Brazil’s churches have landed on the front lines of a disagreement between state governors and President Jair Bolsonaro over the states’ quarantine measures designed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, which has sickened more than 11,100 Brazilians and killed 486. Bolsonaro is actively undermining the governors and says a broad lockdown will ultimately destroy Brazil’s economy.
In late March, Bolsonaro passed a decree that added religious activities to the list of “essential services,” meaning sanctuaries could remain open even though citizens were asked to stay home. The decree was overruled by a federal court the following day. On the streets the following Sunday, he again defended people getting back to work.
“Open the churches, please, we need them,” one woman begged repeatedly in one of the videos Bolsonaro posted to social media. He replied with reassuring words.
Political analysts say Bolsonaro is addressing his electoral base—Brazil’s politically powerful Protestants, who helped bring the far-right president to power in the 2018 election—and letting them know they aren’t forgotten. Brazil is home to the world’s largest number of Catholics—some 123 million, according to the last official census. But Protestants are a growing force. The 2010 census counted 42 million believers, about 20 percent of the total population. A survey released in January by Datafolha concluded that Protestants now comprise 1 in 3 Brazilians.
“No political party in Brazil manages to bring together as many people, in as many places, as many times a week as churches do,” Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in São Paulo, told The Associated Press. “And people tend to follow the pastors’ directions.”
The most influential pastors are backing the president’s COVID-19 stance while begrudgingly respecting governors’ orders and either canceling services or moving them online. “I’m asking, which is worse: coronavirus or social chaos?” Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s most prominent and controversial pastors who leads the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church, told AP. “I can guarantee you that social convulsion is worse.”
While the protests of neo-Pentecostal figureheads like Malafaia have drawn the most media coverage, many of Brazil’s evangelical churches long ago decided to heed the advice of health experts and cease their worship services.
Miguel Uchôa, the Recife-based primate bishop of the Anglican Church in Brazil, which represents evangelical churches aligned with the conservative GAFCON Anglican movement, prohibited all of his churches from holding “any type of face-to-face meeting.” Since March 26, everything from Sunday services to small groups has taken place online.
“We understand that the church must collaborate as much as possible to halt the spread of the virus and help save more lives,” he told CT.
“The sanctuary and ‘the church’ are different things,” Alexandre Ximenes, bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Church of Brazil in Recife, told CT. “I agree with closing the sanctuaries to large meetings, with following the guidelines of the health officials and not contributing to the increase of the problem. It’s both common sense and sets an example.”
“The church’s mission is not limited to preparing man to live in heaven, but also to teach him how to behave on earth—what I call the horizontal gospel,” Fernando Firmino, bishop of New Life Church of Brazil in Araripina, told CT. “Therefore, we must take advantage of this time to show our brothers and sister the need to be good citizens, using a faith that does not take away from common sense and reason.
“That’s why I believe the online services in this period of isolation have been both a revealing tool of our faith and spirituality and a revelation of our social responsibility,” he said.
“To our surprise, these internet meetings with church groups have had a surprising effect in encouraging and strengthening people,” Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Recife, told CT. “Most of them are confident in God and comforted, even in the face of the dire prospects before us.”
“We prepare our people to face the difficulties of life, which happened even to faithful believers like Job, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul,” said Lopes. “They learned that suffering serves to make us like Christ, to desire the things of God more and to take our hearts out of the things of this world.”
Lopes and five other Brazilian leaders explained more to CT about their decision to close services:
Robinson Grangeiro, pastor of Tambaú Presbyterian Church, João Pessoa; founder of the Kuyper Institute; and chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University:
“The posture of Tambaú Presbyterian Church—under the guidance of the state of Paraíba synod, of which I am president—has been, since the beginning, of unrestricted support for the measures that the Brazilian health authorities have adopted to prevent and combat the threat of the new pandemic. Despite the great value of the community celebration of the people of God, the understanding is that in a situation of clear risk of contagion and death, our theology clearly instructs conscious and collaborative citizen participation. This is how sacred Scripture teaches us, [as well as] good and healthy Reformed theology on the authority of the civil magistrate: which has its sphere of action, while it is up to the church to exercise the means of grace, the proclamation of the gospel, and involvement in the great challenges of social transformation. Thus, the exceptionality of not being able to meet is leading us to the massive use of information and communication technologies as a way of continuing to spiritually assist the sheep and testifying to our confidence that the Lord of time and history will pass through this providence with us, until we reach the safe haven of his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Lisânias Moura, pastor of the Baptist Church of Morumbi, São Paulo:
“We should not keep our services in person for three reasons. First, because we care for the flock. I think that is the biggest reason. Second, because we should not tempt God. He did not ask us to be heroes of the faith, but to obey—including authorities. And worship does not boil down to the sanctuary. We are not being persecuted. If we open up, even if we forbid the elderly to come to services, the younger ones will come and may be contaminated. Third, indirectly, the church will feel that “church” is not the building and that worship is not limited to community worship, but also worshiping God alone or with the family. We made the decision not to have worship services, even before the government asked or required it. And our primary reason was to take better care of our flock, as well as to communicate that we are taking care.”
Hideide Brito Torres, bishop of the Methodist Church of Brazil, Brasília:
“The Methodist Church, through its college of bishops, chose to interrupt activities in the sanctuaries right from the start. We seek to guide pastors to conduct online services, make phone visits, record messages in applications, and hold cell meetings. Our understanding is that crowding at a time like this runs counter to the whole prospect of being a shepherd and shepherdess, which is to keep the flock safe. There is a text in Proverbs that, although it applies to livestock, symbolically represents the shepherding task also in the church, and we have used it in this context: Proverbs 27:23. In the guidelines written to pastors, we recall the recommendations of Martin Luther during the epidemic of the Bubonic Plague: Our task is to care for the sick and support those who suffer, but we cannot, ourselves, become a reason for more people to become sick. Following this prescription, we are taking all necessary precautions and obeying the guidelines to keep quarantine for the necessary time, understanding that afterwards we will have a lot of time for the hugs and kisses that we are saving for the physical reunion. For now, we are living in a precious time, in which the church of Christ reinvents itself and rediscovers its New Testament origins, in homes and smaller groups. We are also having to turn to the Word of God, opting for the message of repentance, brokenness, hope, and steadfastness rather than focusing on predictions or statements that can alarm rather than [both] confront and comfort biblically. May God help us and save many lives in this pandemic.”
Jorge Henrique Barro, professor of theology at South American Theological College (FTSA), Londrina:
“This has been a time in the history of Christianity worldwide that has required churches and religious leaders to reflect on the meaning of the word worship as well as the meaning of gathering. Among its many implications, ‘social isolation’ leads the church to reflect on the biblical concept of communion. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote ‘whoever cannot be alone should beware of community.’ Being ‘together physically’ is not synonymous with fellowship. It may be nothing more than a gathering of people. On the other hand, Bonhoeffer concludes, ‘whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.’ Christians are being forced to experience community in ways other than just in person. Thanks to technology, even if they are socially isolated, those who can take advantage of it already experience communion in Jesus Christ that is not limited to face-to-face worship (1 Cor. 1:9). Churches and Christians must maintain their services and seek communion in ways other than in person. God is not failing to be worshiped in this ‘social isolation,’ but he will certainly fail to be honored if his sons and daughters are instruments of death to their neighbors. At that moment, honoring God is taking care of yourself to take care of others!”
Ziel Machado, vice rector of Servant of Christ Seminary and pastor of Nikkei Free Methodist Church, São Paulo:
“I have a hard time understanding the concept of online worship. I suspect that behind this concept there is a ‘grammar of the show,’ where the event takes precedence over the relationship. It is something I am still meditating on; I cannot be so categorical, and I don’t want to judge my brothers. My reflection has a theological basis: for example, when the Lord tells us that he will always be with us and that when 2 or 3—and not 2,000 or 3,000—are together in his name, there he is. For me, the worship takes place in this place: in his name. There is a historical aspect, of learning to be a church in the ecclesia, but also in the diaspora, which are two realities linked to the dynamics of the pilgrim church in the world. It’s beautiful to be together physically, but we can be together without it being physical. So, I’m still reflecting. In our case, we encourage the worship of “two or three” in homes, in the name of Jesus. What I’ve recorded on YouTube are videos as devotional resources so that people at home can have something to guide them in their time of worship. Thus, in my church, services are not taking place in the sanctuary environment, only in homes. What we do online is small group meetings.”
Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Recife:
“The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic provoked different reactions in the members of my congregation. We are a Reformed church with about 800 people. We place great emphasis on preaching the Word of God and pastoral care. However, following the guidance of the Brazilian authorities, we suspended our services and activities for a time to prevent contamination. Most of our members have faced this moment of crisis with confidence and peace in Christ. But there are others who are suffering from loneliness, fear and anxiety.
“Our pastors are very actively taking care of the flock through virtual meetings on the internet, where they teach the Scriptures and pray together. We have learned to use meeting apps for this purpose. To our surprise, these internet meetings with church groups have had a surprising effect in encouraging and strengthening people. Most of them are confident in God and comforted, even in the face of the dire prospects before us. Others are really very distressed and demand more direct pastoral care. The vast majority are in their homes, waiting for the quarantine to end. We have distributed guidelines for family services in homes, suggested books for reading, and transmitted messages of comfort and hope over the internet. I would say that in general, at least until now, when the crisis is still in its infancy in Brazil, the believers in our surroundings are reacting well.
“They have long been taught that our God is in control of all things. He rules the nations. He makes all things work together for the sake of his children. Unlike many neo-Pentecostal churches, which always say that God wants to give us financial prosperity, health, and happiness here in this world, we prepare our people to face the difficulties of life, which happened even to faithful believers like Job, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul. They learned that suffering serves to make us like Christ, to desire the things of God more and to take our hearts out of the things of this world. I believe that the majority of the congregation thinks this way.
“Nothing happens in the world if it is not God’s will. Jesus said in the eschatological sermon [Matthew 24] that epidemics, wars, pests, famines, and earthquakes will happen before the Lord’s coming. These things occur to make us realize that we are weak and sinful, that we are unable to control our own destiny, and to make us look to God and seek help from him. A single virus, in a matter of a few months, has brought chaos to the whole world and shaken mankind’s civilization to its foundations. How weak, fragile, and vulnerable is mankind! Disasters like this help us to see our utter blindness to our real situation and to check our optimism and hope in man.
“This does not mean that in the midst of all this suffering, our God does not feel compassion for those who are suffering. The same Bible that shows that he rules the nations also says that he sympathizes with the poor, the afflicted, and the needy. In the midst of all this, he is blessing each person in ways that we cannot perceive or understand for now. There are many reports of people who found God in the midst of the crisis, others who learned to love their neighbors and help with their needs. Our God is always present, in calm and in storm. We live coram Deo—in God’s presence.”
Additional reporting by Diane Jeantet of the Associated Press