Latin America & Caribbean
A description of the historical and cultural/religious factors influencing the Church
As a primarily Roman Catholic region, Latin America continues to be a place fertile for faith. Every form of religious and spiritual belief seems to flourish here. The Jesuit missionary movement 500 years ago challenged Catholic leadership and its bed-fellow, the upper class establishment of the Iberian peninsula. Liberation Theology of the late 20th century revived this challenge and took the form of marxist/socialist political leanings across South and Central America over the past 50 years. Materialism (some name it “equality by consumption”) has coaxed many of these political and religious idealists into the market place creating a wave of prosperity theology in the church that threatens the essence of the Gospel.
But most pastors I relate with still believe capitalism is the culprit for much of the social injustice of Brazil. They believe Cuba to be a shining example of socialist utopia except for the consequences of the embargo that kept them from growing at a normal economic rate. They quote verses like “the first shall be last and the last first” to prove that the Bible is written from a socialist point of view and think of the ideal government as one that distributes (or redistributes) resources equally to all its citizens.
Mariology (the worship of Mary as semi-divine) combined with “machismo” (rooted in middle-eastern Islamic chauvinism resulting from the moorish invasion of Europe) and modern radical feminism have undermined the structure of the family, creating a matriarchal society. Strong, balanced male leadership is rare both in and out of the church and positions of trust are usually given to women. Married men are often more loyal and committed to their mothers than to their wives and thus never truly take responsibility for themselves and their families. This has left many churches full of women and children and men feeling out of place.
Pentecostalism would describe the vast majority of evangelical Christians in Latin America as well as a good percentage of Roman Catholics. Worship services are enthusiastic and often emotional. Expository preaching is rare even in more traditional denominations and emotional experience is a high value for most believers. They say things like, “The glory didn’t come down in the service today.” which means there were no chill bumps produced.
The impact of Christianity in the region.
Modern Christianity is less then 200 years old here. Roman Catholicism creates the foundation of society but often mixed with African or local native animism. Few would say they don’t believe in Jesus. He’s the baby on Mary’s lap with his fingers up or the pitiful dying creature on the cross in the church. But now many have come to know Him as the King of kings and His transforming power through the Gospel. Huge churches are growing and multiplying through movements like the G-12, a cell church movement that involves a weekend of encountering God and then multiplying 12-member cell groups. Biblical seminaries train pastors and missionaries and evangelism is a high value.
One of our “sons” from the ABBA ministry we ran for street kids for years went to jail in Brazil’s Northeast region and they asked if he was “evangelico” or “catolico” which determined the wing they put him in. His knowledge of the Bible (even as a criminal) soon gave him a place of leadership in the pentecostal church inside the prison walls.
The various types of churches present
There is every variety of church in Latin America. Our team of missionaries to street kids involves an anglican couple, a Baptist missionary and an emergent church family. A methodist friend directs World Vision Brasil and we meet together with pentecostal, baptist and presbyterian leaders in a nation-wide network for evangelical social action. The body of Christ in Latin America is diverse and growing.
What American churches can learn from the Body of Christ in your area.
1. People are more important than programs or projects or possessions.
2. You don’t have to have much to be a church. It’s amazing how many garage doors actually hide a small room with white plastic chairs where a few faithful gather several times a week as a church.
3. The Church is a family not a religious products market. The Interlagos Presbyterian Church where we attend has many families with three or four generations. (and most of them are intermarried with each other.)
4. Holistic worship. We are very mental compared to our Latin brothers and sisters. The body and the soul should also be involved in corporate worship. Even in more traditional churches they do this well. This seems to attract the children to engage in the worship services as well.
5. We are not the end-all of missions. There are places reserved for each culture and people to reach with the love of Christ. We need to challenge and support what God is doing through other cultures and not imagine that we will do it all. Many times we (North Americans and Europeans) have done more harm than good in the long run by creating churches which are dependent on us. Our money and equipment and “know-how” are not the essence of the mission. The Gospel is.