Until the publication in 1969 of the masterly study of the Latin American Protestant church by Read, Monterroso, and Johnson (Latin American Church Growth, Eerdmans), few were aware that fully two-thirds of Latin America’s rapidly multiplying Protestants are Pentecostals of one kind or another. This proportion is likely to continue to increase.
Pentecostal growth patterns are not entirely uniform. In windswept Bolivia, for example, they make up only 7.5 per cent of the Protestants. But in Chile, the string-bean country on South America’s Pacific coast, 82.8 per cent of the Protestants are Pentecostals. Although many investigators have become fascinated by the Pentecostal growth phenomenon, as yet no one has made a definitive study of comparative growth rates and their dynamics. All agree, however, that the cultural factor is one of the keys. Somehow the Latin American Pentecostals have developed more culturally meaningful patterns of church life than many of the other Protestant denominations.
In any younger church, the training of the ministry is often one of the most sensitive indicators of that church’s ability to fit certain necessary functions of church life into culturally relevant forms. The training pattern based on residence seminaries in the United States, for example, is culturally appropriate and has been helpful to the churches. It is quite different from the German system, though, and even from the American system of a century ago. Some observers also suspect that, though the current system of training in seminaries may be relevant to the WASP culture, the assumption that it could function equally well in the black American church community is an anthropological blunder.
Although the cause-and-effect relation has yet to be demonstrated, it is a rather safe generalization that in the more sluggish denominations in Latin America, ministerial training has been transplanted from the sending to the receiving churches with minimal cultural adaptation, while in most of the rapidly growing denominations, some forms that seem quite unusual to Anglo-Saxon observers have developed.
One of the most interesting laboratories for observing this phenomenon at work is Chilean Pentecostalism. Since ministers are trained in streets rather than in seminaries there, it seems appropriate to enter this laboratory through the street.…
We plan our visit so that we are in the capital city of Santiago on a Sunday afternoon. Around five o’clock we take a bus, get off near the railroad station, and begin walking down one of the larger streets. If we look both ways at every intersection, we will soon spot a crowd on a street corner or in a small plaza. As we hear either singing or a voice coming over the portable amplifier, we realize that we have found one of the several open-air meetings held by groups from the Methodist Pentecostal Church, one of the larger indigenous groups in Chile.
As we approach the crowd, which might number between 50 and 300, we make sure we have our Bibles in plain sight. With these we will be accepted as hermanos, and no one will try to convert us on the spot. Our group might include seventy-five other people with Bibles under their arms. Maybe fifteen or twenty will have guitars and accordions, long red sashes flowing from the guitars. Between songs, three or four will step up to the microphone and give their personal testimony of how God saved them from drink, adultery, wife-beating, stealing, and cheating, and gave them a new life. They will recommend him to the curious onlookers. “Gloria” and “Amen” will ring out from the other Christians from time to time.
When the meeting is finished, the listeners are not simply asked to go to church “sometime” and given a tract. They are invited to come along with the crowd to church that very night. Many decide to go, and the group begins to march through the street, singing and reciting Bible verses in unison. Then it stops for a similar meeting on another street corner.
The leader keeps check on his watch, and at the proper time the final parade begins toward what is known as the Jotabeche Church. The same thing had been happening in virtually every neighborhood within parading distance of the church. At about seven o’clock the several groups, with many visitors among them, converge on the church from all sides. No motor traffic moves on Jotabeche Street at this time. The church officers come out in front of the church and form two lines of welcome, while the open-air campaigners file between them and enter the church building, singing praises to God. Anyone who wants a good seat has to get there early. The last time I was there, the Jotabeche Church seated only 5,000, and the overflow crowd had to listen through loudspeakers in the street.
The several Chilean Pentecostal denominations (many of which are split-offs from others) trace their beginnings to a Pentecostal revival in the Methodist Church in 1909, and a break from Methodism by the Reverend Willis Hoover. Except for the ministry of Hoover, these churches have not been subject to missionary influence of any consequence. Unlike many other churches in Latin America they have been free to develop along Chilean cultural lines, and therefore many things they do seem strange to other Protestants, both Latin Americans and Anglo-Saxons. But they do not seem strange to Chileans, and the Pentecostals in Chile are growing rapidly.
The half hour between seven and seven thirty, for example, is bedlam. Singing stops, but a social time begins. Everyone greets everyone else. People ask one another about their family’s health, tell what the Lord has done for them during the past week, and share in a time of fellowship. The orchestra, composed mostly of guitars and accordions, gathers in the balcony—500 strong—tuning the instruments and providing a melange of sound as background to the chattering below.
A few minutes after 7:30, pastor Javier Vásquez steps on the platform with the ten or so others who will take part in the service. The noise stops and the service begins. Faces radiate joy—the people would rather be in church than anywhere else in the world. During the special numbers or hymns, a dozen or two will stand and begin to dance through the aisles, hands upraised, in time to the music. Some prayer times will sound like a free-for-all, but they will all stop at a signal. Instead of passing offering plates, the pastor invites all 5,000 to come up front and leave their offerings at the altar. The seeming mass confusion that results is a pattern well accepted by the congregation. After the service a long line forms in front of the pulpit as people wait to shake hands with the pastor, give him a present, or have him pray briefly for their health or some spiritual problem.
Although I haven’t been able to double-check this, I was told in Santiago that when Javier Vásquez was elected pastor of the church, he received 40,000 secret-ballot votes! These came not only from the Jotabeche Church itself, since that is only the “mother church”; some thirty-five daughter churches also participated in the election. Little wonder that most Chilean politicians are interested in keeping on the good side of the evangelicals there!
Vásquez has his church organized like an army. Not only the open-air teams minister on Sunday afternoons; an elite corps of around eighty bicycle riders in red and white uniforms move out with guitars and Bibles to many parts of the city beyond walking distance. One Tuesday night Pastor Vásquez invited me to speak to his men’s group. A fierce storm of wind and rain drenched the city about an hour before the meeting and continued through the night. I thought the meeting might be called off but went along, wet shoes and all. Vásquez apologized to me that only four hundred men had come that night! I learned that several hundred of the men form what is called the “volunteer army”; they put themselves at the orders of the pastor to engage in any type of ministry—visiting hospitals or jails, praying for the sick, holding open-air meetings, planting new churches, or what have you. They are all working men who support their families well with their jobs but give their spare time to the work of the Lord.
One of the phenomena of the Chilean Pentecostals is what has been called “growth by splits.” A man like Pastor Vásquez obviously has outstanding gifts of leadership. He knows how to manage his huge church with the skill of an army general. He has many characteristics of the type of man called a caudillo in the Latin American political world. Most of the growing Pentecostal churches in Chile are led by pastors of the caudillo type, a familiar and well-accepted pattern among the Chileans. But the disadvantage is that there is seldom room for two caudillos in the same church. As Catholic sociologist Emilio Willems says:
Two opposing principles are operative in the Pentecostal sects, one “democratic” and the other “authoritarian.” They clash as soon as rival leaders with similar divine endowments arise and accuse the ones in power of misusing their authority or, as they sometimes put it, of “antidemocratic behavior.” If the rival is able to sway enough followers, the split occurs and a new sect is born. There is much bitterness during the conflict, and such words as caudillo and cacique are freely used, but little of it seems to remain once the secession has taken place [Followers of the New Faith, Vanderbilt, 1967, p. 113].
Back in 1942, for example, Bishop Enrique Chávez had come up through the ranks in the Methodist Pentecostal Church, but he found no room at the top. In caudillo style he split off from the Methodist Pentecostals in 1946, took some people with him, and started his own denomination called The Pentecostal Church of Chile. Within ten years Chávez’s central, mother church had given birth to twenty-six other congregations and 136 preaching points. Statistics in Chile are hard to come by, but estimates of current membership in Bishop Chávez’s church run from 13,500 (Read, Monterroso, and Johnson) to over 60,000 (Chávez). According to J. B. A. Kessler, Chávez “does not share the horror for church division which is usually felt in ecumenical circles”; he believes that division has helped more than hindered the amazing growth of Chilean Pentecostals. Read, Monterroso, and Johnson say, “The influence of strong personalities vying for leadership has produced a proliferation of Pentecostal groups and denominations. The dynamic force behind a newborn church creates a certain spiritual momentum that results in growth” (Latin American Church Growth, p. 104).
Not only did Chávez’s split-off grow; so did the church he split from. Just this year the Jotabeche Church left a building that could hold only 5,000 and moved into a gigantic new edifice that seats 15,000, has rooms for 200 overnight guests, and boasts its own independent water and electrical supply. It was all built with Chilean money—not a cent of foreign subsidy!
The question we have been leading up to is this: How are ministers like Vásquez and Chávez trained? It is hard to believe at first, but virtually none of the great leaders of the Chilean Pentecostal churches has spent any time in a seminary or Bible institute. The training system of these churches is vastly different from what other churches have developed in the twentieth century and has been a mystery to most outsiders. It was commonly said that the pastors were “untrained,” and scores of outsiders felt very sorry for the Chilean Pentecostal ministers.
Now the picture is clearer, thanks to a brilliant study published by sociologist Christian Lalive d’Epinay in 1967 (“The Training of Pastors and Theological Education,” International Review of Missions, April, 1967, pp. 185–92). We can now understand the inner operation of this strange but highly successful method of “training in the streets.”
Lalive found there were seven rungs on the ladder to the pastorate. Anyone can start; in fact, all believers are expected to try the first rung. Any of the six rungs may break, sending the candidate back down the ranks. The rungs may be described as follows:
1. Street preaching. When a person is converted, he or she is expected to give his testimony in public in a street meeting the very next Sunday. Those who are gifted and successful in this ministry can go up to the next rung.
2. Sunday-school class. Sunday school meets on Sunday morning. If the teacher can communicate simple Bible truths to his students and hold their interest, he may be advanced to a more important class, and is ready for the third rung.
3. “Preacher.” As a “preacher” the candidate is permitted to lead worship and is asked to bring messages on occasion. If his pastor is pleased with his performance, he will promote him to the following rung.
4. New preaching point. When the candidate is sent out to a new preaching point (avanzada), his success is measured in an objective way—he must produce converts to demonstrate to others that God has given him the gifts necessary for the ministry. If he does, his position can become official on the next rung.
5. Christian worker. Upon application to the Annual Conference of pastors, he is proposed and accepted as a Christian worker (obrero del Señor). This gives him an official title for the first time, and he is under the orders of the denominational leadership.
6. Pastor-deacon. He is assigned an area (viña nueva), in which he is expected to plant a church. As this takes place he may be named pastor-deacon. If he does not gain converts and form the nucleus of a new church, he goes no higher, nor does he receive the title.
7. Pastor. The probationer (probando) then comes up against his last test. To be promoted to pastor, he must present evidence to the Annual Conference that he can leave the secular world, dedicate his full time to the ministry, and be financially supported in it by the congregation he has gathered together.
This is no three-year Bible-institute program. Reaching the top rung may take a candidate twenty years. But by the time he gets there, both he and the church are quite certain that he has the gifts, the spirituality, and the dedication needed for the Christian ministry. One of the results of such a long process is that 57 per cent of the pastors are over fifty. Also, 56 per cent have less than six grades of primary school. But they are God’s men for the job, and as such officially recognized by their churches.
Few seminary-trained pastors gain the affection and allegiance of their people in the way that the Chilean Pentecostal pastors do. David Brackenridge has described the pastor’s position in these words:
It is astonishing to note the care and reverence the people show toward their pastor. Everything is done for him. Besides monetary support, members bring gifts of meat, vegetables and fruit. His table is usually full. He entertains lavishly and no member is turned away who is in need. But it must be said that the pastor controls everything—finances and all the activities. Nothing is done without his consent [quoted in J. B. A. Kessler, Jr., A Study of the Older Protestant Missions and Churches in Peru and Chile, Oosterbaan and le Cointre, 1967, p. 318].
Curiously, through the years many of the relatively static, non-growing denominations have tried to help the Pentecostals improve their ministerial training. This was partly the reason why the conciliar groups set up the Theological Community in Santiago some years ago. The Assemblies of God in the United States expected that the indigenous Pentecostal churches would use their Bible institute in Santiago. Others have tried also. All have been notably unsuccessful, for the Pentecostals prefer “training in the streets.” As a matter of fact, the top leaders consistently turn down lavish scholarship offers, knowing that if they enter some institution they will lose their status in most of the churches. In his article cited earlier Lalive makes this astute comment:
Without claiming that there may be a causal relationship between the theological level of the pastors and the evangelical dynamism of their denominations, the existence of correlation between these two facts makes us less confident of the benefits of theological education, and even of the method of training in the developed countries which we impose on Protestants in the developing nations [“The Training of Pastors …,” p. 185].
One disadvantage of training in the streets soon becomes evident to the outsider who listens to these pastors preach. There is an appalling lack of theological and even biblical content in their sermons. The susceptibility of this huge group of Christians to the entrance of some heresy is terrifying to one who holds in high esteem the “faith once delivered to the saints.” God has seemed to protect the Chileans against this so far, although similar groups in Brazil and Mexico have developed a very low (not to say erroneous) doctrine of the Trinity, for example.
Could it be possible that two-thirds of the Latin American Protestant Church will be led down the road of doctrinal heresy? While it may not be time to push the panic button, the possibility cannot be discounted. If some non-traditional and non-institutional method of theological training could be found that would preserve the cultural values already incorporated in Pentecostal “training in the streets,” a new theological and biblical revival might begin to characterize this church.
Advocates of the recently developed system of extension theological education now being used throughout Latin America feel that the flexibility of this method makes it ideal for the indigenous Pentecostal churches. But Pentecostal leaders, informed about what others are doing in extension education, are still very suspicious that it is merely a disguised form of traditional institutional training. Only when they become convinced that their ministers can receive high-quality theological training without sacrificing the benefits of the apprenticeship system will they begin to open the doors for it. Perhaps one more spiritual caudillo is needed to bring in this tremendously important innovation.
C. Peter Wagner received the M.A. from Fuller Seminary and the Th.M. from Princeton. He is executive director of the Fuller Evangelistic Association and teaches at the Fuller Seminary School of World Mission. This article is taken from a forthcoming book on extension theological education that he co-authored with Dr. Ralph Lovell.
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