The ‘non-Catholic’ Latin American church is going full steam ahead—but are we on the right track?
by Langham Scholar Milton Acosta
for Christianity Today magazine
It is widely recognized that the majority of Christians in the world today live in the Southern hemisphere. Along with Christianity gaining a new geographical center, theology, too, is moving south. If you are wondering where your pastor will get his ideas in a decade or two, you might look to Latin America, where the non-Catholic church is growing—often without any connection to historical Protestantism. (Eastern Orthodoxy is not included here in the term non-Catholic.) Church historian Andrew Walls calls Latin America a place of “theological ferment.” With hardly any Christendom left to speak of, the future of Christianity is wide open for new and unexpected developments.
National and international Christian TV channels, radio stations, and books testify to the numbers. Sociologist Paul Freston found that Protestants in countries such as Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile make up about one-third of the population. The large number of people these churches convert to Christianity leads some analysts to regard Latin American Pentecostalism as having “revolutionary potential” and an immense capacity to bring hope, a new form of democracy, and solutions to many Latin American problems.
But while Latin American evangelicalism is important for the future of democracy, it’s not enough to look at the sociology of this burgeoning church. We also need to examine the theology that is moving south. Will a gospel-centered Christianity prevail? The answer gives us cause for both celebration and concern.
Neither Catholic nor Protestant
The most prominent item in many Latin American churches is a drum set. Many congregations spend over an hour standing and singing (often songs written by church members) before the sermon. Lively worship and other Pentecostal characteristics (speaking in tongues, prophesying, and healing) have become part of most non-Catholic Christian churches in Latin America. Many of these, often called “neo-Pentecostal,” are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating without any historical connection to classical Pentecostalism.
Despite their similarities, these churches are not unified. Some experts say non-Catholic Christianity in Latin America is best described as “neo-Pentecostalisms”—plural.
Two general interpretations have emerged for the exponential growth of these non-Catholic churches: Some uncritically see this as a movement of the Spirit, bringing people by the hundreds of thousands to the foot of the Cross, making them true sons and daughters of God and of the Reformation. Others see the massive movement in clear continuity with popular Catholic religiosity and indigenous traditions, having nothing to do with Protestantism.
Indeed, the neo-Pentecostalisms may be based on neither Protestant nor Catholic core doctrine, but on a convergence of popular Catholic religiosity with popular Protestant religiosity. In that case, we are likely witnessing a new form of post-, neo-Christianity.
The future of Latin American theology concerns some theologians for three reasons: faulty theology, divisionism, and the proliferation of sub-international-standard theological institutions along with a cheap “degree fever.”
Some descriptions of neo-Pentecostalism are puzzling. For example, Latin American church historian Arturo Piedra argues that non-Catholic Christianity in Latin America is evangelical and neo-Protestant. But when he details a new movement called “apostles and prophets” in these churches, he says this is a kind of injerto (“grafting”) done by people who have no knowledge of or respect for “the principles of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.”
The apostles and prophets movement emphasizes what they see as ministries from Ephesians 4:11, and its adherents’ teaching has caught on quickly. A pastor near my seminary now signs his name “Apostle ___ ,” and asks others to address him as such. The group also hosts lessons in being a prophet, where students pair off and take turns prophesying blessings for each other.
Piedra says that the “religious space of ‘prophets and apostles’ is dominated by an anachronistic Protestant shamanism, made up of individuals (actores) who pretend to save the world through an animist manipulation of evil spirits.”
Under the umbrella of spiritual warfare has grown a body of clergy specializing in discerning hidden forces. These preachers focus more on the fear of spirits than on the hope that Christ gives. They are also “experts” on curses and all sorts of practices like geographic cornering and blowing and whistling to subject evil spirits. This is quite the opposite of the defeat of Satan!
Like Argentine Methodist theologian José Míguez Bonino, Piedra holds that there is a weak historical connection between Latin American Protestantism and the Protestant tradition, as there is little or no emphasis on sola gratia, sola Scriptura, or justification by faith alone. Sadly, the apostles and prophets are not teaching the central message of the gospel, but a gospel of prosperity.
Television is a powerful influence on Latin American theology. The TV channel Enlace (owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network) has become “a true magisterium” beyond denominational beliefs and practices. It is available in most Latin American countries. Most evangelicals turn it on several times a week. No matter what topic Enlace is dealing with, the message boils down to making “pacts” with God, wherein a person must demonstrate the seriousness of his prayer request by sending money along with it. Pastors with little or no training imitate Enlace preachers, and the effect intensifies.
Many Enlace-style churches have reduced the message of the gospel to economic prosperity. Based on belief in evil spirits’ hidden conspiracies that can only be averted by economic pacts—a contemporary version of indulgences—some of these churches end up in clear continuity with the surrounding culture of amulets, or magical ways of quickly obtaining wealth and happiness. The celebrities who represent this kind of overnight wealth are Mafia members and druglords. The final product, says Piedra, is religious consumerism.
Respected Latin American theologian René Padilla says the new massive churches formed by these theological forces may directly or indirectly come from the Reformation. Nevertheless, he argues, these churches have adopted the “mass empire” culture, as they use business strategies and marketing techniques to reach their numerical goals, offering material prosperity, making people feel good, and emphasizing entertainment.
They reduce their biblical message, if they have one, to a minimum, and their view of discipleship is extremely limited. For these reasons, Padilla holds that these non-Catholic churches are an expression of evangelical popular religiosity. He calls it a form of Protestantism
closely related to a light culture of postmodern times. With those characteristics, it is hard to imagine how these big churches could be of any significant influence in preaching the message of the kingdom of God and the practice of justice in our continent. Christian ethics have been replaced by magic, Christ has no humanity.
French historian Jean-Pierre Bastian has concluded that the new Pentecostalisms are a “religious mutation” founded on emotionalism and a “popular religion that restructures the symbolic universe of the poor in terms of survival.” These religious expressions are in continuity with “the Latin American cultural and religious universe and have replaced historical Protestantism.” For this and other reasons, Bastian believes that the neo-Pentecostalisms could be classified as indigenous (and Catholic) Latin American popular religions. For Bastian, that explains in part why these churches grow so quickly.
In addition to its faulty theology, Latin American evangelicalism challenges our optimism with its notorious sectarianism. It is not only diverse, it is divisive. A large percentage of Latin American churches of all sizes are products of church splits. In Medellín, Colombia, where I live, close to half of the non-Catholic churches, and all the largest churches in the city, are the result of church splits.
The fragmentation of Latin American Protestantism, says Freston, makes it impossible for it to be a force for democracy.
Finally, Latin American institutions that somehow grant the highest academic degrees in theological education have proliferated. More than 60 percent of our pastors have no theological education. When they join a church’s staff, they often go on to get degrees from institutions that they themselves started.
These schools often operate below international standards of higher education. People can get “doctoral” degrees without an accredited master’s degree or a research library. Since seminaries usually aren’t accredited, they aren’t regulated. Each denomination and megachurch wants to have its own seminary or Bible institute and grant academic degrees with just a few books.
There are also evening and online institutions based either in Latin America or in the United States that offer all sorts of degrees. Institutions that do comply with international standards struggle to survive because their degrees are more rigorous and therefore cost more and take longer. We end up in “the perverse circle of mediocrity,” says Lausanne International Deputy Director for Latin America and seminary founder Norberto Saracco.
Wherever it exists, Christianity will always have a cultural component. There will always be a need to adjust the relationship between theology and experience. However, it is very dangerous to affirm that all who call themselves Christians are Christians—no matter what they do with Scripture, what theology they hold, or how they live. Christianity cannot be interpreted only through cultural anthropology or ethnographic lenses.
A sound church should aspire to be evangelical, biblical, and historical—and there are such churches in Latin America. Not all evangelical churches here have the problems I’ve outlined. But enough of them do that I am deeply concerned. This brief perspective shows that the task of evangelization is never fully accomplished.
We need a new generation of Latin American (and Asian and African) theologians who know the Scriptures and how to interpret them in order to avoid the theological anarchy—both indigenous and imported—that reigns in our midst.
Sometimes preachers of false doctrine turn around and look to the true message of the gospel. A fellow theologian told me about a Guatemalan preacher who, after 20 years, became interested in the Reformation. He began to study, and his message changed completely. But another theologian asked me whether we can really afford to wait decades for our leaders to preach the gospel.
Bad theology harms people. Sometimes they see that what they have been taught doesn’t match up with the truth. Often, they reject God because of it. My own church has taken on the task of counseling such seekers.
We especially need to recover and discover anew the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of canonical and historical interpretation of the Bible, while never forgetting who we are as Latin Americans. Only then can we begin to speak of a Latin American biblical theology.
Milton Acosta is professor of Old Testament at Biblical Seminary of Colombia in Medellín, Colombia.