New face of religion in Latin America

Santiago, Chile; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - A man bursts through the aisles, practically leaping, clapping his hands in the air and shouting “Alleluia” each time he is moved to do so, which is often. No one in the Methodist Pentecostal Church of Chile looks askance at the emotional display. For one thing, similar eruptions of prayer and song blend into one cacophonous and frenetic hour of worship.

Welcome to the new face of Christianity in Latin America, where Pentecostal and “charismatic” Christians from mainline churches, forced to change or face irrelevance, have spread from the Amazon to the Andes, from the most precarious houses of worship in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to sprawling stadiums in the region’s capital cities.

While Pentecostalism was first introduced to Latin America by American missionaries in the early 20th century, the movement here is now more vibrant than ever, drawing legions of the faithful and destitute to pews in a way that would make many churches in the United States and Europe envious. The same is happening in Africa and Asia.

In fact, there is a sense today that these three regions are emerging as the new stronghold of Christianity. Pastors and religious scholars even imagine a reverse-missionary scenario, in which Latin Americans coax disillusioned Americans and Europeans back to mainstream churches.

“The first missionaries came from Europe to the US to Latin America,” says Pastor Eduardo Duran, a leader of the Methodist Pentecostal Church of Chile, the oldest in the nation at 100. “In the near future there could be a role reversal, in which our church will have more influence in the Anglo world.”

While the number of Christians has been growing unabated in Africa and Asia, it is flourishing in Latin America as well – changing the intensity and affiliation of worship. Roman Catholicism was once a virtual monopoly in the region.

Now, according to the World Christian Database, Pentecostals represent 13 percent of Latin Americans, and charismatics another 15 percent. In 1970 the number of “renewalists” – the umbrella term used to describe both movements, which believe God acts directly in their lives through the Holy Spirit – was just 4 percent.

It is Latin America, with its relatively strong cultural institutions and similarities to the West, which Paul Freston, a religion and global politics expert in Brazil, says could become the bridge between the old Christian and new Christian worlds. “It could help bring people into the faith or back into the faith, or revitalize the influence on those people who are already practicing Christians,” he says.

Already, Hispanic immigration to the US has brought Latino-style worship to storefront churches from New York to Los Angeles. “Latin America immigration is basically sustaining the Catholic Church in the US,” says Andrew Chesnut, a religion expert at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

According to a global survey carried out by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2006, Guatemala and Brazil harbor the largest communities of renewalists as a percentage of their populations: 60 percent in Guatemala and 50 percent in urban Brazil. Evangelicals have exerted growing influence in political spheres as churches, which first drew members among the poor, have become more attractive to the middle and upper classes. Chile remains deeply Catholic, but a quarter of the Catholics are now charismatic.

And the Protestants there tend to be among the most “pentecostalized,” Pew says.

“Charismatic Christianity has attained nothing less than hegemonic status in Latin American Christianity,” says Mr. Chesnut.

Mauricio Ramirez, a Pentecostal in Santiago, describes the appeal simply: “It is cold outside,” the store owner says, “and the Pentecostal church is like warming up next to a fire.”

One impact of all this might be to make Christianity more conservative worldwide. True, Pentecostals in Latin America are hard to pigeonhole: They tend to be more liberal than their US counterparts on economic policy, but just as conservative on homosexuality and abortion.

Yet any change will come slowly. Mr. Freston says there is a time lag between the shift in numbers and “the shift in influence, the ability to take control and create the impression of being the center of the Christian world.”