Vitality of Pentecostalism in Latin America

by A. Max Rivera, D. Min.

The assumption about Latin America that claims everyone is born into the Roman Catholic Church is no longer valid. The last 60 years have found the religious landscape reshaped in that part of the world. José Luis Pérez, a prominent lay leader of the Roman Catholic Church says: “In the past, you were born Latin-American, third-worlder [from the third world], mestizo [of mixed ethnic background], and Catholic; at the present it does not happen anymore.” 1 Perez is referring to the growth and momentum of the Evangelical movement, which includes Pentecostalism. This article is an abbreviated offering of a larger work that explores the vitality of the Pentecostal movement in Latin America which has been a powerful force that has brought spiritual answers to deepest longings. It also speaks to ways in which such vitality might be maintained in order to ensure future relevancy and growth.

From a theological perspective, God is the one who awakens a deep desire for His work and plants the faith that God Himself is the source of all needed for good work; a person’s self-awareness of the impossibility of the task of conversion means relying on God’s power; and external pressures, such as being a minority religious group (in relation to the dominant Roman Catholic church), contributed to the preaching of a message emphasizing God´s present intervention. An applied hermeneutic that dealt with the struggles of daily living, including the fight against disease and against poverty, contributed to a healthy dependency on God to intervene in the issues beyond human control.

The emphasis on conversion through Christ and on holiness was also a key characteristic of these Pentecostal revivals. Professor Simon Chan, who studied the first years of Pentecostalism, says: “The early Pentecostals’ pneumatology was far more wholesome than their modern counterparts’. First, it was essentially Christocentric rather than pneumatocentric. The five-fold gospel is about Jesus as Savior, etc., not about the Spirit. This ensured that Christ, not power, was the main focus of the Pentecostal message.”  Also accentuated were healing of the body, deliverance from evil spirits, salvation from eternal condemnation, the imminent return of Jesus for His Church, and the empowerment to be witnesses according to Acts 1:8. These were coupled with the emphasis on total transformation for holiness and empowerment by the Holy Spirit for daily life. The manifestation of God’s power was not seen as the result of human works but as the result of submission to His Lordship. Throughout the literature of the early revival, an explicit correlation was made of the righteousness, holiness, and power of God and of the righteousness, love, and power of the believer.  The Indigenous Church Principle (ICP), which began developing in the late eighteenth century inspired by the biblical account of the Apostle Paul’s methods, was a life-giving factor to church growth. ICP advocates the three-self formula: self-government, self- propagation, and self-support; some would add a fourth component, self-theologizing. It was applied in the propagation of national churches throughout the continent. In 1946, missionary Ralph Williams’ understanding of the principle contributed greatly to the expansion and building of facilities of the national church in El Salvador: “The lesson is that the nationals will build according to their capacity from the flimsiest to the permanent and ornate, but the richest gift the national brethren contribute to the Lord’s work is their own spiritual initiative…. [which] should be the motivation in the project even if it takes years or only a few months to complete.” 25 Early pioneers employing the ICP in Latin America include Melvin Hodges. This emphasis on ICP created strong and reproducing national churches. The main goal for missions originating from the United States, Hodges said, was not a long list of laudable goals often given by missionaries, such as Christianizing society for the purpose of improving its social welfare, or saving souls for the Kingdom. The primary goal should be defined, he wrote, as the establishment of a church, in any country where missionaries are sent, that follows the patterns of the New Testament and that is a nationally run and culturally based church.  The application of this single principle provided for the multiplication of national churches, which, in many cases, partnered with missionaries for the establishment of a large infrastructure to accommodate the growing need for training of new leaders and discipleship of new converts.

The leadership patterns developed as a byproduct of the application of the ICP provided for a constant influx of new leadership eager to venture into new territories to plant new churches or preaching stations. Along with the normal challenges of managing power struggles in the midst of emerging leadership, the dynamics of sodality and modality were observed. Sodality is the structure on the periphery of the more rigid central structure called modality. In the case of a denomination, the central office’s duty to supervise conformity has the potential to pull in opposition to the expansion of the Church. Therefore, the resulting dynamic of sodality, seen with ICP, contributed to the constant pull for decentralization of power and the emergence of new structures.

Unfortunately, despite this, caciquism (the exercise of authoritarian power by a local strong leader) has been a constant struggle in leadership dynamics in Latin America. Thus, the Pentecostal structures that provided for a constant expansion via church planting faced fewer power struggles, proportionally, than those traditional centralized ecclesiastical structures that remained in control and thereby frustrated expansion.

Another variable for the expansion of the Pentecostal church is the increased participation of the laity along with the work of full-time ministers. The baptism in the Holy Spirit relates to this dynamic. The incorporation of basic training for discipleship, evangelism, and outreach in the curriculum of local churches was a key factor. The administration of the Word has been entrusted to lay men and lay women who had never attended Bible school or seminary but who have experience radical transformations by the Holy Spirit as they committed their lives to Christ. Grams observes that in Argentina the present wave of revival is a multiplication phase, in which cell groups are key in reaching the lost. Throughout the continent, the involvement of the laity in prayer groups, overnight prayer meetings, small Bible study groups, community outreach, and more has contributed immensely to the expansion of the Church. The application of the priesthood of all believers is in full operation.

This empowerment carried over into the social arena, where those previously bound as second-class citizens became influential and were courted by government officials. In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva sought Pentecostal voters in the runoffs in 2002 and in 2006. In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet, elected in December 2005, established a religious affairs office to oversee the relationship between government and the diverse religious groups in the country. Also in Chile since 1975 the annual Te Deum that was customarily held in the Roman Catholic Church has been held at the Methodist Pentecostal Church.

Maintaining Vitality

Persevering in the essentials is always wise for keeping on track. As well as emphasizing a high view of Scripture as the rule of faith and conduct, the Pentecostal movement’s main characteristic has been its emphasis upon the infilling and baptism in the Holy Spirit, which has kept the movement vital. With time, however, this essential doctrine and experience has not received the emphasis it initially had. Reports on baptisms in the Holy Spirit show low percentages of people having had the experience. Some reports of national churches would indicate an incidence as low as 13 percent of baptisms in the Holy Spirit; others report as high as 25 to 35 percent.

Teaching, preaching, motivating and giving opportunities for congregants to experience the baptism in the Holy Spirit should remain a priority of Pentecostal leaders. In a sense, in many countries, there is a need to “re-pentecostalize” the movement to combat nominalism. Promised growth of a church through certain methods may be good opportunities, however wisdom is required to keep those offers in check without sacrificing the essentials of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual warfare also is critical. The Church is not a social mechanism where relations can be manipulated to produce growth with social engineering. The expectation and actualization of signs and miracles is valid and should be promoted. This prospect should include deliverance from oppression by emotional, chemical, and spiritual factors. Participation of laity in the proclamation of the Gospel needs to be kept on the front burner. This dynamic has empowered average church members to be instrumental in establishing of preaching stations and conducting Bible study/cell groups, and working in community outreaches. The free exercise of all kinds of gifts from the Holy Spirit has proven, just as in the book of Acts, that ministry does not belong to a specialized clergy but to all believers.

Cell groups have been popularly effective in the expansion of the Church in the last years. Thus, the ministry of every believer coupled with group dynamics (including Bible study groups, prayer groups, and fellowship groups) is a practice that should be taught, stressed, and promoted. With an abundance of megachurches in many countries, the risk of hiring professionals to do the work of the Church (although this has its place) grows, producing spectators who sit in the pews. This should be kept in check to maintain the vitality of the movement.

The Pentecostal movement has been moving slowly towards more active participation in social issues in the last few years. Still, ample room for more intentional participation exists. Dario López raises the question about Pentecostals who live in environments where violence, oppression, and death are a daily occurrence; he wonders if they practice only a “devotional” reading of the Bible. López responds to his own question by affirming that more and more, a growing number of Pentecostals, are not only feeling their faith but also thinking about their faith’s application in the midst of a concrete reality of misery, oppression, and exploitation. This move, then, is a healthy one and is providing a better integration of a holistic faith that encompasses all of life.

Some Pentecostals, such as Douglas Petersen, are optimistic about the movement becoming more aware and actively participating in bringing changes at the structural level of society. One of his concerns has been that Pentecostals feed the hungry and provide other help to society without also understanding and implementing their role as change agents of structures of oppression. Petersen’s position is valuable. It is crucial to bring that awareness to those in the pews, not leaving that role to specialized institutions. (Petersen is the former president of LACC/PIEDAD [Integral Educational Program of the Assemblies of God]). The average Latin American Pentecostal has not developed a deep awareness of potential social influence that should be exercised in society as the salt and light of the world. Therefore, the concept of the image of God in every person should be stressed to raise the awareness of responsibility to love our neighbor because we love God (1 John 4: 7-12). Paulo Freire’s term, “concientización” (consciousness) used by Petersen, is what must be brought to the laity stressing the image of God rather than the perspective of a political activist.

Theologian Eldin Villafañe emphasizes that social participation should originate on the basis of the experience with the Spirit, because He will affect directly the life and mission of the Church. This is certainly Pentecostal and engages believers in social issues, grounded on dependency on the Spirit. Chan observes that in the early years of Pentecostalism, holiness was expressed through strong social concerns. In Brazil and other countries, Pentecostals have developed a vibrant social engagement. If the movement keeps moving in this direction, it will produce better balanced Pentecostal individuals as well as create a more authentic and impacting witness of Pentecostal spirituality.

The Latin American environment calls for an awareness within the Church for more transparent ways of conducting business. The traditional ways of exercising a more authoritarian government is losing acceptance, and new generations ask for more

transparent ways of leading, which will keep in check any political and unethical moves within the Church.

The proper understanding and application of the ICP provided for the growth of the Pentecostal church. New generations of Pentecostals would do well to keep this principle at the forefront whenever they are working to extend a local church or to expand a denomination. Lack of application or misapplication of the principle may call for a renewed exploration of the principle between the initiators and receptors on a mission field. In the case of funding projects, the ICP would help missionaries, or initiators, to avoid the abuse of paternalism, and the receptors not to fall into the abuse of “intentional dependence” for financial gain. Defusing any possible power struggles and abuse, the application of ICP will contribute to the continued growth of the Church.


The Pentecostal movement is and will remain strong with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on the Christocentric message of salvation and regeneration. The baptism in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues not only fostered group identity and cohesiveness but also empowered believers to proclaim salvation in Jesus, healing of the body, and deliverance from the oppression from addictions and sin in general, as well as demonic activity. All of these factors paired with the preaching of the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the application of biblical teaching for daily living have contributed to the vitality of the Pentecostal movement in Latin America. May the new generations of Pentecostals remain truthful and obedient to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and keep bringing vitality and life to an entire continent, which has a large number of ethnic groups as well as two dominant languages, at least nine other main languages, and more than 300 other languages and dialects. Missionary Jerry Brown cites: “There are eight cities with more than five million inhabitants; twenty-two between two and five million; thirty-eight more cities in excess of one million; another seventy-two cities range between 500 thousand and one million; and there are more than 532 cities with populations between 100 and 500 thousand.” Although many are believers, many more people are waiting to receive a personal invitation so that they too may join the great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language that no one could count, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

5 Replies to “Vitality of Pentecostalism in Latin America”

  1. The first two paragraphs of section titled “Maintaining Vitality” resonate with me as we work with youth and university age students in the DR. We have had several very recent interactions with young leaders and ministry candidates in the DR who have voluntarily or forcibly left the AG Bible school, and/or their AG churches because they do not hold to the AG doctrinal tenants regarding the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Over the past several years, we have seen an increasing pattern of Dominican (AG raised) young people questioning the doctrine and leaning towards, then embracing Baptist thought and understanding regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and Baptism of Holy Spirit. Very recently, a very public “miracle” crusade in Santo Domingo produced a flood of social media argument of young AG pastors’ kids and other young AG members criticizing a social media campaign “YoSoyPentecostal” because they do not see the validity of proclaiming to be Pentecostal beyond what they claim as more important — being simply Evangelical. Something seems to be losing ground in the area of “Maintaining Vitality” in our nation at least. It gives me great desire for more prayer and renewed insistence that to continue preaching, teaching and giving opportunity for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit in all our youth and university events and leader trainings.

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