Pentecostal Power In South America

This article is insightful about the state of the South American Pentecostal church movement. It’s tragic really. Keep the churches of South America in your prayers.

Power Pentecostalisms

By Milton Acosta

The ‘non-Catholic’ Latin American church is going full steam ahead—but are we on the right track?

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.

Protestant Shamanism

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 Pentecostalism’s 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.

Degree Fever

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. He studied as a John Stott Ministries–Langham scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This article is underwritten by a generous grant from John Stott Ministries.

10 thoughts on “Pentecostal Power In South America

  1. It’s great to hear that lots of Pentecostals were listening to David in Jerusalem last year … however, David would totally condemn the prosperity gospel and slam any attempt at promoting tithing in his church.

    Yet he is the most charismatic preacher I have ever heard. (Charismatic in the spiritual gifts sense.)

    He’s spent the last 30 or more years trying to get evangelicals and charismatics together … the fact that he hasn’t succeeded is down to the anti-intellectual slant of Pentecostalism. What has happened is evangelicals have drifted into spiritual gifts and have abandoned the Bible.

    It’s happened in my church. It happened all over the UK.

    It’s tragic.

    I am spending all my spare time telling other believers to get into the word. Meanwhile, all our youth are going to events and getting spiritually high but are they getting any instruction in the Word?

    It’s not all doom and gloom. There many bright spots. However, we need to see things as they are, in their entirety and not concentrate on this perspective or that perspective. (Yeah, I know … good advise for me too. C3 and Hillsong are not 100% bad. Lots of good things and lots of good people who love Jesus are in there listening to the Holy Spirit.)

    The task is to keep the good while dealing with the bad.


  2. Well, that was a very interesting article. After each paragraph, I felt a kind of sinking sensation.

    It is hard to know how objective it is. Each paragraph could well have described characteristics of some churches here, but we know that as Bull said, its not all bad, and despite prosperity doctrine etc, lots of people hold a sincere faith in Christ where their heart prevails over some of the sillier things they are taught at times.

    Whether its more of the same, or a further extreme of things we are already familiar with would be good to know.

    Re the anti-intellectualism of Pentecostal churches –
    my Anglican church was run by a very well educated minister who had a kind of intellectual pride that encouraged elitism and arrogance towards others, particularly Pentecostals. Its not surprising that there is an anti-intellectual reaction towards that kind of thing.

    As a uni student, I always felt a bit out of place at PP’s church, though there were also a number of other uni students there. Seminary training was known by some people as ‘cemetary training’.

    However – there were some notable exceptions, and I had the good fortune to be taught by two Pentecostal pastors with genuine doctorates at different times, so it is definitely possible to find Pente pastors who do also have a high quality theological qualification. I don’t know why the anti-intellectualism prevails, because in my experience, its just fantastic when you can have the best of both worlds.

  3. I truly wish that more Pente churches would have a portion of their teachers/pastors trained at high quality institutions that hold to highly respected theological standars which are recognised beyond the borders of the Pentecostal denominations. Obviously they’d need the intellectual ability to handle it, so it might not be for all pastors. But at least a portion, so that there is more depth to the teaching than you find from those coming out of some of the home grown Bible Colleges designed to keep people’s thinking in line with the precepts of the particular church they belong to.

  4. Not that I’m saying people who go to home grown colleges can’t ever teach… just that the breadth and depth of the teaching overall would increase, were they to ensure that some pastors had that extra mile of training.

  5. If this becomes the dominant form of religious expression then the church will go nova first, then quickly ide.

    But I acknowledge the chameleon PhL’s comments to the extent that the Holy Spirit will always seek out those marked for Himself, and many will seek the real stuff.

    Our God will have His way.

  6. To be honest South America does not sound that different to Northern Sydney. It is just a matter of degree.

    The CCC I used to go to taught outrageous junk that someone had made up about open heavens and other twaddle and PP went off and got himself a dodgy PhD so what’s the difference really?

    Just neo-pentecostal business as usual.

    Accent on the “business”.

  7. The more I read the bible and great teachers of the faith, the more I discover how the pentecostal church has gone completely off it’s rocker.

    I spend more time evangelising to people in pentecostal movements than I do with people who supposedly don’t know the Lord.

    Many Christians don’t know the gospel. Many Christian’s don’t know the bible and too many Christian’s do not know God personally in hearing His voice and knowing His grace.

    It’s true I go to places like CCC and Hillsong and various other churches, but collecting those disillusioned seem to be my specialty.

    And it’s those that reach the end, that suddenly see God and his grace for all it’s worth. The pentecostal church is so under the influence of hypocrites (wording meaning ‘actors’), that you can’t tell when someone is saved in these places until you witness to them.

    I now understand what it means Paul says those that fell away were never of it. If these churches goals are to attract the world, the world is what they are going to get!

    The church of South America is on my heart, which is why I posted it up. I love my Brazilian and Peruvian brothers and sisters, so I hope that you also have this country in your prayers too.

    I’m off to get the fly spray now…

  8. That was an interesting article. I think the theologians are right. Sounds like chaos. I don’t think it really takes too much theological training though to keep a sound church. It’s a really great idea to have someone like that available but with the simple basics and a balanced approach to the scripture even a poorly educated farmer can can have a church of illiterate peasants.

    It’s interesting though. God can have a church living in the mountains in far flung reaches, isolated, and on discovery are found to have simple, uncomplicated apostolic Christian beliefs of salvation by Grace through Faith and a life centred on the words of Christ. Even the children could give a coherent account of their faith. They were known for austere and humble lives, pacifists. All they had was the bible and the Holy Spirit to exist for hundreds of years, unchanged in essence from the third century. This is in the eleventh century or there-abouts. The account was given by a Church scholar who went to examine their beliefs and pave the road for their persecution. (as I remember the story, I might be confusing two accounts)

    But then you have others, like in the article, who have neglected to teach the basics, have allowed the selfish and corrupt to take control, have succumbed to the love of money, greed enters, strife, envy, soon people are baptised into they don’t even know what… now there’s unbelievers in the church, they quickly trample their way to power…

    There’s was a disturbing story some weeks ago about ‘witch children’ somewhere in Africa that involved insane prophets, pseudo-Pentecostals, and the most repulsive superstitions. Same kind of situation. What was once perhaps Christian can descend into total darkness in a generation.

  9. Yes, I agree that if basic teaching is sound, you don’t need much to run a church. I guess I hope a bit that if some of the pastors are exposed to broader and more demanding teaching, perhaps some of the shonky doctrines might be nipped in the bud before they take over. Still, education is no guarantee that people won’t just be better equipped to justify their own point of view. A right heart is essential as well.

    “What was once perhaps Christian can descend into total darkness in a generation.”

    Yes, it can.

    Literacy is important, so that people can read for themselves to see what scripture says, which can help.

    However a culture elevating leaders too highly increases moral hazard for those in leadership while decreasing the opportunity for correction to come from the rest of the body.

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