Visiting a church convention, we found that the Christian mariachi band, silver buckles sparkling on black uniforms, was the high point of the afternoon. Downstairs, huge sides of beef hung from the ceiling. On the fire were enormous pots of mole, the traditional hot sauce. The rhythms, the smells from the kitchen, the preaching style, and the happy confusion made the gathering unmistakably Mexican.
The churches represented here had developed entirely out of Mexican soil, without any involvement of expatriate missionaries. Not only in Mexico but throughout Latin America today, in tents, storefronts, former cinemas, factories, and homes, as well as church buildings, autochthonous congregations are bursting into life by spontaneous combustion. People are coming to know Christ and are sharing the Good News through the ministries of churches entirely independent of traditional mission influence.(1)
In The Gospel People of Latin America we identified five waves of Protestant advance, the fifth being the rise of autochthonous, or grassroots, churches.(2) While much missiological literature covers the African Independent Churches, little has been written describing the corresponding phenomenon in the Americas.
By "autochthonous" we mean churches that (1) have developed spontaneously, without a history of missionary involvement; or (2) were planted by missionary efforts of other Latin American autochthonous churches; or (3) were formerly mission related but have broken foreign links and reflect the people's culture in the deepest sense.
The two criteria are autonomy and contextualization. To determine whether churches in the category of "formerly mission related" should be considered autochthonous is admittedly difficult because it involves an attempt to measure the degree of contextualization. Many so-called indigenized churches follow the patterns of the parent mission society. But other groups, though formerly mission related, have become truly contextualized and can be considered autochthonous. A case in point is the Methodist Pentecostal Church in Chile. Autonomous since 1909, despite its early Methodist background it is universally recognized as autochthonous because of its contextualization into Chilean life and culture.
Estimating Number of Autochthonous Churches
In the World Christian Encyclopedia researcher David Barrett identifies "nonwhite indigenous" churches as a separate stream of the world Christian community.(3) Though hardly a proper label for some middle-class Latin American autochthonous churches with some very European-looking people, the churches he identifies as "nonwhite indigenous" in Latin America are the autochthonous churches being addressed in this article.
Most of these churches are considered evangelico (or Protestant) in Latin America. On the basis of Barrett's numbers, autochthonous churches in 1980 constituted 40.6 percent of all Protestants in Latin America. The proportions ranged from a meager 2.7 percent in Honduras to 88.9 percent in Chile. Given their rate of growth, they may now represent over half of Latin America's Protestants. The accompanying table, based on more recent surveys, summarizes our own estimates of the number of churches and church members of such autochthonous groups.
Autochthonous Churches and Their Members as a Proportion of All
Protestant Churches in Latin America
% of Church
% of Churches Members
Mexico City 55.2 46.6
Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, and
Barranquilla, Colombia 30.3 35.7
Lima, Peru 36.6 30.6
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 28.3 -
Sao Paulo, Brazil 35.3 46.1
Caracas, Venezuela 33.3 -
Buenos Aires, Argentina 24.8 25. …