A Heart for Brazil

by Diego de Araujo Alves [1]

A shorter version of this article appears in the current issue of EFCC’s infellowship magazine (Issue 216, Summer 2015).
This is the full article submitted by Diego.

Brazil Today

I have been trying my best to avoid the cliché that the church in Brazil is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’. It is not quite like that. To be honest, defining the state of the Evangelical Church in Brazil today is arguably as complex as describing anything else in such a diverse and multifaceted country. In what follows I am setting out to present a general overview of the progress of the Gospel in Brazil in three stages. First, the present unsettled political and social state of affairs across the country; second, a description of Brazilian Evangelicalism and, lastly, its more urgent needs. My prayer is that this reflection will challenge all of us to think about how we could best contribute to a healthier expansion of the Gospel in a country of continental dimensions.

Brazil is today the world’s seventh largest economy, having overtaken the UK in 2011. The nation was then coming to the end of a thriving decade which saw the economy grow at a fast pace. From 2000 to 2010 the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) maintained a steady and impressive average of 3.7% per annum growth, despite two global economic crises that shook Europe and the US. South America’s biggest nation was then considered one of the world’s most promising emergent markets (one of the so-called ‘BRICS’ alongside Russia, India, China and South Africa, which were set fair to reshape the world economy). Well, things now are not going too well for Brazil. The visible and relevant role of Brazil on the international stage, as well her internal growth and stability, have virtually disappeared under the current president Dilma Rouseff’s government.

Although the political fabric is too complicated to try to get to grips with it here, it might be safe to say that political scandals, the economic slowdown and domestic crises caused by widely perceived administrative ineptitude of the government, have led to social turmoil that took hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets in every one of the 27 states of the country on 15th March 2015, less than three months into the new Government term. Over 1 million took part in São Paulo alone. So instability and uncertainty may well summarise the feelings of millions of Brazilians.

What does all of this have to do with us, the Church? Surely a great deal, especially on a practical level. As a result of the present political and economic crises the nation is facing higher inflation and a gradual weakening of purchasing power. As a result, families and, consequently, local churches suddenly find themselves running on reduced budgets. This in turn affects a great number of missionaries and pastors worldwide who depend on local churches for their support. In fact, there are already accounts of transcultural missionaries who are facing difficulties in meeting their monthly bills. Furthermore, besides affecting the support of those already on the field, this scenario also presents a challenge to further mission efforts. It goes without saying that we are more than ever certain both of God’s providential supply, and of the Biblical truth that the progress of His Kingdom can never be ultimately hindered. However, we also know that His provision comes by means of individuals and institutions. The apostle Paul urges Timothy that ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Tim. 2.1-2, ESV). It is possible that in requesting these prayers, Paul also had in mind that sort of political and social calm that not uncommonly paves the way for a bold and rapid missionary advance, which Paul himself knew first-hand, having benefitted from the Pax Romana during his missionary work. The Church is, therefore, urged to intercede for this world for the sake of the world to come.

The Evangelical Church in Brazil

Having looked briefly at the general situation in Brazil we move on to outline, in broad strokes, the shape of the evangelical Church.

Protestantism in Brazil is still very young, only about 160 years old. Although there were some Protestants in Brazil before him, the Gospel was first preached in the local vernacular (Portuguese) by the Scottish missionary Robert Reid Kalley in mid-19th century. ‘The Wolf from Scotland’, as he was known, and his wife Sarah Poulton Kalley disembarked in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Imperial Brazil, on 19th May 1855. They remained in the country for ‘twenty-one years, and in staying they were to accomplish what others in the past had failed to do, that is, to plant the cross of the living Christ in the “land of the Christless [sic.] cross” – and that on a sure and lasting foundation.’[2]

Although it was not his intention to create a new evangelical denomination in Brazil, 13 churches, direct fruit of Kalley’s work, decided to join forces, and thus they created the Union of the Independent Evangelical Churches in 1913, a union marked by the congregational system of church government. It was the beginning of what became the Union of the Evangelical Congregational Churches of Brazil (UIECB, acronym in Portuguese). Although the oldest evangelical denomination in the country, due largely to a series of divisions over its history it is not as expressive today as it could be. UIECB has currently over 400 churches and about 630 ordained ministers in all the 27 states of Brazil. It has missionaries and pastors working in countries such as Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Uruguay, Peru, Argentina, and others. The Union also runs two Seminaries, one in the Northeast, Recife (STCNE, acronym in Portuguese), and the other in Rio de Janeiro (STCRJ, acronym in Portuguese), in the Southeast of Brazil.[3]

Before describing the religious landscape of this huge country in which we minister, a brief account of the history of the country will help us understand where the Evangelical Church in Brazil is at right now and how it got there.

A Brief History of Brazil from Colonisation

Pedro Álvares Cabral is believed in mainstream history to be the first European to set foot on Brazilian soil at the opening of the 16th century, arriving under the sponsorship of the Portuguese Crown. To say that Brazil was only then ‘discovered’ is, to say the least, relative, for there had been millions of native inhabitants there from times before recorded history. Cabral’s ‘crusade’ determined Brazil’s destiny as a colony of Portugal for the next three centuries. After a short war between Brazil and Portugal, known as the War of the Independence of Brazil, the latter declared its independence on 7th September 1822, and Dom Pedro I (the first) became the first emperor of the new Empire of Brazil. However, the land had been a Portuguese colony long enough to become permanently marked by its religion, amongst other things.

The still strong Medieval Catholicism of Portugal was systematically forced on the Indians as soon as the Portuguese fleet landed. Catholic monks travelled with the soldiers, and, as a first act on landing, they enacted what appeared to the Indians to be an utterly strange ceremony that culminated with a wooden cross being erected on the shore and everyone kneeling before it. As history in general testifies, it is no surprise that the Christianization of those pagans would invariably involve a great deal of violence.  As W. B. Forsyth correctly summarises it:

‘The Indians did not prove to be as malleable as the friars thought; they would become “Christians”, but under duress. Inevitably they would graft on to the Roman Catholic dogmas and practises their on paganism. This also the African slaves were to copy, only to a much greater extent. […] They were forced to kiss the cross, but at [sic.] heart they remained pagan. Not only were they baptized and given Christian names, but inevitably their gods were also “baptized” and reincarnated as saints. In the “Land of the Holy Cross” the cross was not only Christless [sic.] but ingrained with the ignorance, superstition and idolatry of paganism’.[4]

Syncretism is arguably still the strongest tendency in Brazilian religious experience, and deeply rooted in the national soul. This fusion of Catholicism, native Indian paganism and African mysticism has proven to be so ingrained in Brazil’s religious ethos that not even Evangelicals seem able to escape its grip. Rev. Dr Augustus Nicodemus, one of the Brazilian’s finest Reformed theologians, touches on the issue in a short article entitled The Catholic spirit of evangelicals in Brazil (free translation)[5], in which he contends that Brazilian evangelicals still struggle to get rid of a Catholic mindset in their understanding and practice of religion. This is not to say that this is their only problem, but it is certainly an underlying constant. So it is against this backdrop that the following evaluation of the current situation of Evangelicalism in Brazil must be understood.

You may have read that we have been experiencing a great spiritual revival since the late 90’s and early 2000’s. This view is held predominantly by local charismatic groups and by many international observers. At the other end of the spectrum, some would argue convincingly for nothing less than an Evangelical collapse in Brazil.

Those who defend the eruption of a spiritual revival in Brazil argue on the basis of the explosive growth of the evangelical church over the last four decades or so. The numbers are impressive. According to the latest official census (2010)[6], evangelicals represented almost one-quarter of Brazil’s population (22.2%) in 2010, a figure which, at the time, meant 42.3 million Brazilian evangelicals. This is remarkable especially when one considers that just 40 years ago that figure was only 2.5%. Just in the decade 2000-2010, the number of evangelicals increased by 16 million. Although the country still has a Catholic majority, the number of practising Catholics continues to plummet, something particularly noticeable over the last two decades. To mention only the last decade, they decreased from 73.3% in 2000 to 64.6% in 2010. Although no official census has been conducted since 2010, the figures projected a steady rise in the number of evangelicals peaking at 25% by 2014 (over 51 million evangelicals) and an equally stable drop in the number of Catholics from 64.6% in 2010 to about 54% by 2014 – a dramatic decrease of 20 points in 20 years. The projections seem to have been quite accurate.

No one would seriously question the positive aspects of such phenomenal growth in such a large country, historically dominated by Catholicism. The number of Bibles and good theological resources for sale is pretty expressive, and there is no sign of a slow-down. Many new doors for the proclamation of the Gospel have been opened in both public and private spaces, a fact which reminds us of Paul’s exhortation to ‘walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.’ (Col. 4.5, ESV – The NIV translates: ‘make the most of every opportunity.’).

Having said that, however, it is necessary to point out that numerical growth is not in itself a sign of spiritual awakening, and those who claim that there is a revival going on in Brazil need to take into account the relevant biblical and historical testimonies.

A true spiritual awakening is characterized by repentance for sin, thirst for holiness, faithful exposition of the Scriptures and God-centred worship, and results in a profound social transformation that replaces sinful paradigms by Biblical ones. Unfortunately, those marks are not what stand out in the evangelical Church in Brazil.  On the contrary, it is characterized by a syncretic, man-centred Gospel which attracts people by offering material prosperity, physical healing, mystical experiences (à la Toronto Blessing and worse – something which I know it is hard to believe), and a ‘no-strings-attached’ relationship between the believer and the local church. A great deal of its growth, therefore, is due to the natural appeal of this pragmatic sort of Gospel (cf. Gal. 1.6-7) that goes for what works, for what the great masses want to hear.

The growth has been in breadth, not in depth – I almost said ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’!. The impact and relevance of Protestantism in Brazil do not keep up with its numerical increase. In what follows I will attempt to describe what Brazilian evangelicalism looks like in five distinct areas.

  1. Theology

In his official report of the April 1500 ‘discovery’ of Brazil, Pero Vaz de Caminha, the royal secretary who accompanied Cabral’s fleet, expressed his optimism about the new land saying, ‘whatever you plant there will grow’ (free translation). That is so very true when it comes to all sorts of theologies. Over the decades divergent theologies have multiplied and thrived without meeting much resistance, a fact which makes for a very confused scenario. The apparently inevitable theological liberalism has made inroads into seminaries and churches over the last quarter of last century, so undermining the status of the Scriptures, and thus preparing the way for theologies such as Liberation Theology in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Prosperity Theology, Open Theism, the New Perspective on Paul, Emerging Church and so forth. The picture is of a gigantic patchwork. This theological inconsistency has both crippled the Church, making it vulnerable to ‘every wind of doctrine’ (Eph. 4.14), and demeaned the importance of doctrine while exaggerating the importance of personal experience.

  1. Ecclesiology

In recent times, much of the evangelical church in Brazil has adopted a non-exclusivity principle. Due largely to its theological vulnerability, it has given up fundamental tenets of the Christian faith to embrace relativism and pluralism in order to welcome a plurality of ecclesiologies. In its search for broadening communication and communion with different sectors of Christendom and of society in general, the Evangelical Church has watered down the Gospel and blurred its clear boundaries.

  1. Leadership

The last few generations of evangelical leaders have been marked by a certain lack of moral and spiritual authority. This phenomenon is closely associated with the rise of Neo-Pentecostalism and popularity of Prosperity Theology. Many charlatans – so-called pastors and self-proclaimed bishops and apostles –  have spread their false Gospel and dictatorial leadership all over the country, while showing off their five-thousand-dollar-suits, flashy cars and private jets. Unfortunately, such is the stereotype of an evangelical pastor as held by the majority of the Brazilian population.

  1. Ethics

Biblical ecclesiastical discipline is another issue for concern in Brazil today. The Church in general is struggling with its own moral standards, those internal standards that, ideally, serve as the starting point for ecclesiastical discipline – historically one of the marks of a healthy local church. As already hinted above, many leaders lack a solid reformed theological basis (actually, many lack any decent theological training), and it is hard to conceive of biblical orthopraxy without a foundational, biblical orthodoxy. Consequently, this disconnect is reflected in the ethics of the local congregations that, as a general rule, look and behave just as their leaders do. The internal ethical issue, in turn, spills over to the world outside the Church, with a negative impact on society.

The evangelical Church will only be relevant to Brazil – as well as to any nation – and to this world when it is brave enough to stand by what it is true and get in line with Jesus in speaking up for the Truth – even when that means being politically incorrect (in itself, a politically correct way of saying ‘compromising’). Cowardice and compromise are marks of a dying Church. What is our Church saying on homosexual issues, on family issues in general, on abortion, divorce, immigration, the ISIS Christian ‘holocaust’ in the Middle East, government corruption and so on? What does an inerrant Bible have to say about these things? In a recent article entitled ‘As a gay atheist, I want to see the church oppose same-sex marriage’,[7] and prompted by the Irish Referendum (May, 2015) on same-sex marriage, Times journalist Matthew Parris expresses his longing for the old good days when the Church was not so wishy-washy. Challenging the institution to stand up for its philosophical and moral principles, he writes, ‘Even as a (gay) atheist, I wince to see the philosophical mess that religious conservatives are making of their case. Is there nobody of any intellectual stature left in our English church, or the Roman church, to frame the argument against Christianity’s slide into just going with the flow of social and cultural change?’ Will someone accept the challenge? Although the author refers primarily to the Roman Catholic, is it any different from the current Protestant Church? In Brazil, things are not much different either. The Church can only be relevant to this world and fulfil its call in it and to it when it is utterly different from the world’s sinful system and willing to boldly proclaim the Truth (cf. Rom. 12.1-2).

  1. Missions

Missions are one of the most positive and productive aspects of the evangelical church in Brazil. Over the last decades many missionaries have been sent out all across the globe to do transcultural mission. The country that once received hordes of missionaries from the US and Europe, now is a fruitful source of missionaries for the world. In a new and more recent stage of missionary efforts, the Church has at last turned its attention to mission inside the country – not as something opposed to transcultural mission, but in addition to it. The Gospel has made great inroads in many poorer areas of the nation such as the Northeast, and the thousands of small villages by the banks of the Amazon River in the North (Ribeirinhos, in Portuguese). Worthy of special note is the work of the Presbyterian missionary and missiologist, Rev. Dr Ronaldo Lidório who leads a team of many well-trained Brazilian missionaries, and has successfully reached out to remote Indian tribes deep in the Amazon forest.

The crisis of Evangelicalism in Brazil is even more worrying in light of its relatively short history. Protestantism in the US went through a glorious period of spiritual awakening in the 18th century but then, a few generations later, it started to go downhill, due mostly to the creeping in of liberal theology into influential seminaries and pulpits across the nation. In Brazil, however, the Evangelical Church is not even 160 years old, it has not yet experienced true spiritual revival or left its mark on society and culture, and, sad to say, it is already facing decline.

Signs of Hope

The above assessment may sound quite negative. Being aware of that and also being aware of the good things God has done in Brazil, it is appropriate to round this article off with a brief description of the blessings God has poured upon the nation. There are good signs of hope.

Brazil has seen a new revival of Reformed Theology, particularly among the young Christians. Reformed literature is springing up quickly and becoming ever more popular. This is refreshing news as there is an urgent need of a Reformed worldview that keeps the sovereignty of God as the standpoint from which a comprehensive understanding of all reality may be attempted. Prayers are needed that mature pastors and theologians will be able to help those young Christians shape their faith in such a way that their theology is not merely another new evangelical ‘fashion’, but the basis for a holy life and loving engagement with other Christians and with the world. It is worth noting too an equally recent interest in Reformed Theology on the part of not a few Pentecostals.

There is also a growth in numbers of new evangelical theologians who are well-trained and passionate about the Brazilian Church. As a result, theological training has improved, and more and more locally written theological works have been produced over the past few years. However, there is still a need for more Brazilian theologians, writers, lecturers, and preachers trained to the highest levels of academicism. Although the number of good evangelical publishers has multiplied in recent years and, consequently, there is an abundance of good theological books on the market, the majority are still translations of North American and European works. It is urgent that more and more theological thinking and writing be done by Brazilians for the Brazilian context.

The Evangelical Church in Brazil is thriving in many ways and still has a huge potential to be explored. It is my conviction, however, that this can only be achieved by re-affirming and re-establishing the historic Christian faith, as in the days of Reformation.  Firm convictions about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scriptures, godly leadership, and a vital, relevant missionary involvement, must be the marks of the Church that wants to be a genuine alternative to the ‘folk’ and hybrid Evangelicalism that currently dominates the religious landscape of Brazil.

[1] The writer is Brazilian, an ordained minister of the Union of the Evangelical Congregational Churches of Brazil (UIECB) and is currently doing a PhD at London School of Theology.

Contact: diegodycarlos@gmail.com

[2] FORSYTH, W.B. The Wolf from Scotland: the story of Robert Reid Kalley: pioneer missionary. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1988. p. 105.

[3] UIECB, in http://uiecb.com.br/breve-historico. Access in 31 May 2015.

[4] Ibid, p. 107.

[5] LOPES, Augustus Nicodemus. A alma católica dos evangélicos no Brasil. In http://tempora-mores.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/alma-catlica-dos-evanglicos-no-brasil.html. Access in 25 May 2015.

[6] IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, in Portuguese). Available in: http://censo2010.ibge.gov.br/noticias-censo?view=noticia&id=1&idnoticia=2170&t=censo-2010-numero-catolicos-cai-aumenta-evangelicos-espiritas-sem-religiao. Access in 23 May 2015.

[7] The Spectator, in http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2015/05/as-a-gay-atheist-i-want-to-see-the-church-oppose-same-sex-marriage. Access on 31 May 2015.

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