The greatest need of Latin America
I have become increasingly concerned about unhealthy trends in Costa Rican and Guatemalan Protestantism. True, solid, faithful Bible study and Bible teaching are needed here, more urgently than ever.
Perhaps partly due to powerful media influences, we’re bombarded with rare doctrinal novelties and heresies. Among the latest is José Luis de Dios Miranda, who says he is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and also a prophet and apostle! His ‘church’, Creciendo En Gracia, came to Costa Rica in October.
A few years ago, the seminary of the Church of God (Full Gospel) at Quetzaltenango in neighbouring Guatemala invited me to give Bible teaching on discipleship. The remarks of the seminary’s director impressed me greatly – ‘Statistics show that we are the biggest church in Guatemala’, he said, ‘and of course that pleases us, but it also scares us’.
We thank God that so many Guatemalans are professing Christ, but we ask ourselves, ‘What kind of Christians are they becoming?’ The answer is not as simple as it seems, especially in Latin America.
Protestant groups (called evangélicos) are booming all over the continent. Churches are packed; some mega-churches hold multiple Sunday services and occasionally a Saturday night preview.
The once tiny, insignificant, and sometimes persecuted Protestantism of early days has transmuted into a powerful presence in Latin American society. Its explosive growth excites the adrenalin of many politicians.
But again I ask the question: just what is it that is growing so explosively? This calls for careful theological reflection.
Not all the growth has been healthy. There have been blatant heresies and doubtful and divisive teachings – some seemingly innocuous, but others very dangerous.
A huge Protestant denomination in Guatemala claims that they ‘alone are the Bride of Christ; other Christians cannot be more than bridesmaids’. They teach that when Christ died, the Holy Spirit abandoned him and he turned black.
This is a mixture of Guatemalan Christo-paganism and Gnostic heresy, with an added dose of racism. (In one second-century apocryphal Gospel, as the human Jesus dies on the cross the divine Christ stands in the crowd helpless with laughter).
Big sectors of the Latin American church stagger from one sensation to another. For a while it was ‘name it, and claim it’; then there was ‘holy laughter and spiritual warfare’. Next came ‘health and wealth’, which has now morphed into the lopsided ‘theology of prosperity’.
One large denomination is called ‘Suffer no more’; the founder of another claims to be ‘Jesus reincarnate’. Knocking people to the floor has become popular, as has the latest novelty of naming ‘apostles’. In Quito, Ecuador, last November, someone told our group: ‘the founders of mega-churches deserve some title bigger than pastor’.
My reply to that was: ‘If they think they’re too big for the title of pastor, then the title of pastor is too big for them!’
But there are also signs of hope. In recent years, we have become convinced that aberrant tendencies should be confronted at ‘ground level’, where simple Christians live. Although high-level theological seminaries are still important, they are out of contact with most Latin American Evangelicals.
For example, Mario Vega is senior pastor of a mega-church whose huge auditorium is filled three or four times every Sunday. To my surprise, he attended my student workshop on the book of Revelation, held last December in Santa Ana, a city far from his home in San Salvador.
He is a humble, gentle person and a genuine Christian. I learned that the university group had developed a good friendship with him, and he was studying theological materials from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
They told me that when he became pastor, a local car dealer offered him a brand new model car, but he turned the offer down. After our course, he said he desired earnestly ‘to be faithful to Christ, to God’s Word, and to my country El Salvador’.
The retreat centre that my wife Doris administers at our farm-home has helped us work among ordinary Christians, as it draws people from all sectors of the church. We win their friendship and teach them.
I have a well-received doctrinal column in Costa Rica’s major evangelical monthly paper, read by many of those involved in deviant movements (and also read in the rest of Central America). I have frequent opportunities on radio and television.
Pray that all of us in this ministry will ‘get inside’ the mentality of the masses who follow unhealthy tendencies, and that we will know how to transform popular practices into more biblical patterns, and help others to follow Jesus Christ.
The ministry of Bible teaching may not be sensational, but it is vital in these critical times for the church in Latin America. Praise God for Mario Vega and many like him! He is living proof of the value of careful teaching of the Word of God.
Latin America Mission