Observers of Latin America seem clear on one thing: The Protestant church’s explosive growth is leaving more in its wake than crowded churches. “Could the surprising evangelical groundswell affect the course of events in Latin America?” asks David Stoll in Is Latin America Turning Protestant? While the answer may be increasingly obvious, it is not always clear how Protestantism is altering the social fabric of the region.

In the early days of mission in Latin America, new life in Christ led to responsible citizenship and good works on behalf of others. Changed lives also produced upwardly mobile people. The evidences of “redemption and uplift” can be found today in hospitals, schools, and orphanages, as well as in the significant number of well-trained professionals who are Protestant. Their changed lives even won evangelicals the sometimes grudging respect of nonbelievers.

But since midcentury, this picture has been changing. Deepening poverty and, ironically, rapid church growth have together dramatically changed the face of the church. Evangelicals’ effectiveness has been weakened by five factors.

Superficial discipleship. Church membership has often grown faster than leaders’ ability to accommodate that growth. They often do not have the time, energy, and resources both to disciple recent converts and to train new leaders. Over time, this may result in slower growth and false teaching. One study found that growth in Costa Rica may already have stagnated. In the same country, a Pentecostal sect teaches “celestial marriage,” a form of polygamy available only to the leadership.

• Lack of distinctiveness from surrounding culture. Today it is harder to distinguish evangelical conduct from that of nonevangelicals. As marriage ...

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