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Latin America: Evangelical Christianity moves the masses - A report from Venezuela




Long considered a monolithic Roman Catholic bloc, Latin America is undergoing a religious transformation. About 15 percent of Latin Americans have converted to evangelical Christianity, making it the fastest growing religion in the region. A few years ago, the Latin American Catholic Bishops Conference claimed that 8,000 Latin Americans converted to evangelical Christianity every day.

While countries like Brazil and Guatemala have taken the lead, about 20 and 30 percent evangelical respectively, Venezuela's evangelical Christians are growing slower, although steadily. They account for 10 percent of the population. Their influence has grown under leftist President Hugo Chavez whose administration has clashed with the Catholic Church, which opposes the government, and which Chavez in turn has accused of elitism. In a nominally religious country, Chavez has cleverly seized on the appeal to the poor of popular religions and evangelicalism.

Some call evangelical Christianity the "religion of the poor." Pentecostalism, evangelical Christanity's main engine, especially appeals to the most afflicted with its strict religious regimen. By attending to material as well as spiritual needs, Pentecostalsm holds out hope to the desperate poor around the developing world similar to the way Islam attracts people in Asia and the Middle East. Disillusioned with Catholicism, large segments of the Venezuelan poor are turning to evangelicalism's offer of community, help, and hope for a better life.

As long as safety, employment, and education keep going downhill, this social transformation promises to expand. The growth of evangelical Christianity in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America, begs a few questions: how will this social transformation help or hurt the region? Will evangelical Christianity save the country from its social ills, while spurring tolerance, development and true social justice, as some claim? Or are we in for further disappointment?

The religious marketplace

Most evangelical converts come from the Catholic Church. For those that stay in evangelical congregations, they find their spiritual and material needs met in a way that the Church hasn't learned to do.

The influence of free market capitalism on contemporary religion cannot be underestimated. Based on the idea of choice, and the freedom to pick a product from a variety of competing alternatives, the days of inheriting your parent's religion and passing it down has given way to the religious marketplace. Besides syncretic Roman Catholicism, and cults like Maria Lionza and Santeria, Pentecostals and other evangelicals are marketing their religions to poor consumers, and succeeding.

Pastor Joaquin Pirela thinks that the "inclusive" nature of evangelical churches represents part of its appeal. "We talk to the hookers and the drunks," said Pirela who leads a non-denominational church and doubles as Press Secretary for the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (CEV), an umbrella group which includes over 150 evangelical churches and church organizations. Pirela adds that evangelical churches are more in touch with contemporary life, allowing divorced people to remarry, something the Catholic Church still prohibits.

Along the same lines, Pastor Samuel Olson, head of the Las Acacias Evangelical Pentecostal Church and President of the CVE, believes evangelicalism gives converts a new identity. "They feel recognized by God and everyone else. No longer rejected, they feel accepted. They get their personal dignity back."

Evangelicalism's intense religious regimen makes for busy schedules. Unlike Catholics, who are known for low church attendance, Pentecostals demand weekly church attendance as a minimum commitment. Pentecostal churches further involve their members by encouraging them to organize meetings, perform with a church band or choir, participate in Bible study, and volunteer to help and proselytize to addicts, sex workers, and the homeless. Any church member who does half that will naturally feel great attachment to their church.

The change in new converts is sometimes breathtaking. "A new person assumes moral responsibility in his community and family life," said Olson. "Their [religion] gives them a sense of place. That represents a possibility for a better future, for a way out of their situation."

Evangelicalism's marketing approach is direct. Unused to outside concern, the poor are impressed by the way these religions seek them out in the roughest barrios. Seeing a local drug dealer transformed into a bible-thumping preacher further sparks curiosity. Maybe this is a way out, they think.

Going to barrios to preach, feeding the homeless, rehabilitating drug addicts-this approach has helped California's Victory Outreach International grow to over 500 churches in 23 countries. Their strategy is simple and effective. "'Where are the drugs?'" asks Manuel Aguirre when he arrives at a new place during his missionary trips. "We find these places, and establish ourselves. When you have changed the addict, the whole family follows. That's our strategy." He could have added: show people miracles, and they respond.

What's wrong with Catholicism that so many are abandoning it for evangelical Christianity? The Catholic Church is having serious problems retaining people.

The pastors I talked to see the Catholic Church as out of touch, too institutional, and inattentive to worldly problems. "People want a relationship with God more than a religion," explained Pirela. "They want a living God, not one on a wall."

Pirela suggests the popular appeal of evangelicalism's visceral practices. Pentecostalism goes the furthest in this respect. By tapping into the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals fall into trances and speak in tongues, heal, and prophesy. Catholic services are tame compared to the spectacle of a Pentecostal service. Pentecostals are just more fun.

Olson thinks that evangelicals are winning over Catholic converts by involving people and encouraging participation,. "[Catholics] don't get anything out of mass," he argued. "They [simply] go and repeat. Many are barely Catholic. When they come to us, they say 'My faith became real here.'"

In contrast, evangelicalism's "active community," as Olson puts it, goes far beyond the Sunday service. If people are notoriously attention-hungry, strangers inviting them to participate in church activities succeeds where the limited nature of the Catholic church fails. When it comes to community, that primordial human need to belong and feel welcomed, there is simply more of it among evangelicals than Catholics.

The product of defectors from various Christian denominations, Pentecostalism has influenced mainstream Protestantism and even Catholicism. The Catholic Charismatic movement has gained in popularity by emphasizing a similar visceral relationship to God. Where Marxist Catholic liberation theology as a social movement failed, society's most spiritually and materially hungry were left to seek out alternatives like evangelicalism.

Apolinar Perez, a priest who works at the Gumilla Center, a Jesuit-run social services NGO, suggests that liberation theology failed because it was more political than spiritual. "Marxism was unrealistic," said Perez. "This revolution within the Church was moving so fast that the Church itself pulled the plug on it because these kinds of changes have to take place over time."

Evangelicalism, by contrast, generally sticks to the spiritual, addressing the social indirectly. As a strategy, it seems more effective than talking radical politics to the poor.

Although Latin American evangelicalism has successfully competed against the centuries-old dominance of the Catholic Church, the story of an imminent evangelical takeover of Latin America is more than a little exaggerated.

Evidence indicates that many converts don't last long in evangelical churches, often returning to the Catholic Church. Although the serious commitment that evangelical churches demand attracts converts that require a spiritual boot camp, that very commitment seems to push many to abandon evangelicalism. Edward L. Cleary, a Latin Americanist and former missionary, wrote on the subject, "living up to the perfectionist character of pentecostalism is extremely difficult."

"People sometimes look for a light evangelicalism," explained Aguirre, "an easy solution to their problems." Rather than a profound transformation, many converts are moved by a temporary emergency. "Many go to [an evangelical] church looking for a corrective in the middle of a crisis," said Pirela. "When things turn out to be hard, they leave through the back door."

Evangelicalism continues to capture the hearts and minds of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans. But is the sky really the limit for Latin American evangelicalism, or are Catholicism's profound roots too much in the long-term?

Can evangelicalism save Latin America?

There's no doubt that evangelical denominations reach out to Venezuela's most vulnerable people much more aggressively than the Catholic Church. Victory Outreach's Aguirre, himself a former gang member and heroin addict, obviously sees the poor as that untapped target group prime for religious conversion.

Yet it's not just religious marketing, but a genuine desire to change the lives of society's castoffs that motivates these churches. Motivated by evangelical zeal and a belief in God's power to change lives, pastors and church members think evangelicalism has the power to transform the continent.

Besides abstract feelings of belonging, evangelical churches help members to recover from drug addiction, repair family ties, and generally integrate into society. They go further, finding people jobs, and providing daycare, clothes, and other basic needs for members. People find structure and purpose to chaotic and hopeless lives. Ultimately, what they find is not only a reason to live, but a reason to live better.

"We concentrate on the individual's total development," said Pirela. "If we succeed in evangelizing society, we can achieve a social transformation by reducing drug addiction and poverty."

Olson argues that evangelical Christianity has all the ingredients for a social transformation. "It works as a yeast that slowly affects social structures," said Olson. "Ethics, commitment to country, social duty and responsibility, participation, a rejection of social determinism, and the ability to share with others" are no doubt the foundation of democracy. Besides improving economic opportunities, bible study, missionary work, and preaching teach reading, speaking and administrative skills that help people become better citizens.

A social transformation takes place over many decades, however, and requires careful and wise guidance. It also depends on other historical factors, like war and the global economy, which can be unpredictable. Evangelical Christianity's own hopes for wide-ranging social change in Latin America rest on growth. Perez, for one, doesn't think they'll achieve it.

Perez argues that social change requires the very institutional nature of the Catholic Church that held back liberation theology. According to him, churches need structure and organization to gain followers and influence over time.

"The Pentecostal movement has been declining because it's made up of independent cells led by a pastor who does his own thing," said Perez. "[In contrast,] the Catholic church has a body, and one that is becoming more flexible."

Perez suggests that people seek stability in their churches, and that the variety of evangelical practices goes counter to that need. Perhaps that's what 's behind the revolving door effect that brings many converts back into the arms of the Catholic church.

Aguirre too believes in the importance of structure. According to Aguirre, a "large minority" of evangelical churches "don't know where they're going." He pushes churches to develop mission statements to guide their work. "Without one, you don't have any direction," said Aguirre.

Perez remains skeptical about Pentecostalism's long-term prospects for growth. He points out that unlike Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, Pentecostals and other evangelicals have dropped door-to-door proselytism. "You can reach more people through personal contact than by setting up stages in barrios," said Perez. He adds that Pentecostals are too sectarian and exclusive to embrace masses of people, which doesn't square with the warm, friendly and outgoing evangelicals I met.

At the same time, rather than responding to evangelicalism's growth with renewed outreach efforts, the Catholic church seems to do little more than complain about people's wayward behavior. If they keep that up, they'll just lose more ground regardless of evangelical Christianity's alleged weaknesses.

Even if evangelical Christianity succeeds in gaining many more Latin American converts, it's obvious that not everyone will change religions, and that many go back and forth anyway. As Perez suggests, a social transformation, if done right, takes a very long time and a great deal of intelligent stewardship. But perhaps Perez's most incisive criticism of the evangelical movement is its separation of spiritual and social missions.

"They don't tackle social problems directly," said Perez. "Social change has to be direct and structured." Perez argues that in that sense the Catholic Church has been more effective and thus has a better shot of socialy transforming the region. Despite Perez's strident arguments, as a Marxist, he's clearly in the minority. The Church's efforts are well behind Perez's rhetoric.

Still, Perez is right to indicate that evangelicals conceive of social change on a personal basis. They change many individuals, but disparate efforts don't lead to major social change. Evangelicals also lack the political consciousness that Catholics have developed. If changing minds politically remains a condition for changing lives socially, evangelicals are traveling the wrong road.

Yet continuing social crises promise to further boost evangelical growth in the region. The evangelical appeal to the poor is undeniably strong. Even if evangelicals lack organizational structure, they provide the structure and community individuals need to lead productive lives. An out of touch Catholic Church suggests that at the very least a large evangelical minority will make themselves heard in Venezuelan society for a long time to come.

While evangelical growth might be Latin America's biggest social movement, it's wise not to exaggerate its importance. Fervent believers in miracles, it makes sense that some evangelicals guarantee no less than a radical transformation of the region. But social change requires much more than a religious transformation. If the underlying socio-economic conditions stay the same, the same social ills will remain.

José Orozco



Born and raised in Chicago, José Orozco works as a freelance reporter in Caracas, Venezuela where he covers social issues.

© 2004 José Orozco. All rights reserved.


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