The Common Good
September-October 1997

Turning the World Upside Down

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | September-October 1997

Who's evangelizing whom in Latin America?

"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." —John 3:3

Jesus' statement about the nature of spiritual transformation, which confounded Nicodemus in the first century, has continued to mystify people of religion ever since. Trying to understand how to enter into that place where God reigns can indeed be as difficult as entering a second time into our mother's womb. Being made of flesh and bone, we sometimes stumble on the things of the Spirit.

This predicament is amplified in the effort to share the Christian faith across cultures. The Spirit blows where it will, but humans are limited to the tools at hand—language, institutions, and culture—in their ability to share the gospel. While Jesus' translation of the Word of God to humanity through his incarnation can be seen as the greatest missionary act in history, his followers haven't been able to replicate this work with the same success.

Yet Christianity, a religion based on God's incarnation, is perhaps best revealed as it crosses human boundaries and takes on the characteristics of different cultural, linguistic, and racial groups in order to make the love of God understandable to all people. Missionary historian Andrew Walls writes in his recent book, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, "[T]he attempt to transmit faith in Christ across linguistic and cultural frontiers revealed that Christ had meanings and significance never guessed before, and revealed another glimpse of the glory of the completed, redeemed humanity."

Today, as technology propels us into an age unlike any the world has known before, there are many signs that the center of Christian activity is moving from North America and Western Europe to the Southern and Eastern Hemispheres. By the turn of the century, only about one-third of all Christians will live in Western countries, down from more than half 40 years ago. While many Christians in North America and Western Europe are anxious about declining church membership, the number of Christians—of all denominations, but especially evangelicals—is exploding throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Along with this geographical movement, expressions of the faith are rapidly becoming less "Western" as Christianity takes on more of the cultural characteristics of the Third World areas of its rapid growth. The movement of the center of Christianity to the South—where issues of injustice, poverty, and environmental degradation are so much more acute than in the North—is reshaping the agenda of the church worldwide.

THIS WAS EVIDENT AT a recent conference in Costa Rica organized by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) on the future of Christian mission in the Americas. There, the development of a biblical response to the growing crisis in Latin America caused by the globalization of neoliberal economic policies became the pressing challenge to the mission of the church.

Many of the speakers at "Discerning God's Mission: Hope and Justice for All in the Americas" noted that the end of the Cold War and the perceived victory of capitalism gave neoliberal economic policies free reign and allowed the market system to take on the status of a deity that is consuming the poor throughout Latin America.

Brazilian theologian Jung M. Sung said, "Capitalism has the power it does because it has a spirituality. Like the church, it offers a hope that is fascinating. People now live to make money. This limitless search for wealth is now how humans search for the infinite—what others call God."

Yet, Sung said, "If the market is so good, why is there so much suffering of the poor and innocent? Either we can say that the sufferers are guilty and worthy of punishment, or we must admit that the market system isn't the creation of God and it isn't perfect."

The idolatry of the free market system is that it requires a certain amount of human sacrifice to survive. "The god of the market doesn't have mercy or grace," said Dr. Elsa Tamez of the Latin American Biblical Seminary. "Rather, it operates out of the paradigm of retribution: Those who do good deserve good, those who do bad deserve bad. In the free market, what counts isn't humans, but goods. The challenge today is to be a human being who confronts the market system."

The free market ideal of unlimited, continuous growth is dependent upon a worldview that does away with the constraints of traditions and values of the past and remains unfettered to generate capital. It isn't surprising that the recent resurgence of indigenous American and African religious traditions is offering the church some of the most effective challenges to neoliberal market mentality. These traditions—which have a cultural legacy and lifestyle diametrically opposed to the "disease" of individualism and unlimited consumption—go against the grain of the homogenizing effect of global market forces.

THE GROWTH OF LATIN America's religious pluralism is most evident in the amazing Pentecostal movement that has risen there (and around the world) in the last 20 years, threatening the historic hegemony of the Catholic Church and displacing mainline Protestants as well. Autonomous, locally based Pentecostal congregations—where the only qualification to leadership for women, men, and young people is the anointing of the Spirit—are an appealing alternative to the more institutional and bureaucratic denominations. According to an often used phrase in Latin American church circles, "The churches made an option for the poor, but the poor opted for the Pentecostals."

Even more important, the growth of Pentecostalism among the poor in Latin America reveals a fundamental hunger for a personal relationship with Christ and the power of the Spirit that has too often been scoffed at by Christians for whom the work for social justice is a litmus test for spirituality. Whether under capitalism, socialism, or any other "ism," only Christ can heal the wound in the human soul; this is something we in the North too often forget. While Pentecostals show a hesitancy to become involved in politics, their life in the Spirit may surprise us by becoming the hemisphere's strongest challenge to the materialistic free market revolution—though not exactly in the way we expected.

Of course, Pentecostals face their own challenges. One is how to maintain the spiritual enthusiasm of their movement, which flourishes on the impact of immediate emotional experience. This concern becomes even more acute when applied to the new generation of Pentecostals who were born into the church rather than "born-again" into it. The economic improvement that sometimes accompanies Pentecostals' new-found life also has the danger of co-opting the movement's energy on behalf of the status quo. While many Pentecostals in Latin America have become deeply involved in justice issues and most have moved away from the well-documented aspects of the movement affiliated with right-wing organizations, there are also many who have taken on the free market mentality sweeping the societies around them.

Another serious concern is the blatant disregard for the Catholic Church by many evangelicals, which has left Latin American Catholics rightly feeling suspicious and threatened. Indeed, the efforts of many Pentecostals in Latin America are specifically focused on winning so-called converts from the Catholic Church.

But it's a mistake to encourage the Catholic-Protestant competition, because a deeper look reveals possibilities for cooperation and a new ecumenism. Two of the strongest recent religious expressions in Latin America—the base communities, largely made up of Catholics, and the Protestant Pentecostal congregations—offer participants a sense of community and self-determination not found within the mainstream of Latin America's churches—whether Catholic or Protestant. This democratic impulse has the potential to open new avenues of dialogue and collaboration between Catholics and Protestants and offer renewal to both churches.

IT WAS SAID OF THE EARLY Christians that they were "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). The evangelical movement is causing the same kind of turmoil in Latin America's mission field, though perhaps in ways that aren't obvious at first. The success of the Pentecostals and other Protestants in Latin America is rapidly altering the idea of the area as a field ripe for harvest by North American missionaries. The growth and establishment of the Protestant denominations in the South now gives these groups the prerogative to send out missionaries of their own to other areas in Latin America, as well as to North America.

Certainly, the so-called reverse evangelization of the North American church by the witness of Central and South American Christians has already had a great impact on the faith of many. Those in the North must realize that their brothers and sisters of the South have much to offer.

In our quest to fulfill God's call, we in the North have a tendency to romanticize overseas missions work at the expense of what we need to do right here in our own backyards. The voice from the South reminds us that there is a strong need for mission within our own churches. Latin American Christians at the missiology consultation in Costa Rica questioned how members of different cultures could believe in the good intentions of North American missionaries whose own communities neglect the poor at home. How, they asked, can they expect to be treated equally when racism in North American churches continues to exclude people of color from decision-making positions and employ tokenism for the sake of appearance rather than content? These brothers and sisters seem ready to do something about these problems if we aren't.

Another growing problem for North American mission boards and institutional ecumenical organizations like the NCC is the changing nature of denominational structures in the United States. Perhaps it is the greater ease of travel and communication, or the influence of decentralized Pentecostals, but local churches in North America are increasingly by-passing their denominational mission boards when they want to establish an overseas project, preferring instead to build direct relationships with Christians in other countries. While more and more parishioners are being inspired by the possibility of being missionaries, the mission boards and NCC are concerned about the naiveté, poor training, and lack of coordination that these independent ventures may pose. Money spent this way also lessens the amount raised for missions at the denominational and ecumenical levels.

For the NCC, which already has an image problem among evangelicals because of its emphasis on political solutions rather than spiritual ones, liberal interpretation of the Bible, and bureaucratic distance, this new trend of congregational missions threatens its connections to the Latin American grassroots. It could even diminish its work for ecumenism, for which NCC is so well-known.

THE CHANGING nature of Christian missions and the movement of the heart of Christianity to the South call us in the North to re-examine our motivations and methods in establishing God's kingdom. The humbling thought that our nations could change from being objects of missionary endeavors to subjects, and in just a few generations, causes us to go back to the roots of our faith and ask what it is God calls us to. Perhaps the challenge brought to us by new evangelicals in Latin America is just this: To recover our original joy and calling, to spread the love of God, and to make disciples of all the nations—starting with ourselves first.

While there is a strong need for the church to undertake a mission that challenges the injustices of neoliberal economic policies, many Christians in the First World have preferred the work of social change to the sometimes more difficult Spirit work. The flocking of the poor and excluded to Pentecostal congregations is a sign that for many, issues of personal responsibility take spiritual priority over efforts toward macro-level social transformation. For people living at the risk of violence, drugs, alcohol, and other destructive vices, to fall back into the clutch of these sins is a matter of life and death. For many, these are the primary obstacles to abundant life.

If we are removed from the joy of our own salvation, we miss the value this has for those whose lives are in danger of being consumed, not by the devil of the free market economy, but by demons of their own making. We won't have social transformation unless we first transform ourselves.

The embracing of an evangelistic faith by the poor is teaching us that no church should forget God's transformative power in the lives of individuals. Instead of retreating into our denominational or national cliques, we must be open to this work of the Spirit and learn from our neighbors in Latin America.

On Pentecost, the early church in Jerusalem was taught to "speak in tongues" that their neighbors could understand. Today, it is important in Latin America, as in other parts of the world, for people of all denominations to start thinking of themselves as Pentecostal people, born of the Spirit that leads us to celebrate our differences and work in harmony with one another. But how can these things be? Can we be born again?

Aaron Gallegos was assistant editor of Sojourners when this article first appeared.

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