Brazil is huge. A population of two hundred million live in a land mass slightly smaller than the United States or China. It’s Amazon basin, over seven million square kilometers is rich in unexplored terrain, home to more than a third of known species, expansive as “lungs” of the globe, its seeming endless river winds its way from the mountains of Peru, some 6,992 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean.
A country of over one hundred and fifty languages among 450 tribes, this country gives up stories of heroic proportion, missionaries who have given life and limb to reach back into the upstream of culture, living in primitive circumstances all to first create written form of local languages and dialects, then translate the Bible as a precursor for today’s mission outreach. Today this country is a labyrinth of Christian leaders, churches, movements and missions which would keep a researcher occupied for months just to locate and identify.
This has been Brazil’s year. The Olympics for sure. Grand in scale, set in a spectacular landscape of stunning beauty yet marred by frightening hillside communities called Favelas, gang-controlled slums. As much as its government tried to clean up polluted racing waters for the Olympians, keep from public view systemic poverty and crime, its political machinations were just too splashy to keep from media headlines. In the middle of these attention-grabbing games, its president was thrown out after being impeached by her colleagues. A member of congress told me personally they were offered two million dollars to each member who would vote against her impeachment. Scandals of corruption reached its peak in the government’s managing of their national energy company. Lacking subtlety, this government has reached beyond customary boundaries of corruption.
While this amazing nation and its peoples wend their way in this modern world, resourceful and creative, passionate and spiritually concerned, within, there is a vitality of Christian faith most would not attribute to a country whose most famous icon is its Carnival, as hedonistic as Hollywood might ever imagine.
The 24th Pentecostal World Conference, held just after these Olympics, represents a part of a worldwide community estimated to be half a billion: called Renewalists, which includes Pentecostals and Charismatics within Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Mainline Protestant churches. This moment was quite unlike the first world Pentecostal conference I attended as a sixteen year old with my family in Toronto in 1958.
Then we were the rump of the Evangelical world. I could tell you what people would say when I answered their question, “What church do you attend?” While they had never seen it, they were convinced we were “holy rollers.” On the fringe of the Christian world, I loved my church in Saskatoon, I was proud of my dad as pastor, and couldn’t wait to meet friends at our Living Waters camp-meeting at Watrous Lake. I wasn’t that dumb. I knew what people thought.
That was then, today is now.
In this past century, the history of the church has been rewritten. Though occasionally skirting heresy, this global Pentecostal movement has added an understanding of the person and gifts of the Spirit, which rewrote the script for outreach and transformation. The Holy Spirit, who for nineteen centuries, seemed caught in the shadow of the Trinity, when the creaky door of the church was oiled and swung open, the Spirit invested in his church a new awareness and openness to life and power.
This world conference was held in the Bethlehem Conference Center in Sao Paulo, a microcosm of the way global Christianity is changing and reversing roles in missions. Formed from a schism with Italian Pentecostals in the 1930s, today its model of church organization is unique. The mother church has some 2200 “children” churches in the Sao Paulo area. While some of her offspring are larger than the home church, they continue in strong networking, with the central church assigning pastoral appointments and finances from all churches managed through the central church.
Missions and outreach are big in their agenda. They plant churches in Portuguese speaking communities beyond Brazil: forty now in the USA and other forty in Europe. Reflective of Brazil, this outward looking pastor and people mirror the dynamic of the Brazilian church. A once receiving country of missions from other lands, today it has become a sending people. Today estimates are that up to 30,000 missionaries of all Christian communions are sent from Brazil.
European Catholics colonized Brazil, like much of Latin America, most always with the proviso that they would be the official church. In time, these Spanish and Portuguese settlements resisted Protestant incursions, resulting in if not persecution, hostility. The Charismatic/Pentecostal revivals changed that. What has come about is a remarkable rise in faith: when the spiritual tide rises, all boats are lifted, which in this case includes Catholics, in whom there has been spiritual renewal and change.
While Brazil would then be called “Christian” because of its state religion, in 1950 there were five percent Protestant/Evangelicals. Today that number has jumped to thirty percent. From five to thirty percent in forty years.
Within this mix is a church I noted in an earlier Dispatch. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is viewed as less than orthodox by most Pentecostals and Evangelicals, skeptically regarded due to its emphasis on getting rich and offering blessings in return for paying of tithes to their church. While its statement of faith seems reasonably orthodox, its practices, with odd links to Old Testament rituals and ceremonies, shields its people from biblical rigors of New Testament faith in the provision of Jesus in his death and resurrection.
Troubling are attempts by Christians, and in this case specifically Evangelicals, to engage in public service and politics. Politics is here corrupting, with stories of payoffs for votes coming from the most credible sources. A pastor said that while meeting with a city politician, he was offered US$200,000 for his vote. When the pastor said “no” and gave his reasons, the politician was surprised, as it wasn’t the usual response. Federally the scuttlebutt is that politicians regardless of their faith, are fair game and vulnerable to pay offs. The Evangelical Alliance in Brazil has with others, gone public in trying to raise awareness. Herein lies the danger: assuming that getting into power one can assert and pass public policy with Christian virtue doesn’t immunize those same people from the dirty means too often exercised in this honorable and God-appointed vocation and calling.
Here in the heart of South America is a people settled within uncommon vistas, loved by God and undermined by sin. A picture of God’s perfect yet marred creation. Pray for its people during these days. As I rode to our meeting, streets were jammed as protesters demanded return of their ousted president. Times are not quiet. The Olympic fanfare is gone. Crowds and their tourist money have vacated. The euphoria of celebration and national pride is dipping to the low of post Olympic indifference.
Within the state of post Olympic status is the Spirit building his church, giving sustained joy beyond celebratory moments of athletes crossing the finish line. The race — not a sprint — continues.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance