The Pentecostal phenomenon in Latin America

New York

This week’s issue of The Economist profiles the growth of Pentecostalism and Evangelical Christianity around the world, making the point that of all the great new ideological movements born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only Pentecostalism is still a going concern. Marxism, fascism, and to some extent Freudianism, which once seemed much better bets as potential waves of the future, have all imploded.

The Economist piece estimates the number of “revivalists” in the world (meaning members of Pentecostal denominations, along with charismatics and Pentecostals within traditional denominations) to be 500 million, meaning roughly 12 percent of humanity. The growth of Pentecostalism, as the piece observes, has been especially impressive in Latin America.

Moreover, the piece notes that the expansion is coming not just among the poor and dispossessed, but increasingly, among Latin America’s middle class and business elites.

This is, of course, not news. A study commissioned in the late 1990s by CELAM, the federation of Latin American Catholic bishops’ conferences, found that 8,000 Latin Americans were deserting the Catholic Church for Evangelical Protestantism every day. (This defection gave rise to the gallows humor that after Vatican II, the Catholic Church chose the poor, and the poor chose the Pentecostals!)

Belgian Passionist Fr. Franz Damen, a veteran staffer for the Bolivian bishops, found that conversions from Catholicism to Protestantism in Latin America during the 20th century actually surpassed the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. Latin American Protestants shot up from 50,000 in 1900 to 64 million in 2000, according to Evangelical scholar William Taylor, with Pentecostal and charismatic churches making up three-quarters of this number. In 1930, Protestants amounted to one percent of the Latin American population; today it’s between 12 and 15 percent.

It should be stressed that where careful sociological research has been carried out, the findings sometimes suggest that the Pentecostal tide in Latin America has been exaggerated. For example, work done in Brazil in the late 1990s found that Evangelicals accounted for 14 percent of the country’s population, roughly half the number routinely cited in the media. The discrepancy, a Protestant research team found, stemmed in part from the fact that Evangelicals tend to have expansive notions of what counts as “conversion.”

There are some denominations, for example, which count among their followers even those who have gone just once to visit one of their churches, whom they report to headquarters as “confirmed.” Other groups count the people who have been visited by Evangelical missionaries in their homes, and have shown a relatively open attitude.

It’s also the case that breathless accounts of a relentless Pentecostal wave gloss over tremendous variances among nations, and even within nations. Evangelicals, for example, are estimated to amount to a nearly invisible 3 percent in Argentina.

That said, no one disputes the basic claim that Pentecostalism in Latin America is a growth industry. Explaining it, however, is a different matter.

It has long been an article of faith among Latin American Catholic leaders, especially the bishops, that the “Protestantization” of their continent is a result of conscious strategy in the United States – that American money and technological savvy are behind the effort to “spiritually colonize” the Southern hemisphere, beginning in the United States’ own backyard. That account, however, has been progressively eroded by the analysis of experts such as Lamin Sanneh, who has observed that the real explosion of Christianity in the global South came largely after foreign missionaries withdrew. It is home-grown Pentecostals and Evangelicals, speaking the local languages and reflecting the local culture, who have made the biggest gains.

The Economist suggests several explanations for the movement’s success, from the powerful emotional appeal of Pentecostal services (as the saying goes, “the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with a doctrine”) to the capacity of Pentecostals to mobilize their laity instead of depending upon a clerical caste, to the synchronicity between urban modernization and the entrepreneurial flavor of Pentecostal religion (as sociologist Peter Berger puts it, “Max Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala City.”)

Other oft-cited factors include the appeal of healing services and exorcisms, and the relatively short period of theological education required before someone can become a pastor – which gives the Pentecostals a capacity to put clergy in the field much more rapidly to service expanding congregations.

One of the most thorough accounts of the growth of Evangelical Christianity in the global South was offered by Philip Berryman in his 1996 book, Religion in the Mega-City. Berryman identifies a cluster of factors:
•tCatholic inability to reach ordinary people
•tExtensive use by Evangelicals of personal contacts, family networks and house visits
•tMass evangelical campaigns, with complementary use of radio- and tele-evangelism
•tLiveliness of worship
•tAlienation from recent trends in Catholicism (such as the relaxation of tradition, for example Mass in the vernacular
•tWitnessing of local miracles and wonders such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues
•tStrict and clear moral codes
•tAbility to tap into the popular culture (e.g., songs based on the melodies or tunes of pop music, transformed with appropriate church lyrics)
•tConnections with the U.S. and modernization
•tA personal relationship with the pastor
•tOngoing outreach and evangelization
•tIntense study of the Bible
•tThe grass roots nature of the church
•tThe simplicity of the Pentecostal message, especially in comparison to the relatively complex doctrinal system of the Catholic Church

Another expert, Michael Fleet, has also argued that the key to the increase in membership of the Evangelical churches has been the success of these organizations in recruiting pastors from the local population.

In August, I interviewed Christian missionary expert Samuel Escobar on the question of the Pentecostal phenomenon in Latin America, the full text of which can be found here: Escobar interview

The phenomenon offers a reminder that the “southern tide” in global Christianity can be ambivalent in terms of its consequences for Catholicism. It also suggests that the future of Catholicism in the southern hemisphere will therefore be shaped to a large degree by the encounter with Pentecostalism and new urban mega-churches, which means different interlocutors, and a different set of questions, than set the theological agenda in the north.

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