Protestantism has enjoyed a spectacular growth in the last 30 years in Latin America. Even if it is the most Catholic continent in the world, it is no longer monolithically Catholic. “I believe that if Latin America is still following a Christian path, it is thanks to the evangelicals,” Miguel Ángel Pastorino, a Catholic theologian who specialises in new religions, told MercatorNet.
But growth is not coming from the established Protestant churches, such as the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. “Those 16th century Protestants have turned liberal; they accept, for example, abortion and gay marriage,” says Father Julio Elizaga, a Catholic priest who has been working in ecumenism in Uruguay and Latin America for 56 years. “That’s why their churches are empty. The Methodists used to have around 3,500 to 4,000 members in Uruguay. Now there are just 500”.
It is the Pentecostals who have zoomed ahead. They offer a more spiritual religion buttressed by traditional morality and a zeal for proselytising. “Traditional Protestantism is waning, together with the Catholic Church, because in a certain way they embraced modernity and its secular projects and rejected mysticism,”, says Pastorino. In only 100 years (2006 is being celebrated as the centennial of the event which kickstarted Pentecostalism in Los Angeles in 1906), it has had the fastest growth in Christian history. In 1900 there were only 25,000 evangelicals in all of Latin America. Now, in Argentina, there are said to be four million Pentecostals and in Brazil 25 million. In Brazil it is claimed that they represent 18 per cent of the population; in Chile 25 per cent; in Colombia 35 per cent; and in Guatemala 45 per cent. (Exact figures are hard to come by.)
According to Father Elizaga, “official figures show that in Latin America 11 per cent of the population is evangelical, most of them practising. Pentecostals don’t have two groups of mere believers and practising believers… Some people say that they are Catholic but never go to Mass. This doesn’t happen among the Pentecostals.”
At a Madrid conference last year, Pastorino described the Pentecostal growth: “They buy huge churches and media channels every year, and they multiply at a speed which is impossible to ignore. In Brazil alone the Evangelical-Pentecostal market is more than US$1 billion per year and it creates two million jobs.”
The secret of success
How did the Pentecostals seize the initiative? Pastorino argues that Catholics took their eyes off the ball. “In the 1960s part of the Catholic Church followed the ‘progressive’ ideas of the day. Even its language become more sociological; it sidelined mysticism and eschatology,” Pastorino said. It was also a time when, says Father Elizaga, more than 100 priests walked off the job in Uruguay. The door was open for the Pentecostals.
Progressive theologians had predicted that people would become less religious because of advances in science and technology, says Pastorino. But Pentecostalism showed that this was a myth. “These religions have thrived but not in traditional ways. If you look at the evangelical-pentecostal churches, they attract people with issues forgotten by traditional churches: divine salvation, liberation from demons, eternal life, and the second coming of Christ. I compare this situation with the Islam in Europe, which presents itself with a mystic simple doctrine: Allah and me and nobody else — four or five dogmas and that’s it. In a world governed by relativism, people have plunged into crisis. In a fractured world, where everything is uncertain, Islam and Pentecostalism give certainty to people who are thirsty for truth.”
Pentecostalism also opposes New Age tendencies and rejects religion a la carte. “This kind of things come from a culture in decline,” says Pastorino. “Pentecostal evangelism has arisen as a reaction to other religious phenomena, such as the syncretism of New Age, which is a market-oriented consumer religion, the religion I like. All these ideas are rejected by Pentecostalism, just as the secularised world and Christians beliefs have been by Islam.”
Another feature which contributes to the growth of Pentecostalism is modern marketing. They have TV and radio stations all over Latin America. They have built huge churches for thousands of people. They pack stadiums, have excellent bands and involve everyone in the singing and clapping. Their church services are fiestas with engaging titles like Stop Suffering, Love Therapy, Finance Night or Night of Prosperity. “There is a bit of showmanship,” says Father Elizaga. “People don’t go to church just to listen to the minister”.
Personal zeal is an important element in their success, as well. Ideally Pentecostal feel an urgent call to take Christ’s message everywhere — and mostly to lapsed Catholics and Protestants from mainstream denominations. On the other hand, they have notably failed to attract agnostics, atheists and New Age followers (who are numerous in countries like Brazil). Perhaps this is due to the fact that many Pentecostals distrust reason and dogma in the belief that faith alone is enough. Writing in the Catholic journal First Things, a Bolivian human rights lawyer, who is also a Pentecostal, once complained that his fellow believers sometimes seemed to throw rationality out along with secular rationalism.
… a Pentecostal missionary in Bolivia was surprised when I asked him why the curriculum for his new Ministerial Training Center did not include courses on church history. "We are training Christians to evangelise the people now," he declared. "We do not need to study church history." In the attack on rationalism, all intellectual endeavor has been abandoned together with the study of systematic theology and church history, placing even the Bible in a secondary role after "experiencing and being anointed by the Holy Spirit". In Latin American Pentecostal circles, it is common to hear such phrases as, "It doesn’t matter if you know the Bible well, the important thing is to be filled by the Holy Spirit, and be led by Him." Indiscriminate acceptance of extra-biblical "revelations" and prophecies is also common.
However, like most Protestant denominations, Pentecostals are a fractious lot and this hampers their growth in Latin America. “Pentecostal churches are divided; they have neither an authority nor an episcopate. This is their worst problem,” says Father Elizaga. “If they maintained a united front, they would be a devastating force,” he says.
The Catholic Church, of course, is well aware of the Pentecostal phenomenon. A key Vatican official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has said that ecumenism’s new target in Latin America is the Pentecostals. The Vatican is open to dialogue with them. “Pentecostalism is saying something good to those societies — and even to traditional churches — which, as Pope John Paul II used to say, haven’t known how to respond to people who are thirsty for God”, Pastorino says.
Pedro Dutour is a Uruguayan journalist from the newspaper El Observador in Montevideo: firstname.lastname@example.org