Themes of Pentecostal Expansion in Latin America

By Westmeier, Karl-Wilhelm | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Themes of Pentecostal Expansion in Latin America


Westmeier, Karl-Wilhelm, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


We have argued elsewhere that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish clearly between Latin American Pentecostalism and the other Protestant denominations of Latin America.(1) As early as 1961 Eugene Nida noticed that the characteristics of Latin American Pentecostalism are in reality expressions of indigenous Christianity. This Christianity, according to Nida, manifests itself in an intense emotional spirituality. On an individual level it climaxes in the experience of Spirit fullness and glossolalia, and on a communal level in group prayer and the cultivation of varied charismata of healing. The indigenous Latin churches follow holiness doctrines and hold to literal biblicism. Although originally the consequence of North American missionary activity, these phenomena have "effectively 'connected' with Latin American folk" religiosity (see last section of this study).(2) Therefore, in this study, the terms "Pentecostal," "charismatic," "evangelical" (evangelico), "believer," and "Protestant" are used interchangeably. The term "neo-Pentecostal" usually designates Pentecostalism in the more traditional denominations. But Pentecostals within the Roman Catholic Church have also been referred to as Roman Catholic Pentecostals.

In perusing some of the recent publications on the expansion of Latin American Pentecostalism, both popular and scholarly, I note that several themes emerge. They gravitate around the way Pentecostals experience the working of the Holy Spirit in the world in which they live--a world of poverty, injustice, and power politics; a world of Roman Catholicism, primal folk religiosity, and multiple Protestant church bodies. In this essay the sociopolitical dimensions of Pentecostalism are discussed in the sections entitled "The Holy Spirit and the Poor" and "The Holy Spirit and the Seduction of Power" (politics). The relationship between Pentecostals and the World Council of Churches, especially as it appears in the periodical literature, is dealt with in the section "The Holy Spirit and the Churches," and the way Pentecostalism relates to Latin American folk religiosity, in "The Holy Spirit and Religion."

The Holy Spirit and the Poor

Initially, Pentecostalism in Latin America took hold among the poor and oppressed. Charity work among their own faithful began early. Today, as John P. Medcraft observes, Pentecostal social assistance programs are often extensive.(3) In Brazil's largest Pentecostal church, the Congregacao Christa no Brasil, this compassionate outreach is firmly anchored in the organizational structure of the local congregation. All church expenditures are determined by the deacons of charity (obra de piedade, the department of charitable activities).(4) In other words, Pentecostals are concerned with providing immediate help for people in need.

However, the desire of Pentecostals to ease present suffering goes beyond the urgency of the moment. In the midst of a society the relegates the poor to inner city slums and shanty towns, the Pentecostals endow their followers with a sense of identity and dignity and give them hope for tomorrow.(5) In surveying a Brazilian slum, it became clear that, after a few years, the believers had achieved real, if modest, improvement in their social conditions through sacrifice and hard work.(6)

More extensive social work has been carried out where Pentecostals have had access to power and money. They built hospitals and provided health care instruction for the community.(7) In one place in Guatemala, Roman Catholic neo-Pentecostals launched an extensive community development effort involving road construction and housing programs.(8)

Pentecostal believers have also participated in such grass root revolutionary activities as an invasion--an occupation of largely unoccupied lands by landless peasants and homeless city dwellers. They try to force the authorities to cede lots to them to build houses for themselves and their families. …

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