Brazil's Surging Spirituality
In some neighborhoods of São Paulo, there is a church on every block. In the nation's capital, Christian bookstores advertise their products on expensive billboards in the city center.
Christian radio and television broadcasts reach across the entire nation. The nation's Congress now has an assertive political bloc of evangelicals.
It sounds like a dream come true for evangelicals, but in Brazil, where all this is taking place, the surge of interest in evangelical Christianity also comes with huge challenges and not a few dangers.
Brazil's population of 170 million has seen a decades-long surge in growth among Protestants. While many Brazilians are attracted by the Pentecostal movement and its expressive worship, mainline Protestant churches are also growing.
There are an estimated 1.1 million Baptists, 800,000 Lutherans, and nearly every other traditional Protestant group imaginable. But they are tiny compared to the estimated 15-to-30 million Brazilians who belong to Pentecostal churches, making Pentecostalism the most prominent feature of the Brazilian Protestant profile. (Accurate numbers are nearly impossible to develop since many Brazilian Christian families spread across more than one faith group.)
The Atlas of World Christianity estimates that the number of Pentecostal Christians across South America grew 500 percent between 1960 and 1980. Growth has slowed since then; nevertheless, South America today has "the strongest Christian community in the world," the Atlas reports.
40 new churches per week
Much of the growth surge is due to a year-round focus on evangelism and church-planting. For example, in Campinas, a city of 1 million in southern Brazil, teenagers from a 3,000-member Nazarene church spend every Saturday in evangelistic outreach performing with puppets in a marketplace. The Nazarene teens set a goal for themselves to record 1,000 professions of faith this year, and are well on their way to achieving that goal.
Analysts suggest many reasons for this nationwide attraction to evangelicalism. But Walter Aiken, a career missionary in Brazil, thinks at least some Brazilians have run out of options. "Brazilians have tried everything," says Aiken, who teaches at a Baptist seminary in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Niteroi. "They are not satisfied with the system of their lives, so they are open to a spiritual experience and expression."
In the view of many church leaders, this hunger for expressive spirituality has been a driving force for growth in the number and size of Pentecostal churches. "There are 40 churches opening in Rio every week," says Roberto Inacio, director of an Assemblies of God Bible institute in Rio.
The fervor in Pentecostal churches is more reflective of Latin American culture, according to Danny Rollins, a Southern Baptist missionary in São Paulo. When Rollins arrived in Brazil, he found that Baptist churches often have a distinctively North American profile, using church bulletins, traditional hymns translated into Portuguese, and—despite temperatures over 100 degrees—choirs vested in robes.
"When we came here, we were shocked," Rollins says. "We expected a Latino spirit. But what we have doesn't match the personality of the people."
Charismatic expression is a particularly touchy subject among Brazilian Baptists since some Baptist groups have theological objections to speaking in tongues and other gifts of the Spirit commonly found in Pentecostal churches.
One Baptist convention developed a "do and don't" list for its member churches. The guidelines permitted hand-clapping and calling people to come forward for prayer but prohibited anointing with oil.