Christianity in Latin America
How it works
How do you eat an elephant? By eating one piece at a time. The subject of Christianity in Latin America or any other continent can be studied for a lifetime. As a student and educator the responsibility of selecting what information on a subject is most necessary to learn can seem daunting. However the purpose of this paper is to highlight certain events or groups that have had a great impact on Christianity in Latin America. Groups like the the Catholic missionaries, the Pentecostal movement, and liberation theology have broken through Latin American borders and continue to remain relevant on a global scale in the 21st century.
As noted in the title, this paper will be organized chronologically with an emphasis on the past of Christendom in Latin America because it has laid the foundation for what is today; historical trends also aid scholars in predicting what the future of Christianity in Latin America may look like. It is my hope that this paper will be informative as well as inspirational to Christian readers so they may realize that Christianity looks different among the global Church and those differences may spark fire in their hearts as they live out the Christian life.
How it works
The Catholic Church is credited for bringing the Gospel of Christ to Latin America through its missionaries and establishment of missions throughout the region. “As much as missionary activity came to characterize most of the new and renewed Catholic orders, it received even more systematic attention from the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Jesuits…By 1600 Augustinian missionaries had brought their version of the gospel to Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Chile in Latin America” (Noll 208) The missions that were established by Catholic missionaries were centers of worship, education and refuge.
In fact, the Jesuits (an order of Catholicism) were known to fight for the rights of indigenous peoples whom were thought to be lesser than human and therefore were routinely kidnapped by slave traders. Catholic missionaries were also known to conduct baptisms for masses of natives in order to convert as many people as possible; the drawback from this form of evangelism is that conversions may not have been sincere. Another unfortunate flaw of Catholic practices in Latin America was that natives were not allowed to take part in communion or become ordained. This led to a deficiency in number of priests available to continue teaching new Christians and was constant reminder that the Europeans viewed the native Latin Americans as lesser beings.
The main reason why Catholicism overcame overwhelming odds and “conquered” Latin America for Christ was inculturation. “In religious terms, the greatest long-term Catholic successes would be in Central and South America, where the conquered peoples accepted forms of Catholicism, heavily mixed with local beliefs” (Jenkins 45). In order to effectively communicate the gospel to indigenous people, Catholic missionaries were sensitive native traditions and sometimes allowed ancient practices to continue as long as they were not sinful in nature.
A great example of inculturation is demonstrated by the natives of Mexico who worshipped the Aztec goddess Tonantz?n prior to the revelation of the Virgin Mary so adopting the worship of Mary was an easy transition. Native Catholic believers also claimed to have Marian visions which later would be inspiration for Virgen movements (movements which demanded justice for the lay people in the name of Mary). Movements like this were inevitable given that the worship of goddesses runs deep through Mexican history. Inculturation proved to be more effective than religious intolerance which felt oppressive and evil in the eyes of indigenous people groups (i.e. the burning of ancient Mayan religious texts).
The introduction of Pentecostalism in Latin America has influenced what Christianity looks like in Latin America which from its birth has been Catholic in practice. It can be said that “much of the remarkable Pentecostal growth has come at the expense of the Catholic Church, particularly in Latin America where Pentecostals constitute about 75 percent of non-Roman Catholic Christians. It is estimated that some 8,000 to 10,000 Catholics leave their church every day to join Pentecostal churches” (Rausch 933). The Pentecostal movement has even influenced priests within the Catholic church to preach in a similar style as Pentecostals and wear a suit with a tie instead of the traditional robes.
The Pentecostal movement has changed more than aesthetics of the clergy in the Church, it has also brought about the empowerment of individuals in Latin America and a way to experience God in which the Catholic church did not offer: the baptism of Holy Spirit. Pentecostal believers earnestly seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit and practice the gifts of the Spirit. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is healing which has long since been highly valued by Christians in Latin America.
Healing is viewed as power from God and produces a deep loyalty towards Him and His Church. The healings often practiced in the Pentecostal churches attract many Latin Americans because of the great need they have of divine intervention in their lives. Of course a drawback of this is that Latin American Pentecostals can become driven by the signs and wonders rather than a genuine desire to live for Christ.
The growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America was explosive because it is socially inclusive and empowers all people (regardless of gender or social status) to live a Christian life. Initially in Latin America, the Catholic church supported colonialism and colonialism while the Protestant church (including Pentecostal) “appealed to migrants and the marginalized.” (Jenkins 78). Latin America has struggled with poverty and oppression for the last 400 years of its history, no wonder Protestant movements like Pentecostalism have been adopted by Catholics and non believers alike.
Pentecostalism has also been a pioneer for empowering women to positions of leadership in the church as many women have been central figures within the Pentecostal church. Women tend to make up the majority of church members in Pentecostal churches in Latin America and their roles range from prayer warriors, pastors, board members, worship leaders, treasures, any position available in local churches. Pentecostalism in Latin America set a standard a higher standard for how the church should treat the poor and marginalized which contributed to the ideas defined in Liberation Theology.
The teachings of Liberation Theology resonates with the most poor in Latin America and views Christ as the liberator, not just of their souls but of their present lives. While Pentecostalism has recognized the dignity individuals it also has discouraged its members from engaging in politics and other societal affairs; pacifism is regarded as virtue among Latin American Pentecostals. Liberation theology teaches that Christians must engage in politics and fight for the justice of all peoples not simply pray for divine intervention.
Gustavo Gutierrez, who is the founder of Liberation Theology, examined the state of Latin America in the 19th century as a period in which European powers continued to have control over Latin America’s economy and view of Christianity. Gutierrez argued that Latin Americans need to deconstruct it’s previous notions of Christianity as they were taught from a European or Colonial standpoint in order to be truly free.
A controversial belief developed from Liberation is the idea that Christ is more near to the poor, this idea comes as great news to the orphan in Latin America but offensive in the eyes of the middle and upper class. Christ himself said that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle! This teaching calls for serious reflection for Christians living in developed countries that have never faced hunger or lack of shelter.
In conclusion, I believe the future of Christendom in Latin America is will demonstrate continued growth in numbers and spirit. My prayer is that Protestants and Catholics alike will engage in meaningful conversations and times of communion in order for the gospel of Christ to reign in as many Latinos as possible; the current situation is that these two branches of Christianity are in competition rather than collaboration.
If Christianity is to continue to grow in Latin America, Christians must partner with leaders in society including the government, CEO’s, religious leaders, celebrities, anyone with a voice. History has taught us that Christianity flourishes when it partners with government to promote justice and peace. Lastly, I believe that the Pentecostal movement will continue to gain new followers as the average person today (Latin American or not) is longing to experience the supernatural power of God in their lives. The human heart longs for what it does not have which is exactly what the Lord freely gives in abundance.
I am a part of the Contemplative Tradition because my worship practices, prayer life, my speech, and my most precious memories are all connected to my longing to experience the presence of God in a tangible way; the hope of my worship ministry is to have as many people as possible to experience the presence of God. Richard Foster says that Christians belonging to the contemplative tradition “hunger for a prayer-filled life” and “for a richer, fuller practice of the presence of God” (Foster 25).
I might add that God’s presence is directly associated with God’s character and because I believe that God dwells among the praises of His people, I worship with all my heart and direct my church on a weekly basis to engage in our worship times. One of my favorite songs called I Will Exalt by Bethel Music says “Your presence is all I need, It’s all I want and all I seek. And without it, without it there’s no meaning”. I believe as I sing this song and as I humble myself before God, I am able to experience an intimate time with God in which I experience His amazing presence.
Like many Christians, my Christian faith has been influenced by several traditions like the charismatic, holiness and evangelical traditions. This is largely in part due to the church which I was “born into” which was a Hispanic Assemblies of God church in Santa Ana called Templo Sinai. Templo Sinai places a heavy emphasis on worship, holy habits, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; there is also a deep respect for the Pastor and his sermons which places Templo Sinai as a part of the evangelical tradition.
Templo Sinai provided the opportunity for me to play in the church band and I began to love worship; as I grew up my goal was to become a great musician who represented Christ to the world. I also felt anchored in my faith as I pursued the baptism of the Holy Spirit which was constantly spoken about during church services; speaking in tongues was also commonly practiced during ministry time (corporate prayer for each other). I am grateful for growing up in Templo Sinai because it helped shape me to be the Christian I am today.