Leftist guerrillas and drug smugglers frequently put the South American nation of Colombia in the headlines. Yet for those who know the country’s churches, the story behind the headlines is one of a major revival.

“Traditional structures are crumbling. The economy has gone berserk,” says Eugene Wittig, executive vice-president of OMS International, a mission organization with 25 workers in Colombia. “The country is moving closer and closer to anarchy. Yet as a result, we are seeing a lot more openness to the gospel than ever before, especially in the middle and upper classes.”

In years past, those classes had been virtually closed to the message of the gospel. “In Bogota [Colombia’s capital], 90 percent of all Protestant churches are among the lower classes,” says David K. Volstad, Latin America regional director for the Christian and Missionary Alliance. During the last decade, however, the Alliance has begun to concentrate resources in outreach to the middle and upper classes, where the denomination is finding new responsiveness.

Strong Protestant church growth in Colombia began among rural peasants in the late 1950s. It did not spread to the cities until the 1970s, when people began to migrate to urban centers in search of work and refuge from guerrilla activity. Today urban churches flourish, with some claiming thousands of members.

Despite tremendous growth, however, the Protestant church represents only 2 to 4 percent of the country’s population. The overwhelming majority—95 percent—are members of the Roman Catholic Church, which is beginning to experience spiritual renewal through a growing charismatic movement.

The religious revival stands in stark contrast to the Colombia of 1948. In that year, Colombia’s Catholic church began to persecute Protestants, who were thought to be heretics. David Howard, general secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship, says violent persecution of Protestants did not subside until after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). As a result of Vatican II, Protestants were no longer considered to be heretics, but simply “separated brethren.”

“Then, when Pope John XXIII told people they should start reading the Bible, it was like the floodgates were opened,” Howard says. “From that time on, there was great church growth.”

However, the growth of evangelical Christianity was bypassing Colombia’s university students. In the 1960s, militant Marxism was entrenched on the campuses. “We used to see demonstrations of two to three thousand very enthusiastic students,” says Jack Voelkel, a missionary with the Latin America Mission and founder, with his wife, Mary Anne, of Unidad Cristiana Universitaria (UCU), an evangelical student organization. “Marxism was the ethos of the university. You could just feel it. And it was really scary.”

Today, however, many students are disillusioned with Marxism. As a result, there is a new openness to the gospel. On campuses where 20 years ago there may not have been any professing Christians, enthusiastic groups of evangelical students meet for worship and study.

Although it is growing rapidly, the Christian student movement still is in its infancy, UCU, for example, has a student constituency of only about 600. However, it is making an impact far beyond its size. Founded less than 15 years ago, the organization has chapters in 10 of the 18 Colombian cities where there are universities. Groups are operating on 32 of Colombia’s 171 campuses. In addition, UCU has sent missionaries to university campuses in three other Latin American countries.

“I think we are in a time between the times,” Voelkel says. “Colombia is coming out of a very rigid Roman Catholic structure and is heading toward European secularism. But we are in a time now when people still have the memory of home and youth and a positive attitude toward God and religion. [It is] anticlerical possibly, but not anti-God. They are free to make decisions they would not have been able to make a generation ago because of the hold of the [Catholic] church.

“It is a very crucial time of ministry, especially to those classes that haven’t responded to the gospel,” Voelkel says. “It is a time of reaping in Colombia.”

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