RIO DE JANEIRO — Latecomers have to
hunt for a seat at the First Baptist Church of Copacabana. By 10:30 a.m. on
Sunday, the pews are full, the drummers and guitarists warmed up, and the
faithful are ready to meet God.
"Thanks be to your name," the pastor
prays earnestly, his brow furrowed. "Be among us."
A chorus of amens
bursts from the congregation. Some members have their hands raised. Onstage,
young men and women in T-shirts and jeans launch into a ballad-like hymn of
devotion, kicking off an hour and a half of often joyous, sometimes
So begins one of thousands of weekly services in
Protestant churches across Brazil. Although this largely tropical nation has
more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world, it is witnessing a
boom in evangelical Protestantism that could dramatically alter the religious
landscape in the next 20 years.
Across Latin America, home to nearly half
the world's Catholics, believers are increasingly abandoning the Vatican's brand
of Christianity in favor of the evangelical variety, a trend that will pose one
of the biggest challenges for the next pope.
"The Reformation finally
arrived in Latin America, four centuries after starting in Europe," said Dean
Brackley, a professor of theology at the Jesuit-run Central American University
in San Salvador.
For Catholicism to stay relevant, analysts say,
cardinals now gathered in Rome to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II must
pick someone ready to grapple with the concerns of folks like Carlos Eduardo
Valente de Abreu, half a world away.
"I didn't feel very welcome in the
Catholic Church," said Valente, 31, an information technology consultant in Rio
de Janeiro. "I couldn't agree with what they preached — the images of Christ
suffering. Also, I didn't feel much sincerity."
What he found at First
Baptist in Copacabana was a strong sense of community in a disorienting world.
Experts say that is a major draw of evangelical churches, especially among
Many converts are attracted to the pop-style music and dynamic
liturgies, which are more suited to contemporary tastes than is the traditional
Catholic Mass. Others cherish teachings that emphasize a direct, personal
relationship with God and, sometimes, the promise of material reward for
Add to these elements the evangelical movement's
proselytizing zeal, its savvy use of mass media and a nimble ability to set up
shop in storefronts, schools and living rooms, and the result has been
spectacular growth over the last 25 years, in spite of John Paul's frequent
trips to Latin America to shore up the faith.
In countries where
Catholics once accounted for more than 90% of the population, evangelicals now
constitute a significant religious minority, sometimes with social and political
clout beyond their numbers.
In Chile, Honduras and Brazil, for example,
about 15% of the population describes itself as evangelical Protestant. The
figure rises to 22% in El Salvador; in Guatemala, it's 25%. In Mexico's southern
Chiapas state, local press reports estimate the evangelical population to be 36%
Paraguay, albeit still overwhelmingly Catholic, now has its
first evangelical president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos. President Alvaro Uribe of
Colombia made news when he tried reaching out to evangelicals, who now make up
about 10% of the country's population.
"This is about a global
phenomenon," said Father Francisco Niño, editor of the Catholic newspaper El
Catolicismo in Bogota. "The other religious movements constitute a challenge for
the action of the church. We can't ignore the growth of the non-Catholic
Evangelical Christianity began making major inroads in Latin
America during the 1970s and 1980s, a turbulent period of civil war and
political polarization that affected the Catholic Church as well. The clergy was
riven by political divisions, with some clerics supporting leftist rebels and
others favoring right-wing governments.
In war-torn Nicaragua,
conservative Christian relief agencies and evangelical missionaries preaching a
fervent anti-communist gospel were a regular presence at camps of the right-wing
Contra militia along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. American televangelist Pat
Robertson was among the Contra movement's most active promoters.
places, evangelical groups billed themselves as a haven from the
"The people don't want a polemic," said Edgardo Bertrand, pastor
of one of El Salvador's largest evangelical churches. "They want
Many of Bertrand's flock at the Christian Jerusalem Embassy in San
Salvador are converts weary of the political activism that roiled the Catholic
Church in past decades. Evangelicals say their emphasis is on personal
transformation through faith, not social or political organizing.
distribute food, but our objective is for people to get to know God. Both rich
and poor need Christ," said Geovane Dias, first vice president of the First
Baptist Church of Copacabana. "To take care of the poor is not our most
important mission, like it is with the Catholic Church…. For us our No. 1
priority is to serve Christ."
Members of his congregation — men and
women, young and old — often speak of experiencing God in emotional terms.
Crying at Sunday services is not uncommon.
"People have an emptiness,
needs that sometimes they don't even know," Dias said.
"When a person
discovers Christ, it is not only rational but also mystical. If you have Jesus,
life won't be a bed of roses, but there will be someone to guide you."
Political conflict has not been so bloody in Brazil as in other parts of
Latin America. But social disruption has nonetheless fueled the growth of
evangelical sects, whose membership has more than tripled over the past
During that time, Brazil has experienced an intense
internal migration. Waves of mostly poor residents, desperate for work, have
moved to northwestern and north-central Brazil, along the edges of the Amazon
jungle, to take advantage of a boom in agricultural production. Others have
crowded into the squalid slums of cities along the eastern coastline, such as
Recife and Rio.
In both the farming frontier and metropolitan
shantytowns, governmental and other civic institutions are weak or virtually
"The state is not keeping abreast of this process. Neither is the
Catholic Church. They can't assign new priests as quickly to the places where
the population is growing," said Cesar Romero Jacob, a social studies professor
at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio. "The evangelical groups get there
faster, and by getting there faster, they harvest all these people."
study by Jacob and colleagues two years ago, sponsored in part by the Brazilian
Catholic Church in an attempt to understand where and why its numbers were
dropping, found that the growth of evangelical sects such as the Assemblies of
God and the charismatic Universal Church of the Kingdom of God had been most
explosive in these areas.
Migrants bereft of family, friends and the
trappings of their former communities are eager to tap into the social and
spiritual networks the evangelical churches provide through weekly services,
Bible study and other activities. Sermons promising self-improvement and
personal fulfillment through God and upright behavior — no drinking, no smoking
— are also appealing.
The churches operate out of ordinary locations such
as storefronts, and use strong marketing and word-of-mouth proselytizing. They
train new pastors quickly, sometimes within a few months, compared with the
years of seminary studies required of Catholic priests.
churches are faster, more agile, whereas the Catholic Church is more
bureaucratic," Jacob said.
Some sects have also turned to the media to
spread their gospel. One recent estimate in Brazil said that evangelical
denominations owned 58 radio stations in 16 states, or more than half. The
Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, perhaps Brazil's fastest-growing, owns
two national TV networks and puts out a weekly newsletter read by 1.5 million
Between 1980 and 2000, the most active years of John Paul's
papacy, the number of evangelical Protestants shot up from 6.6% of Brazil's
population to 15.6%.
Although there are well over 100 million Catholics,
their percentage of the population declined from 89% to 74%.
years, the Catholic Church lost more [members] than it had in the history of
Brazil" up to that point, Jacob said. Without a campaign to turn the tide,
Catholics could drop to less than 60% of the population by the end of this
decade, he estimated.
In other Latin American countries, heavy internal
migration has created similar circumstances, notably in Guatemala. But there,
experts say, Catholics appear to have succeeded in arresting, if not reversing,
the growth of evangelicalism by fighting fire with fire. The Catholic Church now
operates radio stations and libraries, just as evangelical sects do. It has also
encouraged greater participation among lay members in the liturgy and in church
And although he could not single-handedly stop evangelical
growth, John Paul, on a 2002 trip to Guatemala, helped rally the
"You have to remember that the Catholic Church has historical
weight. Historically, it has been the church," said Marco Antonio
Barahona, head of the Assn. for Research and Social Studies in Guatemala City, a
think tank. The pope's visit "was a key ingredient in the resurgence of
spiritual hope among Catholic believers that coincided with the strategy of
allowing more participation in liturgical activities."
Being involved in
the life of the church appealed to Valente, the Rio information technology
consultant, when he decided to try the First Baptist Church of Copacabana a
A baptized but not a practicing Catholic, Valente now attends
Sunday morning and evening services at the Baptist church, as well as a Bible
class before the 10:30 a.m. service. He goes to choir practice Mondays and shows
up for Wednesday evening "praise" sessions.
Converts like Valente have
helped First Baptist nearly double in size — to about 650 members — in the past
six or seven years, said Dias, the church's first vice president. Congregants
are encouraged to spread the word.
Hoping they'll notice how he's
changed, Valente is eager to get the rest of his family to join him.
was very anxious, a very nervous person, and now I'm much calmer," he
"I've always felt God was inside me."
Times staff writers Andres D'Alessandro in Buenos Aires, Reed Johnson in
Mexico City and Chris Kraul and Alexander Renderos in San Salvador, and special
correspondent Rachel Van Dongen in Bogota, contributed to this