My wife and I began work in the area of church planting and theological education in Central America in 1985. At that time there were many saying that the evangelical revival movement then underway was something larger and more important than even the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The gospel was certainly being preached in every corner of Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church had suddenly lost it’s hegemony, and evangelicals began taking part in the political process in some countries. Some Protestant survey groups were providing statistics for the evangelical population at numbers as high as fifty percent of the general population (as was the case with Guatemala, for instance).
All of us hoped that the news was true. Practical ministry in the streets, however, began to raise suspicions for many. While it was true that many people were abandoning the Catholic Church and flooding into the evangelical churches, it became apparent that many of the same people abandoned the evangelical churches after a few years. Jorge Gómez in Costa Rica traced the growth and desertion in the evangelical churches of Costa Rica in an important study — and his findings could be roughly duplicated for many of the countries of Latin America. Gómez showed that evangelical growth peaked in about 1989. Desertion in the evangelical churches had already begun in large numbers. After 1989, desertion outranked growth, so that by the time he wrote the book in 1996, there were more ex-evangelicals in Costa Rica than there were evangelicals. Today, almost twenty-five percent of the country’s population declares itself to be evangelical. Only eight percent, however, show concrete evidence in their behavior with regard to a commitment to Christ’s church — either by being baptized or by regular church attendance.
What actually is happening in Latin America? I don’t pretend to be an authority on the issue of the Protestant church in Latin America, and there will certainly be differences of interpretation. I wish to point out just a few aspects of how I perceive the situation. First off, we must recognize that the basic message of the gospel has been taken to places where it was never previously heard. The Protestant church movement began somewhat slowly in the late 1800s due to persecution and oppression in many parts. As Latin societies experienced revolutions and reforms in their countries, many removed the Catholic Church from its place as the official religion (in fact, Costa Rica is the only country in Latin America that I know of that still gives this honor to Catholicism). Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, the Pentecostal movement gathered steam. Enthusiastic lay preachers proclaimed repentance and faith in Christ from city buses and parks, to remote mountain regions and coastal villages.
The Pentecostal churches soon outgrew the older Protestant denominations. But their growth was a mixed blessing. In fact, it could be argued in some cases that a country would have been better off if the Pentecostal churches had never come.
The older Protestant denominations have languished. Some have gone liberal in their theology, stagnating and commencing a slow death. Others, such as the fundamentalist Baptists, have shut themselves off from the rest of the scene and keep to themselves, functioning as if no one else exists. Others have been influenced by the Pentecostal movement and have basically turned into “main-line neo-Pentecostal” churches.
The Pentecostal movement exhibited severe weaknesses right from the start. First, it lacked a requirement of serious biblical studies and thus produced gross ignorance, as well as suspicion of theological study. The motto was: “The letter kills, the Spirit gives life!” To this day there is an entire generation of preachers who believe it is totally unnecessary to read books or take classes. They have a “direct line to God.” Obviously, this is a perfect recipe for the growth of heresy — which has also occurred. Many heretical sects have been spawned in the fertile soil of fanatical Pentecostalism — some of which have grown to large proportions.
Second, Pentecostalism is inherently unstable in it’s theology and practice. The reason for this is varied, but one of the factors is the desire for the sensational or the miraculous. Pentecostalism does not have a good perspective on God’s providence, but rather sees the world largely under Satan’s rule into which God must break forth with sensational actions. For the common Pentecostal, God’s work is almost always accompanied by some sensational evidence. The problems this creates are serious. Life runs out of sensations quickly. So there is a tremendous need to continue creating sensations to “prove” that God is present.
Third, neo-Pentecostalism is a combination of the fanaticism of Pentecostalism mixed with the “health-and-wealth” gospel of Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, and others like them. The desire to see sensations is now converted into the right to have God make you a sensation! This means, of course, financial prosperity. Scripture has now come to be simply a book of formulas on how to become prosperous. The sermons are like broken records Sunday after Sunday on how God wants you to prosper if you will plant your seed of faith (read: give a generous offering). In a neo-Pentecostal church near my house, the bank sends an armored car each Monday to take the sacks of money, full of the “seeds of faith” of the faithful. The pastor’s children each have their own late-model BMW or Mercedes Benz; vacations are taken out of the country; and his capital is significant in the real estate sector. Neo-Pentecostalism is truly a significant step backwards spiritually to the old shamanism and spiritism that Roman Catholicism never eradicated. The neo-Pentecostal leaders frequently call themselves “apostles” or “prophets” and love to use esoteric-sounding language that evokes power and mystery. Their message is fundamentally pagan in the sense that it promises earthly goods and prosperity — just as the pagan shamans do — all in the context of evil spirits and magical power.
As “Christianity” has been converted into good news for the shrewd pseudo-apostles, it has created at the same time mass desertion. After a few years of unfulfilled greedy desires, folks leave the neo-Pentecostal churches embittered and angry. This leads many to argue that the statistics of the evangelical churches have been inflated and are inaccurate. Gómez also points out that surveys have not taken into consideration desertion. Some of the recent surveys are now showing a quite different panorama from the rosy declarations of the 1980s — that we were on the verge of a huge revival greater than the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Also, the percentage of those who call themselves “non-religious” is growing — especially in the countries with the highest evangelical percentages. Guatemala may have as many as twenty-five percent evangelicals. But Guatemala also now has twelve percent of it’s population that calls itself “non-religious” — a very high proportion indeed for a country with a high Catholic and Protestant population! But that is not all. Those who call themselves non-religious have obviously participated in evangelical circles.
There appears to be a close link between participation in evangelical — and quite possibly Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal circles — and ending up “non-religious.” In other words, the evangelical phenomena is converting Catholics into practical atheists. If this is the case, we would have been better off leaving them with Rome!
To sum up, the religious scene is not rosy in general terms. There is laziness with respect to the study of Scripture, an anti-historical conception of the church, an emphasis on sensationalism and powerful leaders who are blindly followed, and a man-centered gospel emphasizing material prosperity over everything else.
We should not ignore, however, wholesome currents of varied size in many countries. Centers of theological studies by extension such as MINTS (Miami International Theological Seminary) are bringing not only Reformed studies to many pastors, but also true renewal to churches. In Colombia, for example, many evangelical pastors are coming back to the historic doctrines of Christianity through MINTS. One pastor told me he felt he was converted once again when he was won over to the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace. The CLIR (Latin American Fellowship of Reformed Churches) has expressions in most Latin American countries and distributes a Reformed theological journal to more than three thousand church leaders. Conferences from Reformed speakers have attracted groups of more than six hundred church leaders in various places, and Reformed and Presbyterian churches continue to experience solid growth. The Mexican National Presbyterian Church has more than 1.2 million members, while the Brazilian National Presbyterian Church counts more than 750,000 members. In spite of the neo-Pentecostal chaos occurring, many faithful Christians and churches continue forward, their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, Author and Finisher of the faith.