A Missiological Approach to Latin American Protestantism

By Escobar, J. Samuel | International Review of Mission, April 1998 | Go to article overview

A Missiological Approach to Latin American Protestantism


Escobar, J. Samuel, International Review of Mission


In approaching the subject of the Protestant presence in Latin America, I believe it is necessary to take a missiological perspective. In recent times, Latin American Protestantism has come to the fore in the secular and academic press mainly because of its irruption onto the political scene. Focusing on this aspect of Protestant life, reporters and scholars have not paid attention to the totality of the Protestant phenomenon. If we add to this the hostility most Marxist and Catholic historians and social scientists we can understand why the accumulated volume of literature on the subject presents a distorted and frequently uninformed picture of Latin American Protestants. Only a missiological approach can provide a clearer holistic picture of Protestant reality.

A missiological approach is inter-disciplinary. It looks at missionary acts from the perspectives of the biblical sciences, theology, history and the social sciences. It aims to be systematic and critical, but it starts from a positive stance towards the legitimacy of the Christian missionary task as pan of the fundamental reason for the being of the church. From this perspective, during this century Latin American Protestantism has been a source of puzzling surprises. Its numerical growth has gone beyond the expectations of the pioneers who introduced it, but the way in which that growth took place has been very different from what the pioneers planned. Since its appearance in the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church has used every available means at her disposal in order to stop it, but at this end of the 20th century, some of the most dynamic sectors in that same church are adopting many of the missionary methodologies that Protestantism brought to Latin America or developed here.

A missiological approach gives the observer a wider frame of reference :o place his/her perception of the surprising and at moments contradictory nature of Latin American Protestantism. Ours is the second great century of Protestant global missionary advance. As Latourette, the classic historian of missions, has demonstrated, during the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary vitality in the Protestant world bore the marks of the Evangelical ethos.(1) The Protestant missionary movement was born from the ranks of Pietism in central Europe and from the Spiritual Awakenings in the 19th century English speaking world. For Latourette, missionary activity usually stems from spiritual vitality and he submits that the vital minorities of Protestants in Europe are mainly from a "puritan-pietistic-evangelical tradition". Growth outside Europe corresponded to the same stream, "This means that world Protestantism tends increasingly to have a puritan-pietistic-evangelical stance."(2)

In choosing these three terms: "puritan", "pietistic" and "evangelical", Latourette offers a description of the kind of evangelicalism which has kept the initiative in missionary activity in the world. We may look at these terms from a missiological perspective which includes their theological content, as well as their sociological and methodological components. Thus we find in them the ethos of a movement which emphasizes individual conversion and belief followed by moral transformation, which reacts against formal religiosity bred by sacramentalism, and which creates structures that allow rank and file Christians to take part in the missionary activities of the church.

At the end of this century, it has become evident that the vitality, relevance and creativity of both Catholic and Protestant churches have shifted to the South. They are now the marks of churches in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, right at the time when European Christianity seems paralyzed at a deadlock and becomes affected by the fatigue that accompanies a postChristendom situation. These "Southern" forms of Christianity that developed out of the missionary thrust of Europeans and North Americans, have now taken a form of their own. …

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