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Latin American Evangelicals: Impact and Future in Latin American Culture

By Pedro C. Moreno
Published March 1, 1993

There is substantial evidence that evangelicals in Latin America have impact on society, both on a spiritual and moral level, and more recently, on a social and economic level. This impact is acknowledged more and more not only by the populace, but at a governmental level.

Latin American evangelicals are credited with providing a sense of community to the masses of urban migrants (the many abandoning rural areas for the cities). They are credited with preaching a message that concentrates on the power of God not only to comfort spiritually but also help people materially: Many former prostitutes, drunkards, adulterers and others testify to their deep change after conversion. People have found a sense of purpose in their new beliefs. They are able to develop abilities in the church that are very helpful to their every day work, thus helping them rise economically. In general their presence is well accepted, and evangelicalism has now become a legitimate alternative in terms of religious belief and lifestyle.

However, as in any human endeavor, the presence and practices of Latin American evangelicals are not perfect. Reformation of society by evangelical Christians, if it is going to have full economic and social impact, needs a proper analysis and critique. The fundamental question is whether evangelicals will be able to bring their “micro-reformation” (personal empowerment and economic advancement) to bring “macro-reformation” (transformation of economic and social structures) in Latin American countries. The problems and questions to be analyzed are not exclusive to Latin American evangelicals, though some of the problems arise from the particularities of Latin American culture.

Debate on Social and Economic Impact

Timothy Goodman has questioned the correlation between cultural change (due to the rise of evangelicalism in Latin America) and economic development. He suggests that if there ever is economic development in Latin America, it will not be because of the evangelicals, but in spite of them.1 Though he is right in many of his assertions, I do not agree with his implied view that this is an irreversible tendency. In fact, the greatest contribution of Goodman’s article is precisely his willingness to submit “a vigorous dissent,” as John Neuhaus puts it.2 Thus, this may trigger a much needed and long overdue discussion that may help address and correct these problems.

There are three interconnected problems that need urgent consideration and discussion. First, the pentecostal/charismatic church message that stresses the division between the religious and the secular. Second, the apparent conflict between emotion and reason. Third, the question of ecclesiastical hierarchy as a “dominant class” in relation to the rest of church members.

Religious vs. Secular

The gap between the “religious” and “secular” is purely a pietistic notion, stemming more from Platonic and Eastern mystical influences in medieval Christianity than biblical doctrine. This influence has a long history that has been sufficiently analyzed elsewhere.3 One of the pernicious effects of the extremist pietistic view is exemplified by what I call a “religious paranoia.” By this I mean the fact that church members concentrate and place high importance solely on “religious” matters at the expense of every other activity and aspect of life.

Many evangelicals believe they are doing “spiritual things” only when they are reading their Bible, attending church or praying. Everything else such as studying, working, sleeping, eating, is non-spiritual if not “secular” or “worldly.” For example, church members believe they are listening to “spiritual” or “Christian” music only when they listen to music that has specific references to the Bible, to Jesus or to some type of religious theme. Other music, if it refers to the family, love, children, country, nature or even classical music, is thought to be “secular” or “non-Christian.”

Another example is the idea of the tithe and why it should be given to the church. Many evangelicals believe that if they give 10 percent to the church, then this is the very least they can give to God. But do they believe that what we give to our children, education, food, vacation, housing or any other legitimate expense or good cause is not being given to God as well?

This pattern of thought has caused an “ecclesiastical atrophy” (a failure of Christian growth beyond church activities). This has resulted in evangelicals despising their studies, professions or work in order to exalt church activities over family life, dedication to work and devotion to study and scholarship.

Conflict of Emotion and Reason

It is understandable why there is much fear when someone speaks in the church about reason, intellectualism, doctrines, ideologies, etc. The excesses of rationalism and its heavy reliance on human intellectual insight with disregard to Scripture may have partially caused this reluctance to talk about these subjects. However, the extreme reliance on emotionalism and feelings in the pentecostal/charismatic churches nowadays is no answer to this problem. This position is best exemplified by the reading of Romans 12:2 as “be transformed by the removing of your mind,” when it in fact says renewing.

Goodman describes this reliance on emotionalism as a substitute for rationalism. He is right when he mentions the strong emphasis on faith-healing, prophecy and the blaming of demons and evil spirits for illness – and I would add for most problems the Spirit-filled Christian encounters. This latter aspect is so widespread that many pentecostals see demons everywhere. That is, they attribute any failure, character flaw, sin or problem to a specific demon from which one needs “deliverance.” In this context, personal responsibility for our actions takes second place.

Concerning faith-healing and prayer, many pentecostals believe that the miraculous realm is the rule for the successful Christian life and that the “natural” is just secondary. This insistence in being healed, prospered and made a success by the miraculous could lead them to very disappointing results. Reliance on the current use of preventative medicine, good health habits, hard work and excellence in studies is secondary and only occurs after the miraculous has not taken place – something like trying to do by “faith” what has not been done by obedience.

Together with rationalism, pentecostals and charismatics have also abandoned the study of systematic theology, church history (if there is no future, then why worry about the past?) and have placed the Bible in a secondary role. It is recurrent to hear such phrases as: “It does not matter if you know the Bible. The important thing is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Extra-biblical “revelations” are readily accepted, both the ones that originate in our region and ones that originate in the United States.

There is the knee-jerk rejection of the “secular” or “natural” in favor of a purist “spiritual” or “religious” position. One of the negative developments of this type of thinking is exemplified by the recent decision by a substantial number of charismatic/pentecostal leaders in Bolivia to not celebrate Christmas. They argue that since some of the pagan festivals used to be celebrated around December, it is better to avoid this celebration all together. This reactionary thinking has brought unnecessary division to families; has deprived many people of the historical dimension of Christ; has emphasized the divinity of Christ over His humanity, as the Monophysite heretics and the Paulicians did at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries. Stripping Christ and Christianity of His humanity, historicity and rationality deprives the faith of many people of much power, as well as robbing them of their intellectual and rational faculties.

Domination by Ecclesiastical Hierarchies

Pentecostal/charismatic churches in Latin America as well as in the United States and other places have concentrated only on the message of salvation of souls. This message is coupled with the belief that Jesus Christ will come back in a few years, or even a few months or a few days, or that the Rapture will happen sometime soon. Even though the intent of this teaching is good, it has unfortunately caused these churches to adopt a short term perspective on life. Since the time is short, we should therefore concentrate on evangelism and the saving of souls. Why bother participating in politics or studying economics or engineering? Why dedicate ourselves to such “mundane” roles as law, psychology, or even worse, philosophy?

The persistent message from the pulpit stresses the importance of being “called” by God to the “full-time ministry.” That means that everybody should be an evangelist, a pastor, teacher, prophet or apostle if he or she wants to have a “call” in his or her life. The ministers of God are those in the “five-fold ministry.” What does this make everyone else: the lawyers, carpenters, housewives, doctors, politicians, scientists and so on? The implication is that these latter ones are “second-class citizens” in the kingdom of God and that if they want to “redeem” their professional skills or trades they must use them “as a tool” for evangelism. In other words, your studies, profession or trade are only good if they allow you to “preach the gospel” in your school, your work place or your neighborhood – or enter closed lands as a “tent maker.” Law, engineering, carpentry, in this analysis, are not valuable to God in themselves.

I have had pastors come to my office and after learning about our activities on behalf of religious freedom and human life which include the production of a TV and a radio program, a monthly journal and the provision of legal assistance in cases related to religious liberty and human life, tell me that these programs were very good and that they hoped one day “God would use me in His work.” So I wonder, whose work am I doing now? After all, there are only two masters we can serve: God or Satan.

The negative implication of all this is that, although pastors and preachers have good intentions, much zeal for God and a passion for evangelism, they are helping breed a generation of frustrated and mediocre students and professionals. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is unconsciously acting as a dominant class and is crippling the people of God from realizing the full abilities and the breadth of their ministry.

In an effort to correct this imbalance, some Christian lawyers, journalists and a few pastors have started insisting on the importance of taking the concepts of “call” and “ministry” in their broader, biblical meaning: “A minister is any Christian who is acting in obedience to God.” Concerning the “call,” we know that God does not have “higher calls” and “secondary calls.” God is not a discriminator of persons. Thus we need to rescue the concept of the universal priesthood of all believers.

When Dr. Jorge Serrano, a pentecostal/charismatic, became president of Guatemala some well known Latin American evangelists said that they would not “lower themselves” to become president of a republic. Since Serrano’s election, at least one of them has asked for forgiveness for making this statement. What is Serrano’s conviction concerning Christians and politics? He believes that God called him to be the president. In his calling, he is a minister to the people of Guatemala. According to sources close to the president, his conviction sustained him in his belief at one point when all the polls and public opinion put him last in electoral preference.

Any Christian can have a call in his or her life to be a teacher, an evangelist, an electrician, a full-time parent or any other legitimate activity. Everything we do, we do for the Lord whether it is praying, sleeping, eating, vacationing, reading the Bible, reading a newspaper, etc. This calling to ministry is exercised 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Recourse for the Future

The insistence in presenting as opposites the religious and the secular, emotion and reason; and the establishment of a religious hierarchy which dominates ecclesiastical affairs has put the evangelical church, particularly charismatics and pentecostals, in a very difficult position. The lack of study of church history and past events, could result in an ill-prepared generation of evangelicals that will have great problems facing the future.

In this context, there is a need to balance the preaching of the imminent return of Christ, or the Rapture, with an understanding that Christ might not return any time soon. Two thousand years have already elapsed since His first coming and evangelicals need to be prepared for the long haul.

Goodman’s questioning of the real contribution of evangelicalism to economic and social development is understandable. There is no automatic correlation between evangelical growth and economic and social advancement. Africa is 50% Christian according to some statistics, but 80% or more of its territory is under dictatorial rule and extreme poverty. If the evangelical church is going to change Latin America, then it will need Christian character more than just charisma.

Reason needs to be accepted and encouraged within the limits of revelation. The pulpit should be used as a place of encouragement and motivation for all church members, regardless of economic status, political views, profession or any other criteria. Though proper encouragement should be given to members serving in an ecclesiastical ministry (pastors, evangelists, etc.), the same kind of reassurance, motivation and encouragement should be given to all members as they exercise their daily professions or trades. This should be especially true for students who are seeking to confirm their academic vocation.

The problem with the evangelical church in Latin America is not irreversible. There is no malice or evil intentions on the part of the pastors and leaders that have put forth these ideas, nor is there reluctance to change this trend beyond natural inertia. The optimistic note which gives us hope for change is the experience concerning Latin evangelicals and politics. Until recently Latin American evangelicals considered politics as something “belonging to the devil,” something “evil and dirty,” with which Christians should have nothing to do. However, in only a few years after much teaching on biblical principles of government, most have accepted the importance of participation.

The new, broader perspective is gaining wider support among church members, with the leaders sometimes just following. It is my hope that a new and fresh dialogue will be opened in which church leaders will come to understand that every aspect of life can be put in the service of our Lord. Christians can give a testimony of diligence, excellence, responsibility, integrity and service in everything they do. After all, the church is composed by all believers and is present wherever believers choose to carry on their activities as they minister to God and all people.

1 Goodman, “Latin America’s Reformation,” The American Enterprise, July/August 1991.
2 Neuhaus, “Reformation to the South of Us,” First Things, December 1991.
3 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? Crossway Books, Westchester, Illinois 1976.


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