MR #22: The Changing Cultural Ethos of Latin America
This Monthly Missiological Reflection is my attempt to synthesize understandings of Latin America derived from a semester of study while teaching in Abilene Christian University’s campus abroad program. During that semester, I taught a class entitled “Religion in South America.” Before and during the course, I read extensively about Christianity in Latin America, interviewed numerous religious leaders, and participated in religious activities of differing Catholic and Evangelical fellowships.

From Peter Wagner’s Look Out! The Pentecostals are Coming to David Martin’s Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, much has been written about the phenomenal growth of Evangelicalism in Latin America. Evangelicals in Latin America have grown from 50,000 in 1900 to 64 million in 1997 with Pentecostal and charismatic churches making up three-quarters of this number (Taylor 2001). According to the Latin American Catholic Bishops' Conference, an estimated eight thousand people in Latin America turn from Catholicism to Evangelicalism every day (Moreno 1999, 50). Protestantism (composed mostly of Evangelicals) has grown from one percent of the population in 1930 to four percent in 1960 to 12-15 percent today (Sigmund 1999, 2).

These statistics, however, do not tell the full story. Within the historically Catholic cultures of Latin America evangelicals are creating a new understanding of reality, a “new cultural ethos” (Moreno 1999, 62). As “compelling agent[s] of social transformation,” they offer a new “means of survival in a rapidly changing and often hostile environment” (Burnett 2000, 227). Evangelical belief systems, conversion, and lifeways are transforming how Latin Americans think and relate to one another.

The following chart contrasts Catholicism and Evangelicalism in Latin America.

Approach to Culture Accommodative Conversional
Leadership Priest-centered Dominant leaders with lay participation
Symbols Tangible: Ornate statues, rosaries, impressive rituals Metaphorical: Word symbols  (blood, cross, reconciliation, etc)
Worship: Liturgical Celebrative
Cognitive Approach: Concrete relational, Intuitional Concrete relational, Intuitional
Response to Change: Traditional/Conservative Regenerative

This Monthly Missiological Reflection describes these contrasts and outlines the cultural transformation occurring in each area.

Approach to Culture

Catholic and evangelical approaches to culture differ greatly.

Historically Catholicism has accommodated to prevailing cultural norms so that popular theology reinforcestraditional culture. Gender roles and understandings, described as machismo and Marianismo (Stevens 1998, 125-132) or machimo and hembrismo (Nida 1974, 56-79), illustrate how Christianity and culture have molded and shaped each other. Mary is adored as the Mother of God, the compassionate one, who hears the prayers of her followers. God is distant, unapproachable, except by intercession through Mary or one of the apparitions of the Virgin. The “faithful, interceding mother . . . identifies herself with the Virgin and finds her confidence in the strength of the [church] which maintains her status and defends her role” (Nida 1974, 129). Like Mary, the mother in popular culture is caring, approachable, and kind, ready to listen to all the problems and dilemmas of her children. The father, however, is distant, one to fear, approachable only through the intercession of the mother.

Catholicism has, likewise, frequently absorbed, rather than confronted, popular folk religious beliefs. The first Catholic priests came to South America with the conquistadors and through social and political force superimposed 16th century Catholicism upon conquered peoples and in subsequent generations upon slaves arriving in the New World. The resulting religion is often overtly Catholic but covertly pagan. Behind the Catholic facade, the foundations and building structure reflect varying folk religious traditions. Consequently, a wealthy, educated Brazilian could say, "My religion is Catholicism but my philosophy of life is Spiritism" (Coker 1990). Taylor proposes that Spiritism is the basic worldview of Latin Americans. He says that "some 35% of Brazilians are active spiritists, and partial practitioners raise that population to 60%. Whether they come from the lowest social class or the movie stars or leading politicians, spiritism attracts Brazilians" (2000, 555).

Evangelicalism, by contrast, emphasizes conversion, a change from darkness to light, from the dominion of Satan to the kingdom of God. Folk religious beliefs found in Spiritism or other animistic belief systems are most frequently interpreted as demonic, and prayers are made to God to cast out the demons. Former drunkards, prostitutes, and adulterers across Latin America testify how Christ has changed them from sinners to saints. Born-anew Christians have found purpose for their lives. Men, breaking with traditional machismo, are found to have become sensitive and dedicated to their families. Family income is spent on children’s education rather than liquor and mistresses. Christians become more optimistic and hardworking and appear “well-regarded” and “responsible” to the outsider. They don’t “drink and [are] better motivated and better paid. As a result, they rise economically in the social structure” (Moreno 1999, 62-63). Forbes writes, “Upwardly striving urban poor are encouraged by religious teachings and support groups that preach the power of individuals to change their lives through faith. This contrasts sharply with the old attitude of resignation to one’s fate and a glorification of poverty” (In Moreno 1999, 63).


Catholicism is a priest-oriented religion. The sacraments, central to Catholic worship and life, require priestly meditation. Priests also administrate and control local dioceses, which typifies the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church. This structure significantly limits laity involvement, especially when compared to Evangelical movements.

For most of Latin history, however, the number of priests has been insufficient to effectively minister to all the people. Religious vacuums have thus been created, especially in rural areas and on the outskirts of urban areas. Anthony Gill, who describes the religious economy of Latin America, writes, “The evangelization mission of the Catholic Church, to ensure all members of the population were inextricably bound to Catholicism, suffered due to the simple dynamics of restricted supply under a monopolized religious market” (1999, 75). People, rather than travelling great distances to visit a priest, turned to various forms of folk Catholicism to solve everyday issues regarding sickness, financial gain or loss, and romance. These areas of folk Catholicism, largely bereft of priestly influence, provide the ripest area for evangelism in Latin America. Gill says, “When a religious provider enters a region bereft of Catholic priests, folk Catholicism generally declines, indicating that the people would prefer to delegate the task of supplying religion to a specialist” (Gill, 1999, 75) rather than a traditional curendero or spiritist.

The typical Evangelical church, like its Catholic counterpart, tends to have dominant leaders. These leaders, however, are generally charismatic and self-ordained. They organize lay leaders who serve as mentors of new Christians, cell group leaders, and lay evangelists in crusades. For example, Carlos Annacondia, the Argentine revivalist with a sixth-grade education, operates a factory making nuts and bolts. Two decades ago he began organizing massive, open-air evangelistic campaigns. These crusades, lasting up to two months, have a fiesta climate. During these
crusades, Annacondia organizes committees (which eventually become pastoral councils) for the purpose of evangelizing the entire city. Because he lacks formal education, Annacondia mimics great preachers that he has heard. He also is gifted in organizing structures that empower local leaders and helping those responding to become part of local churches (Annacondia 1998, 57-74). Catholicism cannot hope to compete with this reproduction of leaders without amplifying their development of catechists and other lay leaders through such programs as Ecclesial Base Communities.


Although both Catholicism and Evangelicalism make extensive use of symbols, their forms are different. For example, when a Catholic thinks of St. Peter, he images “the patron saint of a nearby town, a statue before which he prays in times of sickness in the family, a personage in heaven who intercedes with Mary, who in turn goes to Christ.” Evangelicals, on the other hand, think of the denial of Christ, the cutting off of Malchus’ ear, Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, and his preaching to the household of Cornelius. “Even if the Protestant and the Catholic use the same words ‘Saint Peter,’ they are very likely to be thinking about quite different referents” (Nida 1974, 134-35).

Catholic symbols are tangible and visual. Cathedrals are full of ornate, visual symbols inspiring worship for Mary, saints, and Jesus. A typical statue depicts the compassionate Virgin holding either the immaculate child or crucified son. Rosaries help the believer not only recount prayers and events in the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary but also to enter into the mystery of the faith. “Catholicism has objectified its symbols in attractive or awesome objects or in impressive rites” (Nida 1974, 135). While these symbols are emotionally attractive, especially to older women, they have lost their meaning for many Latins.

Evangelical symbols are verbal and abstract. These word pictures and metaphors include descriptions of the foundational beliefs of Evangelical faith, such as “repentance, conversion, redemption, blessing, Holy Spirit, justification, sanctification, the dying Savior, the blood, the cross, the open tomb, confession, prayer, faith, assurance, etc.” (Nida 1974, 135) as well
as stories that depict the Christian way in real life. Nida writes,

One of the reasons for the spectacular success of Pentecostal churches in many parts of Latin America is their rich use of symbols. Most of these are verbal, but they are reinforced by dynamic group participation, rich colors (for both the interior and exterior of churches, and the dramatic preaching, in which the preacher plays the role of the actor and the congregation participates as the chorus-closely parallel to ancient dramas.



Catholic and Evangelical forms of worship stand in stark contrast.

Catholic worship forms are traditional and liturgical. Because they follow prescribed forms, traditional services are predictable and thus comfortable. Worship is focused around the Eucharist and the priest, who has the authority to administer the sacrament. While many Latins (especially the young) seem bored by these rituals, dedicated Catholics feel drawn into a mysterious union with God.

The setting of the Catholic mass is awe-inspiring. Elaborate cathedrals and ornate statues imply the other-worldliness of Christianity. The very environment implies a distant God, one who can be approached only through the mediation of Virgins or saints under the guidance of ordained priests. Worshippers are drawn into a mysterious union with God within an environment very different from that of the everyday world. This setting, amplified by the concrete-relational approach of Latin thought, leads many worshippers to attach super-human power to various Virgins and saints and to call upon them for healing, comfort, and guidance.

Evangelical worship forms, conversely, are contemporary, celebrative, emotional, and participatory. The sermon, and in some cases the singing, rather than the Eucharist, are the fulcrum of Evangelical worship. Hand-clapping, swaying, and “hallelujahs” reverberate throughout the auditorium creating emotion, inviting participation, and focusing personal allegiance. New songs are sung, testimonies about God’s work in the lives of common people given, and simple lessons having life application preached. During the service, participants are invited to come to the front for prayers of healing, rededication to God, and petition for sin. The preacher strives to inspire, to convict, and to draw the worshipper into the presence of Jesus Christ. The service emphasizes power-the power of a miracle-working God, the power of the name and blood of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. This emphasis upon power rather than on a relationship with God, who is all-powerful, is the greatest criticism of Evangelicalism in Latin America. When Christianity is reduced to power, there are always significant distortions of the message and ministry (Van Rheenen 2000, 776-77).

Cognitive Approach

David Hesselgrave, using material from Edmund Perry via F. H. Smith, describes three cognitive processes of appropriating reality: (1) the conceptual or rational, typified by modern Westerners; (2) the concrete relational, illustrated by Confucian-oriented Chinese; and (3) the intuitional, characterized by traditional Indian culture (1991, 301-304). These cognitive approaches greatly impact how people from different cultures approach and worship God. Rationalists seek to know, understand, and differentiate. The Christian worldview is systematically presented in propositional categories. Concrete relationalists emphasize respect, responsibility, community, and emotion. “Life and reality are seen pictorially in terms of the active emotional relationships present in a concrete situation” (1991, 303). Intuitionalists solicit oneness, unity, and harmony. Their intuition “emanates from inner experience and vision” (1991, 303). These three are operative in all cultures but are emphasized in varying degrees.

From my initial understanding, the primary order of the Latin cognitive approach is first, concrete relational; secondly, intuitional; and finally, conceptual. Whether Catholic or Evangelical, Christianity is learned through tangible rituals and life illustrations. Despite machismo, Latins are extremely loyal to family. Relationships within society are more highly valued than intellectual understanding. According to Peter Wagner, Argentines “do much of their learning by rote, and as a result, many of them are much more intuitional than cerebral. That means that feelings become very important in reaching conclusions. Argentines do not necessarily buy into the American axiom, ‘Don’t trust your feeling’” (Wagner and Deiros1998, 24). Nida, quoting Octavio Paz, says that the Latin “contemplates” while the American desires to “understand” (1974, 13).

The concrete relational and intuitive aspects of Evangelical thinking are apparent. Evangelicals are drawn to Christ through hearing real-life testimonies and practical preaching filled with everyday, tangible illustrations. Church services are highly participative, and great significance is given to living in fellowship within the community of faith. Their intuitive nature is also apparent. During worship services, evangelicals mystically go within themselves attempting to feel the presence of God. In worship they seek to unite with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. They focus on “interior religious experience” (Nida 1974, 19). Evangelicals contextualize the pervading emotionalism found in many Latin American cultures, an emotionalism expressed in forms very similar to those before and during a football game. All of this is done in a concrete relational setting which enables people to perceive life “pictorially in terms of the active emotional relationships present in a concrete situation” (Hesselgrave 1991, 303).

Catholics appropriate Christianity through tangible symbols of life. They savor an affinity with the Virgins and feel more comfortable making requests to them than any other “spiritual being.” Saints are approached with reverence during times of difficulty. Icons are considered both as pictures of adoration and worship and as inscriptions containing magical power to be appropriated by ritual. Catholics mysteriously enter into communion with the divine through the Eucharist and other sacraments.

Thus, while both Catholics and Evangelicals approach reality through concrete relationships and intuition, they do so in differing ways.

Response to Change

The roles of the Catholic priest and the Evangelical pastor within the Latin context illustrate differing responses to change. The Catholic priest serves to uphold traditional values while the Evangelical minister serves as the prophet proclaiming new counter-cultural religious options. Evangelicals expect a change of life style. Former prostitutes, drunkards, and adulterers freely testify to their conversions. Catholics tend to accommodate to traditional life styles.

Historically Catholics have focused their attention on cultivating the elite of society. The church and the state reciprocally upheld each other’s interests: Governments protected the privileged position of the Catholic Church in society while the Catholic church stood behind government decisions. Catholic leaders, from the bishops on up, have traditionally been chosen from the ranks of the privileged (Nida 1974, 93-95). The Catholic Church, thus, tends to speak with the voice of the central government, conservatively seeking to maintain the status quo.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, are conditioned for change. Given their deep-seated discontent with existing social and economic conditions, they have been receptive to radical calls for change. Thus the Evangelicals have traditionally “directed their appeal to the masses, not only because they were more numerous, but because they were more concerned with change and responded to the home of a better change” (Nida 1974, 93). While evangelicalism began as the religion of the poor and uneducated, increasingly their members have become middle-class. Thus Evangelicalism can be described not only as a religious movement but also as a social, revitalization movement calling Latins to a new paradigm of interpreting reality.

This paper was written as a descriptive and interpretive analysis of the changing religio-cultural ethos of Latin America. What missional lessons can be learned from this discussion? I will list only a few:

  • Latin Americans live today in a context of religious pluralism. Democratization of Latin America has provided Evangelicals with the opportunity to evangelize in an area of traditional Catholic monopoly. Should we anticipate such changes in areas of religious monopoly in the 10/40 Window, like the Middle East, Northern India, and China?

  • What is the nature of Christianity without conversion? Is it possible that the older churches in the West are accommodating to culture in a way similar (yet different) than the Catholics in Latin America?

  • Are Latin Americans developing a theology of Christian leadership to Christianize the patron orientations within Latin culture?

  • To what degree does the emotionalism of some forms of Evangelicalism reflect more postmodern trends than biblical Christianity? Is it possible that this emotionalism, which emphasizes feelings over understanding, is a new type of cultural syncretism?

  • What is the role of the laity in church planting and development?

  • Should initial evangelism in new areas focus on the poor and disenfranchised or the middle or upper classes? Should evangelism begin from the margins or from the mainstream of Latin culture? What theological mandates should guide us?

Sources Used
Annacondia, Carlos. 1998. Power Evangelism, Argentine Style. Edited by Peter Wagner and Pedro Deiros. The Rising Revival. Ventura, Calif.: Renew Books.

Burnett, Virginia Garrard. 2000. Protestantism in Latin America. Latin American Research Review. Austin: American Studies Association.

Christianity Today. 2001. Pope Urges New Effort Against “Sects.” Christianity Today. Vol. 45, No. 7 (May 21, 2001):29.

Coker, Dan. 1990. New mission opportunities in Communist countries-Latin America. Lecture given at Abilene Christian University Lectureship, 20 February, Abilene, Tex.

Gill, Anthony. 1999. The Economics of Evangelization. Edited by Paul E. Sigmund. Religious Freedom and Evangelization in Latin America: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1991 Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. 2 nd edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Martin, David. 1990. Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Moreau, A. Scott, ed. 2000. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Nida, Eugene A. 1974. Understanding Latin Americans. Pasadena: Wm. Carey Library.

Sigmund, Paul. E. (ed.) 1999. Religious Freedom and Evangelization in Latin America: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Stevens, Evelyn. 1998. Machismo and Marianismo. Edited by Michael B. Whiteford and Scott Whiteford. Crossing Currents: Continuity and Change in Latin America. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Taylor, William. 2000. Latin America. Edited by Scott A. Moreau. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker.

________. 2001. Quoted in Pope Urges New Effort Against “Sects.” Christianity Today. Vol. 45, No. 7 (May 21, 2001):29.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 2000. Theology of Power. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions: 776-78. Grand Rapids, Baker.

Wagner, Peter. 1973. Look Out! The Pentecostals Are Coming! Carol Stream Ill.: Creation House.

________ and Pablo Deiros, eds. 1998. The Rising Revival. Ventura, Calif.: Renew Books.
Whiteford, Michael B. and Scott Whiteford, eds. 1998. Crossing Currents: Continuity and Change in Latin America. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.