The Rise and Decline of the Evangelical Church in Latin America
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
By Nery Duarte and Paul Pretiz
This article was first written with the assistance of my friend, Paul Pretiz, who has recently passed away. Paul was a retired missionary who served in Latin America for over 60 years. The article was never fully completed because Paul and I were uncomfortable with our conclusions. We ended up dropping the project approximately 5 years ago when Paul started to have health issues and I needed to spent time with my family. I had suggested writing of this article to Paul because he was always interested in the churches of Latin America. He had ministered throughout Latin America during his active time of ministry. Every time I traveled, asked me to report on the condition of the church in the countries I had visited. His interest always made me look for someone whom I could ask about the status of the church in that country. I am grateful for Paul’s interest. Because of it, I was encouraged to have many meaningful conversations with church leaders all over the continent. During our last conversations, Paul and I debated the conclusion of the article. He was unsatisfied with its ending, saying, “The only way for the church to come out of this decline is to have a good shake up.” I believe this worldwide pandemic may be the shaking up the evangelical church needs to wake up and return to its biblical roots. Paul once said, “In an alive church each member takes the Bible, prayer and discipleship very seriously.” Thanks, Paul, for inspiring me to complete this article.
The evangelical church in Latin America experienced steady growth up to the decade of the sixties. During the seventies and part of the eighties, due to the Pentecostal movement, the evangelical church experienced an even greater growth. However, in the mid-nineties and the first decade of the present century it appears that growth has not taken place in most traditional and small, community churches. Meanwhile mega-churches have experienced exponential growth, likely at the expenditure of those smaller, community churches.
This article relies primarily on personal experiences and observations Paul and I had while travelling around Latin America based on conversations with church leaders who witnessed the trends firsthand. Our prayer is that this article will generate healthy discussion about the crisis currently facing the evangelical churches of Latin America.
In addition to numerical growth, the evangelical churches of Latin America in the 70’s experienced growth in infrastructure, and church-related institutions. Seminaries, hospitals, camps, radio stations and reputable schools gave credibility to the evangelical movement, especially in larger metro areas. While North American churches struggled to respond to theological liberalism, Latin Americans were largely untouched by such controversies, leaving them as a relatively united witness to the evangelical faith.
Liberation theology became strong during the decade of the seventies and into the 80’s. which. This Marxist-oriented interpretation of the Bible created challenges to the traditional, established evangelical church. Its teachings were used to justify the ongoing social political revolutions emerging all over the continent. Prominent, evangelical, Latin American theologians battled this theology with relative success and by and large were able to prevent the evangelical church from supporting the ongoing revolutionary conflicts boiling all over the continent. Unfortunately, while responding to this socially revolutionary theology, it appears that evangelical leaders failed to direct the evangelical churches into their own social responsibility. As a result, the evangelical church in general became less active in social/philanthropic ministries.
The Pentecostal movement experienced exponential growth in Latin America. Many evangelicals who had grown disenchanted with their own tradition migrated to this movement which had greater appeal, especially amongst the underprivileged. The Pentecostal church had an attractive emotional appeal which was far more in line with the Latin culture. In addition, these churches could prosper in deprived conditions. All they needed was a motivated leader, a roof and sound equipment (typically LOUD sound equipment).
Two issues arose within this movement. First, most followed the cultural tendency of assigning leadership and authority to one single person, typically a charismatic pastor. This “caudillo” model of leadership enabled such pastors to work without a system of accountability, raising queries usually related to issues of power and money, and causing many church divisions. Secondly, the Pentecostal movement did not seem willing to invest in three elements which are vital to a healthy church: children, youth and theological education. Children were overlooked, and very few programs were created to meet their special needs. The youth were expected to live a rather ascetic lifestyle, but received no support to meet their spiritual, physical, emotional and social needs. Lastly, very little investment was given to solid theological instruction. As a result, even today Latin America has produced only a handful of respected theologians capable of providing theological guidance to the church.
Appealing trends. During the early eighties to the present, a large section of the evangelical church in Latin America appears to be relying on what we would call “appealing trends.” These are emphases which temporarily engage the attention of the average church attender while waiting for the next. Such trends include: “Inner Healing”, which offers the believer certain relief for his psychological shortcomings but at the same time ignores biblical principles of growth and discipleship. “Positive Confession” offers certain assurance that whatever we claim or ask will be provided, bypassing God’s sovereignty. “Spiritual Warfare” with its emphasis on the battle between good and evil has been an ongoing trend in Latin America. “Planting for the Kingdom”, puts an emphasis on giving. This trend offers riches and rewards to those who will “invest” in the work of the church, their church… Being “Slain by the Spirit” was a short-lived trend which offered the believer a highly emotional, spiritual experience accompanied by uncontrollable erratic behaviors. Another emerging trend was for leaders of successful churches or denominations to give themselves the title of “Apostle” with the obvious goal of gaining legitimacy for their leadership and teachings. Unfortunately, even more mysterious trends keep emerging in some congregations. For example, “holy water” from the Jordan river is offered along with “sacred oil” for healing or prosperity. All these trends and many others have made the church shy away from what is important: learning and solidifying the basic principles of our faith.
The television. The influence of evangelical TV programs may have brought about further decline in the evangelical churches of Latin America. Unfortunately, trendy evangelical TV stations with the great audiences seem to greatly rely on teachings such as the “gospel of prosperity.” These religious hucksters offer richness and prosperity to financially generous supporters. Their emphasis on money has given evangelical churches a very poor reputation among average Latinos. The gospel message of redemption and grace is nearly lost.
The Mega-church movement. The last sign of the decline of the evangelical church in Latin America is likely the mega-church movement. Disenchanted evangelicals from smaller community churches seem to be the greatest sources for the growth of this movement. Thus, the big get bigger and the small get smaller. Mega-churches can attract a large number of followers, thanks to their ability to entertain. Members of these large congregation can easily shirk their biblical responsibilities and disciplines, loosing accountability as they become anonymous in a large congregation. Compounding the problem, in order to complete with the mega-churches, many pastors of smaller community-based churches seem willing to compromise their message in order to make their teachings and programs more appealing.
“Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, there a church of God exists, even if it swarms with many faults.”- John Calvin. The Latin American Evangelical church is indeed swarmed with many faults. But if the Word of God is truly preached, it will continue to witness Christ in Latin America.
During this time of emergency, all followers of the Christian faith regardless of our own traditions and disagreements, must strive to support each other and our local churches, and move towards assisting the spiritually and socially wounded neighbors. This is the opportunity we as followers of Christ have to share and show our deprived neighbor God’s message of grace and redemption. This pandemic may be indeed our wakeup call. “Praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved”. (Acts 2:47)
On the subject of Christian mercy: Giving in Times of Disaster.