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Themes of Pentecostal expansion in Latin America.

We have argued elsewhere that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish clearly between Latin American Pentecostalism and the other Protestant denominations of Latin America.(1) As early as 1961 Eugene Nida noticed that the characteristics of Latin American Pentecostalism are in reality expressions of indigenous Christianity. This Christianity, according to Nida, manifests itself in an intense emotional spirituality. On an individual level it climaxes in the experience of Spirit fullness and glossolalia, and on a communal level in group prayer and the cultivation of varied charismata of healing. The indigenous Latin churches follow holiness doctrines and hold to literal biblicism. Although originally the consequence of North American missionary activity, these phenomena have "effectively 'connected' with Latin American folk" religiosity (see last section of this study).(2) Therefore, in this study, the terms "Pentecostal," "charismatic," "evangelical" (evangelico), "believer," and "Protestant" are used interchangeably. The term "neo-Pentecostal" usually designates Pentecostalism in the more traditional denominations. But Pentecostals within the Roman Catholic Church have also been referred to as Roman Catholic Pentecostals.

In perusing some of the recent publications on the expansion of Latin American Pentecostalism, both popular and scholarly, I note that several themes emerge. They gravitate around the way Pentecostals experience the working of the Holy Spirit in the world in which they live--a world of poverty, injustice, and power politics; a world of Roman Catholicism, primal folk religiosity, and multiple Protestant church bodies. In this essay the sociopolitical dimensions of Pentecostalism are discussed in the sections entitled "The Holy Spirit and the Poor" and "The Holy Spirit and the Seduction of Power" (politics). The relationship between Pentecostals and the World Council of Churches, especially as it appears in the periodical literature, is dealt with in the section "The Holy Spirit and the Churches," and the way Pentecostalism relates to Latin American folk religiosity, in "The Holy Spirit and Religion."

The Holy Spirit and the Poor

Initially, Pentecostalism in Latin America took hold among the poor and oppressed. Charity work among their own faithful began early. Today, as John P. Medcraft observes, Pentecostal social assistance programs are often extensive.(3) In Brazil's largest Pentecostal church, the Congregacao Christa no Brasil, this compassionate outreach is firmly anchored in the organizational structure of the local congregation. All church expenditures are determined by the deacons of charity (obra de piedade, the department of charitable activities).(4) In other words, Pentecostals are concerned with providing immediate help for people in need.

However, the desire of Pentecostals to ease present suffering goes beyond the urgency of the moment. In the midst of a society the relegates the poor to inner city slums and shanty towns, the Pentecostals endow their followers with a sense of identity and dignity and give them hope for tomorrow.(5) In surveying a Brazilian slum, it became clear that, after a few years, the believers had achieved real, if modest, improvement in their social conditions through sacrifice and hard work.(6)

More extensive social work has been carried out where Pentecostals have had access to power and money. They built hospitals and provided health care instruction for the community.(7) In one place in Guatemala, Roman Catholic neo-Pentecostals launched an extensive community development effort involving road construction and housing programs.(8)

Pentecostal believers have also participated in such grass root revolutionary activities as an invasion--an occupation of largely unoccupied lands by landless peasants and homeless city dwellers. They try to force the authorities to cede lots to them to build houses for themselves and their families. During the invasion described by Starr Bowen, several of the members staked out lots. They argued that landowners who had more land than they needed were obligated by the Gospel to share it with others.(9) Our own experience during a land invasion in Monteria, Colombia, was similar. Not only did members stake out lots for themselves, they had even set out a plot of land on which a church should be built.

Catholic author Jose Valderrey nevertheless feels that "Pentecostalism constitutes a major handicap to the liberation of the peoples" because Pentecostals do not usually support the political and structural approach of social action promoted by liberation theologians.(10) However, Mexican Pentecostalist Manuel Gaxiola contends that it is "unfair to demand from them what no church seems to be capable of achieving, namely radical structural changes in society."(11) For Pentecostals, liberation is essentially a spiritual affair. Although very aware of and sensitive to the wretched circumstances in which so many live, they feel that social activity must be embedded in prayer and directed by the Spirit.(12) The end result of this Spirit-regulated social work is extremely practical. To the hungry at their doorsteps they give food and drink, and the naked are clothed. They believe that to those who come to the Lord, the Spirit will give power and hope in the daily struggle of life.

According to a recent publication by CEDI (a Brazilian center of ecumenical documentation and information), liberation theology's "base community members in that country are joining Pentecostal churches in large numbers."(13) Could it be that the religious needs of the people in the base communities would be more effectively met in a Pentecostal church?

In a study entitled "The Gods of the People" (Os Deuses do Povo), Marxist sociologist Carlos Rodrigues-Brando makes similar observations about Pentecostalism. He concludes that their religious beliefs can no longer be understood in terms of a flight from reality. Instead, their religious beliefs are a source of hope in a "final struggle that will recreate the social order."(14) Samuel Palma and Hugo Villela argue similarly: the immense growth of Latin American Pentecostalism during the past twenty years shows that the movement is not an escape from social responsibilities in the here and now; rather, Pentecostalism appears to create a new reality for the masses of Latin American people.(15) Pentecostals would assert that their social awareness is Spirit-driven. Is it because of this that Pentecostal social work cannot be structured by church policies? It has been remarked that "Pentecostals don't have a social policy, they are a social policy."(16) Could this Pentecostal "social spontaneity" be one of the reasons why so many deprived Latin Americans become Pentecostal believers?

The Holy Spirit and the Seduction of Power

The tightly wrought fabric that allied the Roman Catholic Church with Latin American governments proved painful for Pentecostal churches. It denied their right to existence. They were told that they prepared the way for anarchy and atheism and that those who separated from the one and only church separated from more than just Roman Catholicism: "a Brazilian Protestant was not really a Brazilian and conversion to a Protestant church was equivalent to a betrayal of the cultural heritage of the country."(17) They were equated with insurgents to be imprisoned and killed.(18) The creyentes pentecostales (Pentecostal believers) found that the Roman Catholic Church acted in unison with any kind of secular government that backed up the Catholic interests--even the most shady dictatorships: The condition for the collaboration between church and state was not based on moral considerations but on whether the government acted firmly on behalf of Roman Catholicism.(19) It should not be surprising that some Latin American Pentecostals came to view the alliance between the state and the Roman Catholic Church as demonic.

Pentecostals countered these threatening religiopolitical forces with a peculiar kind of political spirituality. They first tried to understand the political situation of the countries from which their missionary teachers had come. There, their coreligionists were not persecuted. They were respected and could even run for office. That meant that en el norte (in the northern countries) the evangelicos had the power that placed into their hands the very means the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America was using so skillfully against them. Luis Palau, the well-known evangelical leader from Argentina, expressed what many Pentecostals felt: "The American has such a good political system."(20) And North American missionaries were usually eager to confirm this perception.

Jose Valderrey explains that the early period of Protestant expansion in Latin America must be understood in conjunction with the prevailing sense of manifest destiny in the United States at that time.(21) The expansion of the United States was considered a divine calling linked with the obligation to spread the advancements of U.S. democracy with its spiritual motivator, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is in this context that the more recent involvement of some U.S. missionaries with the Central Intelligence Agency must be understood.(22) The manifest destiny mentality of the United States has never really died. It lives in the minds of many missionaries and has also surfaced in pronouncements of contemporary U.S. presidents. President George Bush, for example, stated, "We have whipped the world with our culture."(23) David Stoll points out that the White House has encouraged foreign missions "to promote the U.S. government's agenda in Latin America."(24) The ideological setting is, then, the equation of the enemies of God and those of Washington. In this context, the evangelization of the world becomes possible because of the potent United States. In order to spread the Christian message, God has even ordained the U.S. military machine; even, "developing nuclear weapons was a part of God's plan."(25) An evangelical believer involved in the Contra-aid activities observed, "You can make a strong case for saying the American way is synonymous with Christianity."(26)

A similar kind of thinking is present in the way many evangelicos have related to their own Latin American governments: as long as these governments were not hostile to their churches, evangelicals have supported them. Just as Latin American Roman Catholics had associated national identity with Roman Catholicism, evangelicals were now establishing a similar equation along their own lines. Their support for the interests of the United States and local governments (including the military dictatorships of President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in Chile and the government of E. Rios Montt in Guatemala)(27) was not determined by questions of morality, but whether the government favored the interests of their church.(28)

Obviously, then, Pentecostals do not necessarily support the status quo. Rather, Pentecostals support the status quo and either traditional or revolutionary governments to the extent that these governments permit "breathing space" for their churches. Latin American Pentecostals are looking for what David Martin calls a "free social space" where, undisturbed by either right or left, they can develop and spread their message. While at times wrapped up in the imperialist overtures of North America, their essential message runs counter to the dynamics of violence in their own society and also counter to what their North American teachers have brought them.(29) The Latin American evangelicos have "shift|ed~ outside of the system of violence" of the surrounding society and are appalled by "anything that involves the shedding of blood."(30) Guillermo Cook, paraphrasing Stoll, observes that "evangelical conversion may have become for the masses a more peaceful outlet for revolutionary fervor than the political message of liberation."(31) Martin detects the commonality between these evangelicos and primitive Christianity. Like the early Christians, he notes, "They have a deeply pacifistic view of the world."(32) In fact, there are remarkable parallels between the pacifist ecclesiology of the Anabaptists and Latin American Pentecostalism.(33) It is not incidental, therefore, that Jose Vicente Salazar concludes his study on the neo-Pentecostal community of La Union with a section indicating that now "machetes are only for work"--the Spirit-seized believers of La Union have turned from the violence of the bloody quarrels and machete cuts of their former life to the Prince of Peace.(34)

The final aim of Pentecostal preaching is the creation of a sociopolitical order structured along the lines of the new world of biblical prophecy--where there will be no more wars, where all will have plenty, and where sickness and suffering have eternally ceased.

What makes Pentecostalism so attractive to the masses of Latin America is that it is a religion of nonconformity with this world of suffering and death--a kind of messianic protest(35)--constantly attempting to restructure that which is into what ought to be. The mundo nuevo of Latin American Pentecostalism is accessed through conversion, mediated by Christ's vicarious work.(36)

The Holy Spirit and the Churches

The conservative, biblicist convictions of Pentecostalism were shaped during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in the early decades of this century. Like other conservative groups, Pentecostals were frightened by the conciliar developments that followed the 1910 Edinburgh missionary conference. To them the International Missionary Council (IMC, organized in 1921) was a cesspool of liberals and syncretism that distorted the essence of the Christian faith. When the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948, after the turmoil of the Second World War, Pentecostals saw an affinity between this body and the IMC. They were not surprised when the IMC and WCC merged in 1961. To them the "ecumenical movement, as represented by the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches," exhibited "both open and pronounced trends toward apostasy from the historic Christian faith."(37) "We hold that this position is based upon the clear teaching of the Scriptures."(38) It is not surprising, then, that part of the message of Pentecostal missionaries was to warn their overseas converts against the WCC and those who were affiliated with it.

In their experience, Pentecostals felt their position was verified in multiple ways. Often conciliar people treated them as an embarrassment(39) and labeled their "soul winning" work as proselytism.(40) Du Plessis reminds us that some non-Pentecostal Christians went even further and attributed the Pentecostals' "supernatural experience ... to the devil."(14) The relationship of Pentecostals to Roman Catholicism was even more precarious. The Roman Catholic Church was already a global superchurch similar to what the WCC wanted to become and was excluding everything that did not fit into its understanding of church.(42) To Roman Catholics the Pentecostals were a sect that had to be eliminated. They suffered harassment and were met with violence.(43) On the basis of his vast statistical work, David B. Barrett observes that Pentecostal "members are more harassed, persecuted, suffering, martyred than perhaps any other Christian tradition in recent history."(44) That Pentecostals have opened up at all to ecumenism and even to the World Council of Churches is a miracle. The Free Pentecostal Church of Chile, the Pentecostal Church of Chile, and the Pentecostal Mission Church of Chile are now all member churches of the WCC.

I do not mean to imply that Latin American Pentecostals have become conciliar. In fact, when the Chilean Pentecostal churches were accepted into the WCC, the Pentecostal media first seemed bewildered and then responded with condemnation.(45) Pentecostals, however, in fact have participated in ecumenical and large interdenominational encounters and work groups. Their contributions have been substantial. What Pentecostals are offering to the ecumenical movement is a spirituality of ecumenism--a universal rediscovery of the Spirit for all Christian denominations and an emphasis on the experience of the Holy Spirit and God's presence and work wherever the Spirit wishes.(46) "All those who have been born of the Spirit and seized by his power are already one," the Pentecostals would say. Doubtless, this kind of ecclesial unity has a magnetic draw for the people of the region who are wary of the inefficiency of institutionalized religion. But this is an ecumenism, the final outcome of which would be "the pentecostalization of the (entire) church."(47)

The Holy Spirit and Religion

It is not surprising that superficial observers of Latin American Pentecostalism have charged the movement with being nothing but an import from the United States. But, argues David Stoll, "If evangelical churches were really built on (the) handouts (of North American missionaries) ... then they would be spiritless patronage structures, not the vital expression that so many of them are."(48) Palma and Villela point out that what really happened is the exact opposite--the movement developed in the context of folk culture and in defiance of the customs and lifestyle of those sectors of society that were eager to identify with northern industrialized civilization.(49)

The Pentecostal imagery of turning "from the world to the vida nueva" as delineating a believer's spiritual journey is deeply rooted in the day-to-day experience of the working classes--namely, in their home, in their work, and in the street. These are all experienced negatively. The home is crowded, with no privacy; frequently the most essential things of life are lacking. Instead of being the sphere where one can realize a meaningful life for others, the place of work turns into a locus of subjection and exploitation. Worse, work often cannot even be found. The worker (or would-be worker) feels superfluous and useless. The street is the place of the perpetual search for work--a road without end. It is the place where all vices run rampant, the place of danger and crime.

The conversion experience makes it possible for the Pentecostal believer to break out of "the world" (this world) into a new life. The church becomes the new home with power to transform the old. The church also becomes the place where meaningful existence for others can be realized. It gives the believer the identity and worth that could not be found in his or her lugar del trabajo (place of work). Thus the church turns into the locus from which the world (street) can be effectively evangelized. The Pentecostal creyente turns del mundo al mundo (from the world to the world).(50) The religious sphere and the way Pentecostal churches in Latin America are organized grow out of and are fed by their immediate environment.(51)

In folk religion Virgilio Elizondo sees expressions of the people's soul that depict their actual religious needs. But it is a religiosity that is not necessarily sanctioned by the official church.(52) Palma and Villela go still further, contending that official Roman Catholicism actually runs counter to the religious feeling of the Latin American masses.(53)

Pentecostalism, in contrast, has effectively "connected" with Latin American folk religion. The occasional and unprepared North American or European visitor to Cali, Colombia, for example, might be appalled by an exorcism session that is carried out in a separate room of a local church building. "But," a resident pastor explains, "what happens here is very similar to the way a local curandero (healer) might deal with the oppressive forces of the spirit world. It is a familiar religious context." In his analysis of a Brazilian conversion story, Walter Hollenweger comes to the conclusion that this "was not a decision for a certain type of theology, namely the Pentecostal. It was more a decision for a type of Christianity within which ... (the convert) could operate without having to give up his own oral (folk religious) tradition."(54) Making reference to our own studies on Bogota, Colombia, Stoll finds that Pentecostalism functions to "rechannel (the) popular religiosity of folk Catholicism" into a more truly Christian framework.(55) But it is a biblical framework of high and rigorous moral standards. That is to say, Pentecostalism converts the morally neutral folk religion of the masses into a context of ethical responsibility, in effect becoming a protest against" the moral perplexity of our times."(56)


1. Karl-Wilhelm Westmeier, Reconciling Heaven and Earth: The Transcendental Enthusiasm and Growth of an Urban Protestant Community, Bogota, Colombia (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), pp. 376-78.

2. Eugene Nida, "The Indigenous Churches in Latin America," Practical Anthropology 8 (1961): 97-105.

3. John P. Medcraft, "The Roots and Fruits of Brazilian Pentecostalism," Vox Evangelica 17 (1987): 88.

4. Reed E. Nelson, "Five Principles of Indigenous Church Organization: Lessons from a Brazilian Pentecostal Church," Missiology: An International Review 17, no. 1 (January 1989): 46.

5. Medcraft, "Roots and Fruits," pp. 67-93.

6. In Arnold Bittlinger, ed., The Church Is Charismatic (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981), p. 190. Cf. Manuel J. Gaxiola, "The Pentecostal Ministry," International Review of Mission 66 (January 1977): 58.

7. In Bittlinger, Church Is Charismatic, p. 192.

8. Ibid.

9. Starr Bowen, "Land Invasion and the Gospel," Christian Century, September 11-18, 1985, pp. 800-802.

10. Jose Valderrey, "Sects in Central America: A Pastoral Problem," Pro Mundi Vita Bulletin 100 (1985): 34.

11. Quoted in Ahron Sapezian, "Ministry with the Poor: An Introduction," International Review of Mission 66 (January 1977): 11.

12. Cf. Gaxiola, "Pentecostal Ministry," p. 61.

13. Guillermo Cook, "The Evangelical Groundswell in Latin America," Christian Century, December 12, 1990, p. 1175.

14. Ibid., p. 1178.

15. Samuel Palma and Hugo Villela, "Die Pfingstbewegung als Volksreligion des lateinamerikanischen Protestantismus: Einige Elemente zum Verstandnis der Dynamic der Pfingstkirchen in Lateinamerika," Zeitschrift fur Mission 16, no. 1 (1990): 25.

16. In P. A. Hardiment, ed., "Confessing the Apostolic Faith from the Perspective of the Pentecostal Churches," One in Christ 23, no. 1-2 (1987): 68.

17. Medcraft, "Roots and Fruits," p. 67.

18. Everett A. Wilson, "Sanguine Saints: Pentecostalism in El Salvador," Church History 52 (June 1983): 190-94.

19. Cf. David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 28.

20. In John Kenyon, "Preaching to the Needs of Latin America: An Interview with Luis Palau of Argentina," Christian Herald, May 1980, p. 42.

21. Valderrey, "Sects in Central America," p. 19.

22. Cf. Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? p. 57.

23. Cited in David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 272.

24. Stoll, Is Latin American Turning Protestant? p. 139.

25. See ibid., pp. 57, 67, 88-89.

26. Penny Lernoux, "The Fundamentalist Surge in Latin America," Christian Century, January 20, 1988, p. 54.

27. See Orlando E. Costas, "Church Growth as a Multidimensional Phenomenon: Some Lessons from Chile," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 5 (January 1981): 5.

28. Cf. Stoll, Is Latin American Turning Protestant? pp. 180ff., 193ff.; cf. also pp. 203-4.

29. On the militaristic trends within U.S. evangelicalism, see Dennis Hollinger, Individualism and Social Ethics: An Evangelical Syncretism (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1983).

30. So David Martin in Tim Stafford, "The Hidden Fire," Christianity Today, May 14, 1990, pp. 24, 26.

31. Cook, "Evangelical Groundswell," pp. 1174-75 (emphasis mine).

32. Martin in Stafford, "Hidden Fire," pp. 23-26.

33. So Juan Sepulveda, "Pentecostal Theology in the Context of the Struggle for Life," in Faith Born in the Struggle for Life, ed., D. Kirkpatrick (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), p. 305.

34. Jose Vicente Salazar, "La renovacion carismatica y su proyeccion social en La Union, Zapaca: Un municipio que hace honor a su nombre," Estudios teologicos 7, no. 14 (1980): 230.

35. See also Walter J. Hollenweger, "Charismatic Renewal in the Third World: Implications for Mission," Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 4 (April 1980): 69-70.

36. Palma and Villela ("Pfingstbewegung," p. 28) state that the conversion experience is the essential center of the Pentecostal message.

37. Missionary Handbook for Overseas Ministries (Nyack, N.Y.: Division of Overseas Ministries, Christian and Missionary Alliance, 1987), p. 44.

38. Ibid.

39. See in Hardiment, "Confessing the Apostolic Faith," p. 130.

40. See "The Consultation on Confessing the Apostolic Faith: From the Perspective of the Pentecostal Churches (October 22-24, 1986)," Ecumenical Trends 16, no. 2 (February 1987): 30.

41. David J. Du Plessis, "Golden Jubilees of Twentieth-Century Pentecostal Movements," International Review of Mission 47, no. 186 (April 1958): 195.

42. A contemporary ecumenical commentator writes that "the Pentecostal misunderstanding of the ecumenical movement as a super world-church needs to be corrected." See "Consultation," p. 30.

43. See Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? pp. 32, 33, 28. See especially James Goff, The Persecution of Protestant Christians in Colombia, 1948-1958: With an Investigation of Its Background and Causes (Cuernavaca, Mexico: Centro Intercultural de Documentacion, Sondeos, no. 23, 1968).

44. David B. Barrett, "The Twentieth-Century Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal in the Holy Spirit, with Its Goal of World Evangelization," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12, no. 3 (1988): 119.

45. So Walter Hollenweger in Marta Palma, "A Pentecostal Church in the Ecumenical Movement," Ecumenical Review 37, no. 2 (April 1985): 228.

46. Cf. in Hardiment, "Confessing the Apostolic Faith," p. 67.

47. Russell P. Spittler, "Implicit Values of Pentecostal Missions," Missiology: An International Review 16, no. 4 (October 1988): 421.

48. Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? p. 12.

49. Palma and Villela, "Pfingstbewegung," p. 25.

50. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

51. Cf. Nelson, "Five Principles," p. 41.

52. In John A. McCoy, "Popular Religion in Latin America," America 159, no. 20 (December 31, 1988): 534.

53. Palma and Villela, "Pfingstbewegung," p. 27.

54. Hollenweger, "Charismatic Renewal," p. 70.

55. Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? p. 113.

56. So Hollenweger as cited in Medcraft, "Roots and Fruits," p. 83.

Karl-Wilhelm Westmeier, a German citizen, is Professor of Missiology and Theology at the Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack, New York (Puerto Rican Extension). He served for twenty-one years as a missionary of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Columbia, South America.
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Author:Westmeier, Karl-Wilhelm
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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