Tiago Cavaco loves pushing the envelope.
No need to look further than the titles of the Portuguese evangelical pastor’s books: Férias de fornicação e outras murmurações de um moralista (A Vacation of Fornication and Other Murmurings of a Moralist) and Seis sermões contra a preguiça (Six Sermons Against Laziness).
Or the names of his biggest hits as a punk rock musician: “Ó Judas Aperta o Laço” (“Oh Judas Tighten the Noose”) and “A Isabel é Intelectual (Porque Perdeu a Virgindade na Feira do Livro)” (“Isabel Is Intellectual (Because She Lost Her Virginity at the Book Fair)”).
“Everything I do is clickbait,” says Cavaco, who previously worked in television for a decade before he became a pastor at Segunda Igreja Evangélica Batista de Lisboa, better known as Igreja da Lapa. But he insists he’s not just trying to entertain, amuse, or troll people.
“The provocation should be read with a sense of humor, something that evangelical Christians often lack. There is no room for surprise.”
Cavaco imbues everything he creates—whether sermons, works, songs, or newspaper articles—with a Christian worldview.
“I’ve almost built a theology of provocation,” he said. “Jesus often tries to provoke his audience through his teachings. He often gives as an example things that people consider to be bad … so that those who think they are very holy don’t count on their own benevolence and [instead] open their eyes to what, at first glance, seems wrong, but could perhaps teach us something.”
Cavaco recently spoke with Christianity Today’s Portuguese editorial director Marisa Lopes about the difficulties of being an evangelical in a traditionally Catholic country, how to hold Christian convictions without rejecting culture, and why Portuguese people are so pessimistic. This interview has been translated from Portuguese and edited for length and clarity.
What is the evangelical church like in Portugal?
In a country with a Catholic tradition like ours, evangelical churches are viewed with some suspicion. Historically, evangelical churches have been seen as the daughters of the Protestant Reformation. With the arrival of neo-Pentecostalism, this perception has changed.
Today, when someone introduces themselves as an evangelical, people think of something more Latin American or even African. The evangelical movement is associated with something typical of poor countries and there is a certain social prejudice toward evangelicals here. Portuguese evangelicals struggle both to be part of a culture that does not fully accept them and also to differentiate themselves from whatever images people have of Brazilian evangelical churches.
Like other evangelicals in Europe, Portuguese evangelicals are creatures of resistance. The European evangelical is used to feeling that the world is against them. At the same time, because we are a minority, we are more united amongst each other and there are good relationships between evangelicals of different denominations.
Portuguese evangelicals are also a bit fatalistic. They want to see good things happen, but they are doubtful they will.
I picked up on this fatalism reading your memoir, A Vacation of Fornication.
I find the strangeness with which Brazilians still react to Portuguese skepticism very natural.
I’m not surprised that Brazilians find Portuguese skepticism strange, though I find it a little funny.
We can never change what is part of our culture. When I interact with other Europeans, I realize that this weight of destiny is a very Latin thing. Due to the greater influence of Catholicism and the few traces of Protestantism in our history, we think that life only happens when it is tragic. If everything goes well, Portuguese people think, “This won’t last long.”
If someone with a more optimistic view arrives, our people look at that person with suspicion. As a pastor and believer, it’s always a struggle to abandon these feelings.
How do you reconcile your Christian convictions—for example, the certainty that one day God will wipe away all tears and there will be no more death or pain—with your pessimism?
This conviction is for an eternal future, which is yet to come. Pessimism makes us focus more on the “not yet” than on the “already.”
In 2 Timothy 4:9–11, Paul says that he has been abandoned by many people. Because this was the last letter the apostle wrote, some people might say, “Come on, Paul; don’t write something so discouraging in your final message.”
The thing is, we need space to express sadness. At times, evangelical culture seems to have no space for this. Therefore, it is true that the Portuguese people need to free themselves from excessive sadness and pessimism, but I would also say, for a culture like Brazil, which often obsesses over joy, this can also result in idolatry.
This is the good thing about the multiculturalism of the body of Christ. When we get to know other cultures, we realize that they understand some things better than us, and vice versa.
In your most recent book, you wrote: “When we believe in causes that don’t threaten anything or anyone, we do not really believe in causes.” How can we realize that we are living a too-comfortable Christianity?
In the story where Jesus calms the storm, first, the disciples are afraid of the storm; then, they become more afraid of the man that calmed the storm.
The presence of Jesus does not necessarily guarantee peace. When God acts in people’s lives, often the first emotions felt are fear, panic, and pain because, in the same way that demons recognize Jesus, our fears recognize the presence of a higher power.
We tend to think that the expression of our faith has to be a kind of calming, an anxiolytic, but it is not always like this, because the conquest of the kingdom of God is a mutiny against darkness.
There is a blessedly aggressive power in holiness. It is not aggression in an evil sense, and those who retreat are not the believers. Believers have lost this destabilizing dynamic in affirming their faith. It is obvious that Christians are in favor of peace—after all, we follow the gospel of peace. But often, stating the truth destabilizes, scares.
We are so eager to bring peace that we forget that the light offers a contrast when Christians suffer, when they are sincere in the face of darkness. To reach those who are in darkness, the Christian does not need something beautiful but something true, which is truly combative in relation to the power of evil, sin, and darkness.
Many claim that Portuguese society is a mix between conservative Catholic tradition and modern secularism. How do you see it? Do you see some bridges to the gospel in it?
Since the pope is a Jesuit, associating conservatism with Catholicism is still possible. However, it is no longer so linear. Today Catholicism seeks to be at peace with the world. In Portuguese society there is a certain conservative Catholicism, but there is also an ongoing process of secularization.
All this confusion makes the place of the evangelical believer very unique. One of the advantages they have is they do not fear their own strangeness.
At the beginning of my ministry, I tried to escape this. Then I realized that I had to take this strangeness as an opportunity for witness. This very resistance can help create bridges. Sometimes being an outsider can be the ministry God has given us.
Do you think this strangeness works as a bridge to the gospel for a younger, more countercultural Portuguese audience?
I hope so. It is a temptation to want to be a pastor who is intellectually respected by the Portuguese media. In the past, this attracted young people to the church more due to an intellectual emphasis than due to the gospel itself. Some ended up returning to Catholicism.
The pastor who seeks public recognition will attract people not because of the gospel he or she preaches, but because of the approval he or she generates in the culture. In the past, I distanced myself from evangelicals considered less respected; I wanted to be an intellectually enlightened evangelical. Then I realized that this was vanity. Today I look at this crazy diversity of the evangelical movement not as a problem to be solved but as a virtue.
Several things contributed to my change of perspective, especially during a more difficult period in my ministry when I felt exhausted. Today I prefer the freedom of being strange and faithful to the Word, rather than the prison of being respected and the slavery of being accepted.
You have previously noted that before some people become Christians, they use their talents in music and theater, they love reading, and so on. But after, they’re only interested in church activities and criticize everything that is part of culture at large. Is it possible to be evangelical and open to culture?
I used to have a pretty negative perspective on evangelicals. Today I’m a little less pessimistic, having talked through this with my pastor friends in Brazil.
People are so serious; they always say everything so correctly, they are so holy that it seems like they don’t even need a Savior. It looks as if they were born saved.
I’m sorry that so many evangelical preachers and writers in Brazil are so serious in this way. I think they need a little madness—in the sense of sincerity—a little holy chaos, a dose of humanity. Sometimes mediocrity sets in like a kind of false holiness, something that edifies by inertia.
I am not encouraging immorality or misconduct. This mediocrity is a fear of existing, of being sincere. When we fail, the best thing to do is to repent, not to live some kind of precocious perfection. There is an excess of precocious perfection and that is why there is so much mediocrity among evangelicals.
As Christians on social media, sometimes we may be tempted to say one thing or another to gain followers or fame. How do we deal with the temptation to people please?
This is a big struggle for me. The internet offers us Christians the promise that we might attract a number of people to Christianity through our posts and content but also the possibility that we might become attached to the medium and not to the Creator. The internet can be both a blessing and a curse if a Christian influencer becomes more a slave to the impact they have through it than a servant to the message they bring.
How do you explain your statement, “If in the past the saint was afraid of the profane, in the present the profane has taken what is holy as a blasphemy?”
Today true holiness goes in the opposite direction of the world, and that’s why it’s frightening. For example, apologies on social media have become mandatory if your posts displease certain groups of people, but these apologies are not motivated by true repentance. They are just the devil imitating God.
There is a good and crucial repentance for salvation, given by the Holy Spirit. And then there is this imitation by Satan, which is this new kind of need for apologies that is not related to truth or repentance, but rather to the person’s need to submit to the crowds in order not to be canceled.
New holiness spreads the false idea that says, “Either I apologize or I’m canceled.” But true holiness may actually seem wrong according to these standards and may also mean that Christians will have to resist and not apologize if they haven’t done anything wrong. This strange dynamic turns things upside down. And that is why today, our profane culture takes what is holy—that is, apologizing—and turns it into blasphemy.
Marisa Lopes is editorial director of Christianity Today em português.