The Florida Center neighborhood is the place to go in Orlando if you are a Brazilian immigrant missing home. From Guaraná sodas to brigadeiro candies, all kinds of merchandise from the South American country are available in stores and restaurants. Today you can also find there Alcance Orlando, a satellite church of a congregation in Curitiba, a city of nearly 2 million in southern Brazil.

The main pastor, Paulo Subirá, moved to Florida with his wife and three school-age children in 2017.

“When I came to Orlando, we met in small groups with family and some friends, as we previously had in Brazil,” he says. After a while, the gathering grew to include friends of friends.

The group became too large to meet at a home and then outgrew meeting at a hotel. “We then understood we should start a church from that group,” Subirá said.

Alcance Orlando now has two Sunday services that meet in a 300-seat auditorium. On weekdays, members gather in 31 small groups spread across the Greater Orlando area. Subirá, whose brother Luciano leads Comunidade Alcance in Curitiba, is currently preparing a young pastor to start a new community in South Carolina with some Brazilian families that left Florida.

Brazilian immigrant church plants in Europe and North America—usually started by well-known local ministries that exist apart from denominational bodies or missionary agencies—are new for Brazilian Christianity. These church plants are the result of the confluence of two phenomena: the growth of the evangelical population and emigration.

The rise of the evangelical faith in Brazil is well-documented. In a 1980 census, 6.6 percent of Brazilians self-identified as evangelicals, with that number jumping to 22.2 percent in 2010. Data from the 2022 survey is yet to be released, but a 2020 study by the polling institute Datafolha indicated that 31 percent of Brazilians identified as evangelical. Demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves estimates that evangelicals may outnumber Brazilian Catholics (64.4% of the population in 2010) by 2032. Brazil’s population is now 203 million people.

Migration to other countries, in turn, has experienced ups and downs over the years, with current figures reaching a peak. A report from the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that in 2022 there were 4.6 million Brazilians living abroad, the highest number reported since 2009.

The largest Brazilian communities were in the US (1.9 million)—Greater Orlando alone is home to around 100,000 Brazilians—and Portugal (360,000), where one in three foreign immigrants is from Brazil.

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Migrants from the Global South have also become a growth driver for Christianity in Europe.

“Latin American migrants have planted thousands of churches in Spain, Portugal and beyond over the last thirty years. It is difficult to find a major European city that does not have a large Spanish-speaking and/or Brazilian congregation,” writes Jim Memory in a recent report.

Historically in Brazil’s case, however, many of these churches were part of the so-called neo-Pentecostal denominations, such as the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (“Universal Church of the Kingdom of God,” IURD), and were known for their exorcism rituals and inclination to preach the prosperity gospel. From the 1990s, IURD expanded to Europe, North and South America, and Africa. More recently, the denomination has lost numerous members to other denominations and has had to close churches, many overseas, largely because of scandal.

In 2017, nearly 2,000 Brazilian missionaries were living abroad. A report from the Associação de Missões Transculturais Brasileiras indicates that the number of cross-cultural missionaries, including both domestic and overseas, has been growing at a rate of 6.7 percent per year since 1989, a higher number than the rate of growth for the evangelical population, 5.8 percent per year.

In this environment, many local church leaders have seen an opportunity to test their model of organization and growth in other parts of the world as their members have moved to other countries.

One example is Igreja Batista Atitude (IBA), whose main church site is in Rio de Janeiro. Today it has 15,000 members in the main campus and another 14,000 across 60 sites in six countries.

Known nationally as the place where former first lady Michelle Bolsonaro worships, Atitude (which is part of the Brazilian Baptist Convention) now has churches in Orlando and Deerfield in Florida, Vancouver (Canada), Lisbon and Porto (Portugal), Milton Keynes (UK), and Lamego (Mozambique).

Josué Valandro, IBA’s senior pastor, says his strategy encompasses two types of church planting. He calls the first type “intentional,” as is the case in Mozambique. These are traditional places for Brazilian missionary work: riverine communities in the Amazon basin; the sertanejos, or countryside, in northeastern Brazil; and sub-Saharan Africa. Atitude is now training 17 men and women to be sent to these locations.

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The other type is “organic,” driven by the relationships and travels of its members, like those who immigrate to other nations.

Two years ago, André Oliveira helped open Atitude in Lisbon’s Príncipe Real district, an artsy, middle-class neighborhood. Since then, Oliveira has baptized 43 people, an exceptional number for Portuguese standards. According to the Alianca Evangélica Portuguesa (AEP), only 3 percent of all churches in the country have baptized 50 or more people in the 2021–2022 period. The only catch: only four of those baptized are Portuguese. (AEP data shows that 29.3 percent of evangelical churches in the country have 75 percent or more foreigners in their assistance.)

Reaching local people’s hearts is also an issue for Onda Dura Church. The mother church was founded in 2007 in Joinville, southern Brazil, by Filipe “Lipão” Duque Estrada, the great-grandson of Joaquim Osório Duque Estrada, an 1800s poet who wrote the lyrics of the Brazilian national anthem.

Lipão, whose arms are covered with tattoos and who has gauges in his earlobes, did not inherit his ancestor’s poetic skills. Instead, his gift is to reach young people through contemporary language and worship. The church’s name is a kind of statement on its own and resonates with its pastor’s affection for surfing—Onda Dura can be translated as “a lasting wave,” reflecting the idea that “God’s wave lasts forever.”

Onda Dura has 2,700 members at the main campus. “Expanding was in our heart from the beginning,” said Lipão. After years of planting churches across Brazil, Onda Dura opened official satellite locations in other countries after Brazilian immigrants living overseas asked for more than just being able to stream content.

“People come to us to be discipled and be pastored, because they cannot find a healthy church to become part of,” he said. Onda Dura Online now has a dedicated pastor and a team of volunteers to reach out to seekers wherever they are. They hold weekly discipleship courses focused on biblical training and evangelism.

These leaders then encourage online churchgoers to form small groups to watch the service together and meet during the week. Eventually, Onda Dura sends a church planter or a regional pastor to lead that community into becoming a full church.

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“The idea behind Onda Dura Online is not to create consumers for our content but to use the digital environment to give birth to a physical church,” said Lipão.

This was the script that Onda Dura followed to establish itself in Charlotte, North Carolina (where it now gathers around 100 people every Sunday), Chicago (60 people), and Porto in Portugal (150). In Sines, southern Portugal, and Suzuka, Japan, new churches are slated to launch in the first half of 2024. Currently, small groups are forming in Italy, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina, and Kazakhstan.

“Virtually all our members have left their entire family to migrate,” said Alcance Orlando’s Subirá. “The church becomes relevant because it is the only family they have.” Subirá has heard stories of church members helping each other get driver’s licenses or find jobs and short-term housing.

One growing population at Alcance Orlando are the Brazilian immigrants’ American sons and daughters, who are fluent in English and want to speak the same language they speak in school at church. “The church must follow them,” he says.

In the UK, which began church activities just over six months ago, Atitude has already started an English service in addition to its Portuguese programming.

Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants form a large part of Brazil’s population. Many Protestant communities in the country today are the fruit of the work of foreign church planters, says Lipão, like the German pastors who immigrated alongside the Lutheran farmers who settled in his state of Santa Catarina in the late 1800s.

“It worked once,” he said. “Why can’t it happen again?”

Franco Iacomini is a Brazilian journalist.

[ This article is also available in español Português, and 한국어. ]