by Samuel Escobar
In this article I am going to focus on the situation of the evangelical churches.
On October 6, 2002 more than four million people voted for Rosinha Garotinho as governor of the Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil. She is a well known Presbyterian journalist, and was preceded in the governor’s seat by Benedita de Silva, a popular Afro-Brazilian leader from the Assemblies of God (Nuevo Siglo 2002). These evangelical women, enjoying success in politics as members of socialist parties, are symbols of a departure from the traditional stereotypes about evangelicals in Latin America. Their stories show not only the reformation of machismo (male chauvinism) in Latin American life, to which evangelicals are making a significant contribution, but also the new challenges that both historical Protestants as well as Pentecostals are facing as their churches grow numerically.
In this article I am going to focus on the situation of the evangelical churches. The term evangelical describes well the ethos of the majority of Protestant churches in Latin America. This includes the “historical churches” which came from North America and Europe in the nineteenth century, the free churches that resulted from the faith missions and the classic Pentecostal churches that were the result of missionary action or local revivals. The dominant religious force is still the Catholic church which has experienced significant changes in recent years but continues to decline in numbers and influence in spite of the visible efforts of the Vatican and the local hierarchies to regain political influence and control public education. There is also a new emerging religious force that could be described as para-evangelical. Its origins are among Charismatic Catholics disaffected with Rome, independent missions from some USA mega-churches and groups that split from evangelical churches. Some of these are connected to the so-called Neo-Apostolic movement championed by Peter Wagner and others in the United States. These para-evangelical churches initially seek legitimization by connecting to evangelicalism. However, numerical growth, disregard for theological definition, their ability to develop forms of church life relevant to the postmodern culture and their claim to originality, may turn them into a new religious force different from both evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
American media, secular and religious, keep reminding us that during the more recent decades in Latin America there has been notable numerical growth of evangelical churches, especially those of a Pentecostal type. Much has been written about “spectacular growth.” The most recent edition of Operation World—usually well informed—gives the figure of 55 million evangelicals in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it qualifies other more optimistic estimates that may result from “largely exuberant Pentecostal over-reporting” (Johnstone 2001, 33-34). More detailed and careful analysis shows steady growth in places such as Colombia where evangelicals were 85,000 in 1968 (0.43 percent of the nineteen million population) and in the year 2000 they were close to two million (five percent of a 38 million population). With the growing attention paid by sociologists and Roman Catholic hierarchies to this phenomenon, there is also a good amount of qualitative analysis of growth which gives ground for reflection. Take for instance the case of Chile, where Protestantism has been present for more than a century. A recent sociological study by the Catholic University concludes that 13.9 percent of the population of that country is evangelical. Research among the upper classes shows that while only 6.2 percent claim to be Protestant, 81.9 percent claim to be Roman Catholic. In the same study, among the poorer sections of the population, twenty-one percent claims to be evangelical (ALC 2001). The study also pays attention to the fact that, while the average Catholic priest has gone through a minimum of ten years of rigorous formation, many of the evangelical pastors are self-taught.
A more disturbing fact uncovered by missiological studies is that in some countries there are signs of decline and defection. Careful field research has provided data showing that a number of people from evangelical churches are returning to the Catholic church or leaving Christianity entirely. The most disturbing of such studies was conducted by Jorge Gómez in Costa Rica, and it provides a factual account of these trends. His research was completed during 1994 and makes use of other rigorous sociological samples of studies carried on between 1989 and 1991. Summarizing his study, Gómez concludes that “From the almost twenty percent of the population that in some moment of their lives have been or are Protestant, only ten percent were Protestant at the time of the study” (Gomez 1996, 133). Defection has been higher than pastors and denominational leaders ever thought it would be. The groups in which defection is more frequent are young adults (eighteen to twenty-four years of age), men, persons born in Protestant homes and new believers (within the first or second year of their affiliation). There is a direct relationship between intentional discipleship process and retention of members. The churches that have lost more members are those that have no clear plan of discipleship and pastoral care. Among the top reasons for defection are the inability of defectors to live up to the standards required by the churches and the financial and sexual scandals among pastors and leaders.
In view of steady numerical growth the training of leadership becomes one of the most urgent tasks. Theological education by extension was one of the creative ways in which missionaries from the 1960s responded to this challenge. It was an alternative to more traditional forms of theological education and leadership training. There are denominational and interdenominational seminaries and Bible schools that have been in existence for almost a century and continue to offer valuable formation for pastors, missionaries and leaders. Side by side with them there are para-church organizations such as the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Youth for Christ, Scripture Union and Youth With a Mission that have made a special contribution in the formation of lay leaders as well as in the discovery of ministerial vocations for others.
In the past, evangelical theological institutions were accredited by churches and denominations but not by educational authorities in Latin American countries. It was partly a condition related to the status of a minority subject to discrimination by Catholic confessional states. On this point, Puerto Rico was an exception in the Spanish-speaking world. More recently there has been a consistent trend to raise the educational level of theological institutions in order to make them compatible with the requirements of educational authorities. A measure of pluralism and social acceptance in relatively secularized societies accounts for this search for social recognition. The Biblical Seminary of Costa Rica, known for its emphasis on liberation theology, has become the Biblical University of Costa Rica, and the more conservative Medellín Bible College in Colombia has also become a university level institution, having both received accreditation from the educational authorities of their countries. Several denominational seminaries across the continent are now searching for the same kind of status. Meanwhile para-evangelical mega-churches are creating their own Bible schools with strong Charismatic content.
Some denominations have responded in creative ways to the demands of leadership formation at an advanced level. The Assemblies of God mounted an extension non-residential program with several sites in Latin America which is accredited by their seminary in Springfield, Missouri. The Christian and Missionary Alliance has developed a non-residential advanced masters level program accredited by an evangelical university in Costa Rica. There are several other cooperative efforts to channel missionary funds and personnel partnering with Latin American churches, in response to the critical demands of leadership training. In contrast, it is hard to understand why the International Board of Southern Baptists has decided to drop the significant involvement they had in theological education in Latin America, bypassing partnership with Latin American Baptist churches, in order to focus their effort on church planting among so-called unreached peoples.
I am of the conviction that help in the area of leadership formation is more necessary than ever because patterns of leadership are in crisis. Institutional weakness is characteristic of evangelicalism in Latin America and cultural change, as well as the economic crisis, puts to the test continuity of institutional life. While some of the older denominations have an institutional structure that has provided for leadership continuity and generational change, some of the new denominations are confronting crisis in this regard. Leaders from the Christian and Missionary Alliance, one of the non-Pentecostal churches that experienced significant growth in Peru, have told me that they are considering the adoption of an Episcopal form of denominational structure and church polity. The Charismatic mega-churches propose an authoritarian pastoral model that seems to be contextual and connects well with the clerical authoritarian pattern that is deeply entrenched in the Catholic culture. Sexual and financial scandals in some mega-churches that have reached the popular media in countries like Argentina and Peru, have demonstrated the dangers of an authoritarian pattern of leadership without checks and balances as well as clear lines of accountability. Unfortunately in my trips through Latin America I talk with many pastors of different denominations that are tempted to follow this pattern, yielding to propaganda that says this is the only way to have numerical church growth and financial success.
Institutional weakness has also affected the structures of interdenominational cooperation. The conservative alliance known as CONELA, related to the World Evangelical Fellowship, seems to be permanently at the point of extinction. The ecumenical alliance known as CLAI has kept a more definite institutional presence, especially through its media services. The Latin American and Caribbean News Agency (ALC) provides an excellent internet news service that covers the whole of Latin America. Its monthly Nuevo Siglo is almost the only printed publication that offers a measure of visibility for evangelicals as a whole. Another successful publication that is geared to provide theological and pastoral help to leaders is Apuntes Pastorales, an independent evangelical quarterly published by Desarrollo Cristiano. It is in its nineteenth year of continued publication and has a circulation of thirty thousand copies across the Americas, quite an accomplishment for a dispersed and volatile market.
CHURCHES AND POLITICS
Numerical growth as well as the social turmoil of the late 1960s raised expectations about what was going to be the social and political impact of the evangelical presence in Latin America. Undeniably there has been a significant social impact in at least three forms.1 First, within the worsening social conditions whose victims are especially children, youth and those affected by terrorism and political violence, evangelical churches and missions have demonstrated an exceptional ability to mobilize resources and volunteers and to create networks to assist those in need. For instance, the “Viva network,” an initiative of the Latin America Mission, has managed to connect a good number of agencies and persons that work with children at risk across the continent. Second, church growth among indigenous populations has proved to have a redemptive social effect raising living standards and self-reliance. Anthropological and sociological work from non-partisan scientists has demonstrated this in countries such as Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Third, Pentecostal growth among the urban poor has had the same redemptive effect, though on a less visible scale, which is more difficult to measure. In any case, it has helped the urban poor in their survival strategies for “coping with poverty.”2
One would expect a logical progression from social transformation to political action, but, after three decades of evangelical presence in Latin American politics, there are serious doubts and disappointments, even to the point of embarrassment. There are scholars, such as Paul Freston from Brazil, who have been following the subject and are gathering factual information about it, working with a team in different parts of Latin America. There is a wide spectrum of experiences within two discernible patterns. In places such as Guatemala, Charismatic Evangelicals achieved positions of power, as in the cases of Efrain Rios Montt after a military coup and Jorge Serrano Elías as a result of an election. Rios Montt had difficulties continuing his political career because of the accusations of genocide among the indigenous groups during military operations against guerrillas. Serrano Elías resigned under pressure due to the seriousness and depth of the proved corruption of his regime. In the case of Peru where, under ousted president Fujimori, there were several evan-gelicals in Congress, one cannot point to any significant contribution from one of them to legislation or political life that would be consistent with the experience of evangelicals in that country. None of these leaders showed in their public life any of the typical characteristics of the social Protestant ethics. In the absence of basic convictions and ethical clarity these politicians from the evangelical camp seemed to be guided by expediency and personal interest just as any other politician would.
There is another trend that should not be overlooked. Members of traditional churches elected to political office, such as Methodist Jose Miguez Bonino in Argentina and Presbyterians Pedro Arana in Peru and Jaime Ortiz in Colombia made important contributions to the debate and legislation in their countries, shaped by their evangelical faith. As time goes on, inevitably more evangelicals will be elected to power in this new century. The cases of Rosinha Garotinho and Benedita da Silva have to be understood within the framework of Brazil which has the longest tradition of evangelical presence in political life. Latin American evangelical churches are thus challenged to provide pastoral care for their politicians. Theologians and pastors have the task of articulating contextual social and political Protestant ethics.
A glance at the large amount of publishing from evangelical authors in Spanish could be disappointing by the flood of popular devotional, self-help and Charismatic material translated from English. These books are put out by mass market publishers from the United States such as Editorial Vida, Betania and Unilit. Attentive observers will also find a growing theological production from Latin American authors, such as smaller publishers located in Latin America and associated in the Letra Viva consortium. One of the foci of theological work has been the Latin American Theological Fraternity that sponsors consultations and publications. Biblical scholarship has been one of their productive fields. Argentinian Esteban Voth and Ecuadorian Rene Padilla were the chairmen of a thirty-member team that completed a new translation of Scripture from its original languages following the standards of the NIV in 1999. A series of commentaries based on this new text is now under production. Since September 2000, Ediciones Kairos in Argentina has published more than twenty theological books produced in workshops during the Fourth Latin American Congress on Evangelism (Quito, September 2000) or presented originally as doctoral dissertations.
Because of the evangelistic thrust of the Latin American churches much theological reflection has focused on evangelism and mission as is the case with the books of Rene Padilla, Emilio A. Núñez, Pablo Deiros, Valdir Steuernagel and Mortimer Arias, who represent different approaches and generations within a common evangelical frame. The search for a biblical and theological basis for social and political action has been another subject of debate and research. The new generations are working in the history and interpretation of the Protestant presence and in the evangelical response to postmodernity, managerial missiology and prosperity theology.
A contextualized theology and contextual Christian education materials are long-term projects that require the commitment and dedication of adequately trained personnel. I have seen excellent materials that are signs of hope from three sources: the Mennonite program Semilla in Guatemala, American Baptist Missionary Ruth Mooney in Costa Rica and a Latin Link team in Peru. Unfortunately, much of what is used in many churches is poorly translated material from US authors, which in some cases is irrelevant even within the US.
CHANGES IN CATHOLOCISM
The future of evangelicals in Latin America cannot be detached from the course that the Roman Catholic Church will take in the continent. The Synod of the Americas (Rome, Nov.-Dec. 1997) brought together three hundred bishops and cardinals from Latin America, the US and Canada. The Vatican wants to see greater official coordination between north and south. They emphasised a “new evangelization,” acknowledging that “the church in the past had stressed sociological solutions to poverty whereas now the emphasis should be on conversion” (Reese 1998, 3). This new scheme means greater financial aid from north to south, and coordination of efforts to reach Hispanics in the US, who have been becoming Protestants at a rate that alarms Catholics.
The “Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation” that the Pope presented in Mexico on January 22, 1999 is known as Ecclesia in America, an official summary of the agenda of the church of Rome for the coming years. As is usual in official documents, a distinction is kept between the Protestant churches that participate in the ecumenical dialogue led from Geneva by the World Council of Churches, and the more dynamic evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are called “sects.” Ecclesia in America states: “The proselytizing activity of the sects and new religious groups in many parts of America is a grave hindrance to the work of evangelization” (Paul 1999). Though Catholics are encouraged to have ecumenical attitudes, “These attitudes, however, must not be such that they weaken the firm conviction that only in the Catholic Church is found the fullness of the means of salvation established by Jesus Christ” (Paul 1999).
The agenda in view of the advance of evangelicals demands “a thorough study, to be carried out in each nation and at the international level, to ascertain why many Catholics leave the church” (Paul 1999). A review of pastoral policies is required “so that each particular church can offer the faithful more personalized religious care, strengthen the structures of communion and mission, make the most of the evangelizing possibilities of a purified popular religiosity, and thus give new life to every Catholic’s faith in Jesus Christ” (Paul 1999). The review also includes a change of emphasis from the social to the spiritual. In a clear reference to a post-liberation theology stance, Ecclesia in America says, “it is necessary to ask whether a pastoral strategy directed almost exclusively to meeting people’s material needs has not in the end left their hunger for God unsatisfied, making them vulnerable to anything which claims to be of spiritual benefit” (Paul 1999).
What is evident now for any attentive observer is that in Latin America Catholic priests and lay people are imitating many of the pastoral and evangelistic methods that were created and developed by Protestants from the popular churches. Many Catholic television programs have the same structure as evangelical or Charismatic programs, popular evangelical hymns from the 1970s and 1980s have been included in Catholic song-books, and Bible study in small groups and meetings in homes with their time for testimony, biblical meditation, and prayer are now being used widely. In some cases the methods have been modified and adapted, but in other cases it has become hard to distinguish what is Catholic from what is evangelical.
Changes in Catholicism constitute a challenge to the identity and creativity of evangelicals. There are many aspects of the practical life of the churches in which lessons could be learned from what this Catholic awakening is creating. In my youth in Peru and Argentina, Catholic bookstores sold mostly religious objects while evangelical bookstores majored in solid Christian literature. Today Catholic bookstores have a lot more abundant and varied material than evangelical bookstores on Bible study, group dynamics, work with young people and adolescents, use of art for Christian education, videos on Christian and biblical themes, either produced originally in Spanish or translated. And these days many evangelical bookstores sell more religious objects than books.
Beyond questions of method, changes in Catholicism challenge evangelicals to revise and define what are the distinguishing features of their Protestant faith. If there is a church that successfully imitates evangelical methods, and promotes the reading and study of the Bible, and if evan-gelicals in politics do not act differently from nominal Catholics, why exactly should evangelicals keep existing as separate churches? From a different angle, a similar type of question and analysis is posed by the growth of the para-evangelical mega-churches. In some of them we see the sale of sacred objects such as blessed water and oil, the appointment of “apostles” with unlimited and unquestionable authority, and methods of fundraising in which givers are promised ten times what they give to their church. These practices are much closer to those of traditional popular Catholicism than to those of Reformation churches. Could this be the Latin American equivalent of what Donald E. Miller has called “reinventing American Protestantism” in his study of three American mega churches (1997)?
Mission beyond Latin America. Some Catholic missiologists have expressed their admiration for the evangelistic zeal of evangelicals which is absent from Catholic life and that they find difficult to foster. The same zeal and enthusiasm, for me an indication of spiritual vitality, is now demonstrated for participation in global mission. Since 1987 a measure of coordination of mission from Latin America to other parts of the world has been provided by COMIBAM, a net of agencies and individuals that was formed after a Missions congress held in São Paulo, Brazil.
Progress in evangelical missionary work from Latin America has been significant. It is estimated that in 1982 some ninety-two Protestant organizations were sending a total of 1,120 Latin Americans as missionaries to other parts of the world. By 1988 there were 150 organizations and some 3,026 missionaries (Pate 1989). The most recent figures indicate that there are 3,921 Latin American missionaries elsewhere in the world, sent by 284 organizations (Limpic 1997, 171). These figures compiled by scholars who study the issue are generally conservative estimates and do not include many spontaneous movements that are hard to document. Nor do they include migrants who on their own do missionary work elsewhere in the world though they are not related formally to established agencies.
Several denominations have been developing ways in which churches from the United States and Europe partner now with churches from Latin America for this new stage of global mission. Among the faith missions Latin Link has widened its original British base to include other European partners and their Latin American counterparts. The Latin America Mission based in Miami has a long experience fostering these new kinds of partnerships. Latin American evangelicals have now grown enough to become partners that one cannot afford to ignore when thinking of the future of Christian mission.
1. More information about this point is in chapter five of my book Changing Tides (Orbis 2002) and in Tetsunao Yamamori et.al. Serving With the Poor in Latin America (MARC, 1997).
2. Coping with Poverty is the title of a book by Brazilian sociologist Cecilia Mariz, a comparative study of how Pentecostals, Spiritists and Catholics from the Base Communities cope with poverty in Brazil’s urban scene (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).
Gomez, Jorge I. 1996. El creci-miento y la desercion en la iglesi evangelica costarricense. San Jose, Calif.: INDEF.
Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster.
Limpic, Tec. 1997. Catalogo de Organizaciones Misioneras Ibero-americanas. Miami, Fla.: Comibam-Unlit.
Miller, Donald E. 1997. Reinventing American Protestantism. Berkely, Calif.: University of California Press.
Pate, Larry. 1989. From Every People: A Handbook of Two-Thirds World Missions with Directory/Histories/Analysis. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.
Paul, John II. 1999. The Church in America. Ecclesia in America Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.
Reese, Thomas J. 1998. “The Synod Points Out Needs.” America. (Jan.)
2002. Nuevo Siglo. (Aug.). Quito, Ecuador: CLAI.
2001. ACL News Service. (Aug. 10).
Samuel Escobar and his wife Lilly are natives from Peru. Presently he serves as theological education consultant under International Ministries of American Baptist Churches in Spain. During the fall he teaches Missiology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Penn. His most recent books are Changing Tides (Orbis 2002) and A Time for Mission (Inter Varsity 2003). He is president of the United Bible Societies.
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