they have found themselves, for reasons outside of themselves, profoundly influenced, even captivated, by the Reformation and subsequent revivals which have determined their attitudes toward man, society and destiny in a way that gives these classes a partial Christian ethos. And finally, there has also been time for these Christian attitudes to become secularized and distorted, sometimes beyond recognition. It is this emasculated version of Christian virtues we face today.
A striking feature of recent sociological research has been to destroy the myth that the middle class is the source of change and progress in every society. Until recently it was assumed that solutions to problems in Latin America lay in developing a middle class which would be eager and competent to solve the problems facing each country. There had been enough historical evidence from Europe and North America to justify a similar projection for Latin America, and this in turn formed the basis of U.S. government policy and missionary strategy. It seemed self-evident.
But this myth is no longer believed. Samuel Escobar, at the Bogota Congress, referred to Victor Alba and his Mexican studies.17 The death of the myth is seen in the U.S.A. It is world-wide. For example, the long tradition of liberal politics in the Australian Labor Party has been broken by reactionary policies. Industrial unions in the U.S.A., long the backbone of progressive politics, are now resisting racial equality. Churches, once the leaders in social reform, are now balking in many places in the face of the requirements of urban renewal. It would appear that in the coming generation, at least, the middle classes in both Americas will become the bulwark against change. For Latin America this will have serious consequences because the status quo is so desperately in need of change.
Yet there is a very human element here. Men and women who by strenuous effort and considerable cost have been able to rise above the ignorance and poverty which surrounded them are understandably reluctant to jeopardize their achievement by change. They have accomplished something good for themselves and, they believe, for society, and are prepared to defy those who would threaten the means of their success. Somehow the gospel concept of the virtuous ones dying to live and sacrificing to grow needs to be intelligently brought to bear on this difficulty.
Any study of this type needs to be cautious about oversimplification in social classification. So far we have spoken largely in terms of the upper, middle and lower classes. Yet in actual fact, it is necessary to be more exact, especially when policy and program are considered by mission leadership. As Willems showed in his study of the Pentecostals in Brazil and Chile, only certain segments of the lower classes responded to the gospel.18
Or as Eagley has suggested, there are nine basic types of subcultures in Latin America, only two of which can be called middle class.19 Latin American society is exceedingly complex, and must not be simplified for our personal convenience.
C. Implications of the Middle Classes and Middle Sectors
Because missionaries and sociologists, until very recently, have assumed that the North American definition of the middle class was accurate for Latin countries, it is necessary in concluding this section, to summarize the implications of these differences:
1. We need to identify clearly the values which we have brought along with us as our cultural baggage, which we in turn have transferred to the missionary society oriented churches. At the same time we must recognize the values of the middle sector into which the believers are moving.
2. Since some characteristics of every sociological class resemble Christian virtues, we need to be certain that our thinking is biblically oriented. Is the dignity of work to be scuttled in favor of an aristocratic concept? Is thrift to be discouraged in favor of free spending? Is the upward mobility to be proclaimed sinful? These are not easy characteristics to handle, for thrift easily degenerates into greed, as upward progress may turn to pride. Christian virtues are classless and apply equally to all members of all classes.
3. Since the middle classes are no longer at the cutting edge of change, we need to think in other directions if spiritual revival is to come or a more equitable brand of justice established. The term "revival" is used as Martin Marty uses it in his introduction to a recent biography of D.L. Moody, "In its prime . . . revivalism represented threats or promises to community comparable to those effected in a later day by Black Power, the New Left, the forces of urban backlash."20
4. Since the greatest evangelical church growth is among the Pentecostal types in the lower classes, it is easily assumed that this is the truly indigenous church of Latin America. There may be some truth in this observation if it is meant in an organizational or cultic sense and not in reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet these churches and sects are indigenous only in the sense of an acceptance greater than that of missionary society oriented churches. The influence of North American and Swedish missionaries has frequently been decisive in the Pentecostal churches and the imposition of foreign patterns considerable.21 About all that can be claimed accurately is that these churches are more acceptable among certain groups of the vast number of lower class citizens than they are to the middle class and certainly to the upper classes. (To be continued)
1. Cf. Richard Niebuhr’s sociological studies on American denominations. Niebuhr, H.R., The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Henry Holt &. Co. New York, 1929.
2. One such study is by C.L. D’Epinay, entitled El Refugio de las Masas, Editorial de las Pacificas, Santiago, Chile, 1968.
3. Reed W.R., Monterroso, V., Johnson, H.A., Latin American Church Growth, Eerdmans Grand Rapids, 1969.
4. Congress report to be published in 1970 by Editorial Caribe.
5. Willems E. Followers of the New Faith, Vanderbilt U. Press, Nashville, 1967.
6. C.L. D’Epinay, op. cit.
7. Congress report, op. cit.
9. E..A. Judge, The Social Patterns of the Christian Groups in the First Century (London: Tyndale Press, 1960).
10. C. Wagley, The Latin American Tradition (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1968).
11. Niebuhr, op. cit.
12. K. Marx and F. Engles, Capital, various editions.
13. Time magazine, Dec. 19, 1969, p. 27, "An Apocalyptic View of Russia’s Future."
14. Lyman Bryson, "Introduction," Social Change in Latin America Today (New York: Vintage Books, 1960).
15. Secretaria de la CEPAL, El Desarrollo Social de Amence en la Postguerra Buenos Aires: Solar/Hachette, 1966).
16. J. Maier and R. W. Weatherhead, eds., Politics of Change in Latin America (New Tork: F.A. Praeger, 1964).
17. Victor Alba, Parasitos, Mitos y Sordomudos Mexico: CEDS 1964).
18. Willems, op. cit.
19. Wagley, op. cit.
20. Alba, op. cit.
21. Willems, op. cit.
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