French historian Jean-Pierre Bastian has concluded that the new Pentecostalisms 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.
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.