Clutching pictures of sick relatives, Vera Lucia Oliveira was seeking a miracle—not inside her neo-Pentecostal church, but in the heart of Brazil's largest city.
Oliveira and some two million others took to the São Paulo streets June 3 for the latest March for Jesus, first organized 18 years ago by neo-Pentecostal megachurch Renascer ("Reborn in Christ") and declared a national holiday this year.
Renascer pastor Estevam Hernandes proudly showed off a soccer jersey autographed by star player Kaká, a church elder. "One of the goals of the march is the unity of Christ's church," said Hernandes. "Here are churches of all denominations."
However, the march's strong identification with Hernandes and its emphasis on power pushed away many Christians as well.
"I disagree with the theology behind the March for Jesus, which is one of spiritual warfare and prosperity," said Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo. "The March for Jesus is [deemed] a prophetic act … a kind of territorial claim that allegedly destroys fortresses erected by the Enemy in areas where the march happens."
Lopes said it is a "monumental theological misconception" to believe that the march celebrates or promotes church unity. "If evangelicals want to impact our country," he said, "they should do so through lives that exhibit sanctity and ministries that do not cause scandals."
Some observers say the March for Jesus is markedly different in São Paulo than it is in the other 150 nations that take part. "In Brazil, the march has an owner," said Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti of the Anglican Diocese of Recife. "The march has turned into the brand name for a patented pseudo-Pentecostalism. It is a distortion that occurs nowhere else in the world."
São Paulo's March for Jesus has amassed great national visibility, rivaling the city's 3.5-million-strong gay pride parade—one of the world's largest—held only days later. However, the march has not been as successful outside São Paulo. Rio de Janeiro, for example, has a higher percentage of believers than São Paulo, but lack of coordination among a revolving door of organizers has resulted in gatherings of fewer than 10,000 people.
This year's São Paulo march successfully displayed the strength of Brazilian evangelicals, who now make up 18 percent of the population, but was also dogged by controversy. Renascer is under investigation for tax evasion and misuse of donations. Hernandes and wife Sonia were convicted of entering the United States in 2007 without declaring $50,000 to customs authorities. A year later, the roof of the church's headquarters collapsed, leaving 9 dead and more than 100 wounded. Accused of negligence, Renascer still faces considerable civil and criminal actions.
Pastor Wellington Oliveira, national president of Youth With a Mission, which helped launch the first March for Jesus, held in the UK in 1987, agreed that today's march has a different tone. "At first we were very involved. Today, each local missionary base decides how it will participate," he said. "We must take care of politicization. The march exalts the name of Jesus, so it is important to be attentive to the contexts in which it is performed."
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Previous Christianity Today articles on Brazil include:
Higher Goals | Brazilian evangelicals will be ready when nation hosts 2014 World Cup. (July 14, 2010)
'Something Better Than Revival' | Buenos Aires pastors believe their city of 13 million should have only one church. (June 25, 2010)
9-Year-Old's Abortion Draws Catholic Censure in Brazil | Archbishop excommunicates mother, doctors involved in abortion for girl raped by her stepfather. (March 6, 2009)
Brazil's Surging Spirituality | Churches of all stripes have been growing for decades, as have the controversies and challenges facing evangelicals. (December 4, 2000)
Previous CT articles on evangelism include:
Jesus Is Not a Brand | Why it is dangerous to make evangelism another form of marketing. (January 2, 2009)
Servant Evangelism | How Luis Palau, thousands of volunteers, and a gay mayor are trying to transform Portland. (October 31, 2008)
Why Evangelize the Jews? | God's chosen people need Jesus as much as we do. (March 25, 2008)
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