I grew up in Latin America, in a country where hardly 4 o 5 percent of the population was Protestant. It was also a time and a place where Protestantism was understood almost exclusively in terms of opposition to everything Catholic, and where most Catholics knew very little about Protestants, beyond the fact [they] were heretics. Most of my classmates in high school were Catholic in a very superficial manner. But some others were very devout, and one of the manifestations of their devotion was that they crossed themselves when they learned that I was a Protestant. There were long and passionate debates whispered in the library and shouted in the playing field about the authority of the pope, the need for confession, the mediating role of the saints, the authority of Scripture, and a dozen subjects about which neither of the parties involved knew a great deal. (González, Mañana, 22)
I took the previous words from the first chapter of his book Mañana, where Hispanic theologian Justo Gonzalez tells his readers about the experiences he had as a member of a religious minority. His description, far from being a particular case, it was the common religious experience of people in Latin America for many years. Then it is not a surprise at all that in some local theological circles, pastors used to compare the growth of Protestantism in the Latino-American society during the first half of the twentieth century with the German society in times of Luther. It is not, however, my purpose to discuss Luther and his role during the Reformation. But one aspect that it should be highlighted here is the fact that Luther as a member of his culture that lived in a particular time promoted changes in the church and his society that, in some ways, help the modern church to understand the concept of inculturation and vernacularization of the gospel. The translation of the Bible from Latin into German and the vernacularization of the mass liturgy are two particular examples of how Luther’s thinking shaped the German culture.
Unlike Germany, Protestantism in Latin America came not from inside, but the process of adaptation of it had several common aspects with the changes experienced by the German society during the sixteenth century. After almost five hundred years later, the Latin-American society recognizes Protestantism as an important socio-cultural movement that has brought several benefits. I will focus then on the future of the Latin-American Protestantism and it will try to answer whether there is an aspect that Protestantism needs in order to survive in Latin-America with the recent post-modern approaches, such as the liberalization of the traditional family, politics, and counter-cultural movements, and economic destabilization in the mainstream society.
In order to evaluate the future of Protestantism in Latin-America, this topic should be understood under the central role that played religion in the secular society, since for many years, most countries of Latin America had Catholicism as state religion — currently, only Costa Rica holds it now (See Goizueta, Hispanic Christian Thought at the Dawn of the 21st Century, 117-124). This aspect makes almost impossible to understand the birth and the growth of Protestantism in the region without taking into consideration the integration of the Roman Catholicism in the lives of the Latinos/as. For this reason, I will concentrate here on how the Vatican II Council changed the way the Latin America society understood religion and opened the doors for the Protestantism to grow and consolidated in our region.
The first aspect one should consider regarding religion in Latin America is that after the discovery of America, the Catholicism was the belief imposed violently by the natives conquered by the Spaniards. Thus, in Latin America, religion and violence have been related since then. Our past is disastrous. It was not until the past century that the Catholic Church recognized the mistakes by the church in the past. From that experience, one learns that the lack of an inculturated religious model affects the understanding of faith. Thus, for example, the missional experiences Father Donovan shared in Christianity Rediscovered show this point. The rejection of the gospel by an African village is a good example of what happens when missionaries present the Gospel and missionaries forget about the right of people to accept or reject the Good News. Donovan understood this after a short time and wondered about it. He understood how the way a particular group of people understand time, cultural traditions, and the interpersonal relationships affects how the Christian message should be presented. Those aspects shape a culture’s thinking and behaviors in ways one cannot easily understand. The key here consists in understanding that each ethne shares common things with the rest of human beings with physical and spiritual needs.
There are several aspects that make people so different from each other. This aspect of accepting diversity in one’s culture is the main contribution of Protestantism in Latin America. Before the Vatican Council II in 1969, there was not a lot of room for Protestantism in Latin America. Many evangelical denominations arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century from England and the United States to the different Spanish-spoken countries and established their councils there. The Protestant movements not only brought to the region new ways to understand the gospel but also brought a series of challenges for the secular society’s new gender roles, the emancipation of women in the church, a new sense of what a religious way of living means, and the creation of a voice for marginalized groups.
The Latin-American Protestantism as a Counter-Cultural Movement
Because Roman Catholicism was too ingrained in the Latin America society, it is difficult to study Protestantism alone, since the latter one was seen as a counter-movement of the first. The lack of inculturation of the gospel was mainly reflected in the fact that the Catholic Church in Latin America came from Italy and Spain, while the Protestant movement came from England and the United States. This was the model that it was presented to the people. While in the traditional Protestant churches, the service was originally intended for a particular sector of the society, the Catholic worship services was led in Latin for many years. The dress code was very European. Several priests came from Europe to lead ministry — usually Spanish priests. This situation made difficult the development of an inculturated gospel in Latin America, as happened in other parts of the continent.
It was until Pope VI introduced a new liturgy in the Catholic Mass concerning the reading of the Scriptures in the Vernacular language that this situation changed. For example, local and popular songs substituted Gregorian chant, Bible translations into modern Spanish emerged, the clergy accepted the fact that an inculturated gospel was the solution for Latin America, and the church stopped following the European religious system. Also, it was in this process of change that the Charismatic movement found acceptance in the Spanish-spoken churches in the region. Despite the renovation of the Catholicism in Latin America, the Protestant churches followed, instead, the American/British model and offered a gospel that did not adapt itself to the needs of the Latin America needs. Many legalistic and traditional Protestant churches, for example, asked their members to attend Sundays with formal clothing, where in many countries of the continent the weather was tropical. Some churches, for instance, divided their members by gender. These two socio-cultural examples show us how the local churches used to keep the customs brought from missionaries abroad without really understanding the reason.
An Ordinary Church for Ordinary People
As a response to the series of socio-cultural changes and the political destabilization that happened in Latin America during the 70s and the 80s, traditional Protestantism promoted an ordinary church for ordinary people. This idea was strongly reflected in the core of Protestant churches, his liturgy, and buildings constructions. With the process of indigenization of the gospel and the idea that God accepts people as they are, Protestantism began playing different roles in Latin America. For example, a rejection of any religious tradition — especially the Roman Catholicism, the promotion of a personal gospel, and more freedom regarding the religious obligations of the people with the church soon characterized the Protestant faith. Therefore, the Latin America Protestantism adopted the idea that the church was for the people and not the people for church. Though the intention of this approach was good, the abuse of it took the Protestant church to break important ecumenical relations with other Christian denominations. Soon, the Catholic Charismatic movement and the Neo-Pentecostalism then spread in a great way, and both movements started a ferocious race against the engrained traditional Roman Catholicism. I make a difference here between traditional Protestant churches vs. Pentecostal/Neo-Pentecostal. Protestantism became an agent of change and the main socio-cultural movement against the religious status quo. It was in this environment that Protestants began understanding tradition as a negative aspect of church and opened the doors for a multicultural setting where Indians and Afro-Americans from different social classes were together.
The Inculturated Gospel as the Future of Protestantism in Latin America
Protestantism in Latin America, borrowing the idea from the Catholicism, promoted the process of the inculturation of the gospel slowly in such way that Protestantism stopped being a counter-cultural movement and it engrained in some sectors of the Latin-American society as Roman Catholicism did in the past. Nonetheless, the fragmentation of the Protestant groups and their lack of a systematic institutional development made of Protestantism a strong movement and, at the same time, a fragile one. This dichotomy is found in the fact that now Protestant groups grow so fast, but they are a kind of unstable. It is very difficult to predict the future of a particular protestant church in five or ten years despite the fact that in the present time, that particular local church could experience an amazing growth rate. This instability made that Protestantism pay attention to the inculturation process more often. But what is the role of the inculturation process in the growth of Latin-American Protestantism? First, understanding inculturation as a process in which the gospel takes root in a particular culture, Protestantism rescued main values in the Latin-American society such as solidarity and community and brought them into the church life. Authors, pastors, and leaders have brought this topic in relation to the gospel and the Christian faith.
For example, evaluating Justo Gonzalez’s theological legacy, Efrain Agosto reflects about this when he tells us that, “Justo Gonzalez has taught us that biblical hermeneutics through Hispanic eyes includes the paradigms of marginality, poverty, mestizaje, mulatez, exile and alienness, and solidarity (…) Solidarity is at the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ (…) For many Latino/as, the church becomes the extended family that we have lost…” (Goizueta, 2005, 11). As we appreciated here, the emphasis of the Protestantism in making the church an extended family for the Latinos/as has become a popular characteristic of the religious life.
As we have appreciated the different contributions that Protestantism have done in the Latin-America society, these contributions were not only about improving the experience the religious life of people, but they brought new perspectives about the role of faith in our culture. In the same way, the Reformation process brought a series of challenges and contributions to the European society during the sixteenth century, the Protestantism in Latin-America was at the same time a religious and socio-cultural movement. Forty years after introducing the New Mass by Pope VI and the start of the inculturation process in the Roman Catholic tradition, Protestantism needs to continue with this ongoing process in order to grow and survive to the changes that are experiencing the Latino culture. There’s no other way! Things are not like in the past anymore. Now, Roman Catholicism in the region has opened a lot and has covered people’s spiritual needs along with the accepted social gospel in the same Protestantism did it in the past. The ethic scandals are not only part of the Catholicism as in the past, but of Protestants too. People read now in the newspapers about the abuse of pastors and church leaders. There are Protestant churches located almost in every city, and some pastors have become public figures. Eddie Gibbs pointed this situation: Protestantism cannot stop adapting the gospel to the needs and values of the Latin-American society. Our society is not homogenous anymore, and every country has developed their faith independently from one from another. The socio-political and religious unity that someday existed in Latin-America, it is just now part of history. In our pluralistic society, inculturation is then the only future of the Latin-American Protestantism.
Notes & References
Goizueta, Roberto et al. Hispanic Christian Thought at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Apuntes in Honor of Justo L. González. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2005.
González, Justo L. Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Nashville: Abingdon Press 1990.
Barth, Karl, and Will Herberg. Community, State, and Church : Three Essays. Eugene, Ore: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004.
Cleary, Edward L. How Latin America Saved the Soul of the Catholic Church. New York: Paulist Press, 2009.
Donovan, Vincent J. Christianity Rediscovered, 25th Ed. New York: Orbis Books, 2003
Escobar, Samuel. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Gibbs, Eddie. La Iglesia del Futuro: Cambios Esenciales para Lograr un Desempeño Eficaz. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Peniel, 2005.
Irarrázaval, Diego. Inculturation: New Dawn of the Church in Latin America. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.