How The Gospel Has Not Saved Brazil

In 1997 I made a fateful mission trip to Brazil. Though it was only two months, it changed the course of my life. Since my late teens I knew I was going into ministry, but in the year prior to that first mission trip I had begun to drift. What I felt lacking was a personal vision of how my career should unfold. The inequality, crime, corruption, and social injustice I saw in Brazil contributed to what I believed was a calling on my life to help usher in a transformation of that country. I had no grandiose notions of single-handedly ‘saving’ the entire nation, but I did come to see myself as one small part of that greater initiative. Little could I have imagined that the evangelical revolution in Brazil would make matters worse for many people.

Despite its image as a sexually liberated country, Brazil is actually profoundly traditional on the topic. Men are expected to be ‘manly’ and women to be feminine, and anyone who falls outside that norm are subject to discrimination. Gay men in particular have suffered violence simply for being who they are, even just walking down the street or waiting for a bus. Rather than combatting violence against the lgbtq community, evangelicalism in Brazil actually demonizes them. They are treated at best as having an illness, and at worst as being literally demon-possessed. As a result, gay conversion therapy has apparently been given the green light to continue in Brazil, while elsewhere in the world it is being banned as abuse. More on that here: http://bit.ly/2kbOK7j

As a starry-eyed young evangelical I believed that violence and crime would abate as ‘the gospel’ spread through a population. What I didn’t realize was that evangelicalism is still a religion, one subject to the preferences of those who adopt it. It would have shocked me then to learn that now, in 2017, there are entire gangs in Brazil that identify as evangelical and/or Pentecostal, and who continue to commit crimes and perpetuate the drug trade. Worse still, evangelical gangs have carried out campaigns of harassment against practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions who live in neighborhoods they control. Read about that here http://bit.ly/2yqTOLy and here http://bit.ly/2BmkNVB .

Religions are all malleable, existing in the minds of believers and having no objective reality. That is why they change so much, including among groups that claim to have an unchanging faith. A Southern Baptist from 2017, for example, wouldn’t do very well pretty much anywhere in 1617, all else being equal. It doesn’t surprise me as much now as it would have even just a decade ago that evangelicalism in Brazil is taking the shape of the pre-existing prejudices and predilections of the Brazilian people. That’s precisely what it’s done in the United States and elsewhere.

The only real path forward for any nation is through education and a firm commitment to human rights. Ignorance cannot be eliminated with myths any more than adding wood to a fire can be expected to put it out.

Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil (5)

At the 1999 National Missionary Convention in Peoria, Illinois I met an elderly, veteran Pentecostal missionary to Brazil, supported by independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and we spoke briefly. He mentioned to me that in his youth he had preached a stricter, narrower message; but that as time went on his eyes had been opened receive “even the Catholics” as brethren in Christ. He based this conclusion on the evidence of Pentecostal gifts such as “tongues-speaking” among many Brazilian Catholics. Though I would now applaud ecumenical efforts, I have my doubts about the basis for his evaluation.

At that same convention I was told by a coordinator of a mission agency of the independent Christian Churches that, in his opinion, there was no way to have a church in Brazil that was not Pentecostal. Having been among the a cappella churches in Brazil, I knew this not to be the case. Later contact with the traditional churches in northern Brazil convinced me that there is no cultural necessity for Brazilian churches to be Pentecostal. It is a theological, not cultural, issue.

There may not be any new missionaries from independent Christian Churches to the Pentecostal Churches of Christ in Brazil. At the 1997 National Missionary Convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma a lifetime missionary to Brazil told a gathered group that the Brazilian churches needed no more missionaries. This was deeply frustrating for me to hear, as I knew the need has not diminished among the Pentecostal Churches of Christ, and because he was presenting his viewpoint as a matter of fact that applied to all independent Christian Churches work in Brazil in general.

The a cappella and traditional Churches of Christ could use fresh, committed missionaries to carry on the work. Although there are Brazilian workers on the field, the task is enormous and there aren’t enough people to push into areas in which the movement has little or no presence. Futher, American missionaries can bring to the field educational and practical qualifications that the young Brazilian movement does not yet have in any strong numbers and which it definitely needs. We are at a stage where not only do new fields need to be opened in Brazil, but ministry training institutes need to be bolstered or established, and leadership must be be provided in areas where the more conservative Brazilian churches have not yet made much effort. Christian camps, rehabilitation centers, orphanages and other forms of vital ministry are in existance but would benefit greatly from material and personnel support or expansion.

As I said in the second post of this series, the point is not that missionaries need to be examined and found to be in complete harmony with the churches that support them. This is unfeasible and I do not advise anyone to make such an attempt. However, American and other churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement who are considering supporting work in Brazil need to have a clear-eyed view of the status of the churches in Brazil. If a church wants to support a missionary in working with Pentecostal churches, all well and good. They should know it will be that way, just as an a cappella congregation in the U.S. would want to know if a missionary they were considering supporting would be working with instrumental churches (not likely, but it’s an example).

What I’ve written in this series will not be acceptable to many in the movement, particularly in among the a cappella Churches of Christ, but I hope you can see that I’ve tried to be fair and honest. I hope that with more honesty and transparency, we can reduce the rancor and accomplish more for Christ’s reign.

This Complete Series:
Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil (1-5)

Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil (4)

My first experience of Brazilian Christianity was among the instrumental Churches of Christ that were also Pentecostal. What’s funny about this is that, for nearly a year after that first mission trip to Brazil, I didn’t fully understand that these churches were Pentecostal. How is that possible? It’s actually very simple.

During the first two months I was in Brazil, my Portuguese was very limited. During worship I could see hands raised and hear people praying out loud, but I couldn’t tell that they were “speaking in tongues.” Crazy, right? When I asked the missionaries about it, they explained that the Brazilians were “more expressive” in worship than Americans.

The missionaries (supported by independent Christian Churches in the United States) I met during that mission internship had only been in Brazil for a couple of years at that time. The churches they worked with already had Brazilian pastors, but the missionaries were there as what might be considered a sort of “consultant” status. They did youth ministry, evangelism and other activities, but all due respect was paid to the local leadership. As such, I don’t believe they felt they had the right to dictate to the churches how they should worship. I also believe that if any of them had taught against Pentecostalism they would have been asked to leave. They actually seemed unaware that any option other than Pentecostalism was available. I once told one of the missionaries on a return visit about how the a cappella Churches of Christ were non-Pentecostal and growing. He expressed genuine surprise and said, “Well, I guess the proof is in the pudding.”

My experience with Pentecostal churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil was entirely positive. Christians of these churches were welcoming and loving, and the ministries of these churches were dynamic and focused on reaching a hurting world with practical, real-life solutions that expressed the Gospel of Christ. They cooperated with other evangelical churches in rehabilitation ministries and support for orphanages, among other forms of outreach. They were evangelistic and, whatever inconsistency there may have been about the full meaning of baptism, always baptized by immersion and saw it as a clear line between the world and the family of God.

Having said all that, I have grave doubts about the ability of Pentecostal churches to ever be in fellowship again with the rest of the Churches of Christ in Brazil. The traditional churches have deep and sometimes valid suspicions, and the a cappella churches are doing good just to accept people from the traditional churches as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Then again, who knows?

This Complete Series:
Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil (1-5)

Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil (3)

Churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in Brazil are known only as “Igrejas de Cristo” (“Churches of Christ”). This name is used by the three major branches of the movement in Brazil, and to my knowledge, no other name is in use. The three branches of Churches of Christ in Brazil will be categorized here, for ease of discussion, as Pentecostal, traditional and a cappella. This post will deal with how the movement in Brazil came to be divided in this way.

Beginning in the 1960s, the instrumental and a cappella Churches of Christ in Brazil cooperated to a certain extent. Most notably, the missionaries from both branches of the movement met in annual missionary retreats. A spirit of brotherhood and unity is said to have prevailed for a while, although some a cappella missionaries expressed disappointment that “the instrument issue” wasn’t being discussed. There was also some concern expressed as well over the willingness of instrumental churches to have fellowship with evangelicals from outside the movement.

One year, however, one of the instrumental missionaries gave a talk at the missionary retreat in which he promoted an embrace of Pentecostalism in order to advance mission work. Controversy ensued, and the joint meetings were ended completely. Pentecostalism swept like a prairie wildfire through the instrumental churches in Brazil, so much so that the only churches of this branch to remain “traditional” are to be found north and northeastern Brazil. All of the other instrumental churches of Christ throughout the remainder of Brazil became Pentecostal. The only congregation in central Brazil that I personally am familiar with and know did not follow this path meets in Belo Horizonte. In order to survive, it removed the piano from the worship service and is now in fellowship with the a cappella churches.

The traditional churches in the north are evangelistic and growing and the a cappella churches have grown and spread throughout central, eastern and southern Brazil. Pentecostal churches of Christ are to be found throughout Brazil, though I have no idea where they have their greatest concentration of congregations.

Over the course of years the Pentecostal churches began calling their ministers “Pastors,” electing women to be pastors, and frequently preaching a plan of salvation that minimizes the role of baptism. On this last point, however, I have found an inconsistency. At a baptismal service in a Pentecostal church several years ago in the city of Campinas, the Brazilian pastor read every New Testament passage on baptism and directly linked remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to that event. Ministry students of the Pentecostal churches generally graduate from the Bible College in Brasília, where there is also a headquarters of sorts and a publishing office.

There have been controversies between traditional and Pentecostal churches. Traditional churches charge that Pentecostal Church of Christ folk try to infiltrate their churches, though this usually doesn’t seem to happen without some group in the congregation inviting it. One example from recent history occurred in northern Brazil. A traditional congregation there that had been out of fellowship with the other churches in the area for years invited a Pentecostal pastor to preach for them. The pastor began to lead the congregation into the “G-12” movement, and a more conservative minority reacted. They broke the decades-long silence with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ missionaries in the area and invited them to speak to the congregation. To make a long story short, there was a confrontation and a division. The Pentecostal pastor left, taking a portion of the church with him, and a good part of the congregation remained in the building accepting leadership and teaching from traditional preachers and missionaries.

Episodes like this have caused the traditional, instrumental churches in Brazil to be very skeptical about the Pentecostal churches of the movement. For this reason no address or contact information for traditional churches is published out of concern that Pentecostal Church of Christ folks (please note: they don’t use “Pentecostal” officially in describing themselves or their churches, this is included here simply for ease of explanation) will attempt to influence them or directly “take over.” Instead, the northern churches that accept the use of instruments in worship have been attempting to build bridges with the a cappella churches. Some young people from the north even go south to study at a cappella Bible training institutes. This gives me some hope that there may be hope for unity among at least a portion of the Brazilian churches.

This Complete Series:
Stone-Campbell Movement in Brazil (1-5)