I was pleased to be asked to give an overview and report of some aspects of the Reformed movement in Latin America. My wife, Aletha, and I, together with our four children, have lived for more than thirty years in Costa Rica. During this time we have been privileged by God’s grace to help plant three churches, serve in theological education, establish a Christian school, and begin a Reformed publishing house. In 1997 I accepted the position of executive secretary for the Latin American Fellowship of Reformed Churches (CLIR, as it is known in Spanish), a fellowship of churches dedicated to strengthening the Reformed faith in Latin America. As secretary of CLIR I feel God has allowed me a position from which I have a good purview of many Reformed churches in much of Latin America. CLIR’s membership is made up of confessional, Reformed churches from Mexico to Chile (approximately eighteen denominations), and many more individuals and local churches are affiliated. Christian book distributors and theological seminaries also are affiliated with CLIR.
CLIR is currently promoted and supported by many churches and individuals through the Bethany URC in Wyoming, Michigan. During the past seventeen years we have seen this Reformed effort grow into a significant movement throughout the region. Praise the Lord!
The First Wave of Reformed Missions
The first mission efforts in Latin America, especially in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, commenced around the mid-1800s. Some governments, especially in Mexico, saw Protestants as allies against the Catholic Church and facilitated their entrance into the country. The Presbyterian Church in the USA (Northern and Southern) and others began sending missionaries to Mexico and Brazil, and later to Guatemala, Chile, and other countries. Scotland sent a mission force to Perú. There were other small efforts made by other denominations, both European and North American. Many countries, however, were ignored by Reformed missions. This was true of most of Central America.
Especially in Mexico and Brazil there was a major missionary push at the beginning of the twentieth century, and for some decades there was increasing development and growth. By the mid-twentieth century there were solid national churches and evangelism was well underway. Theological seminaries were founded, and the church organization was well established. Liberalism, however, had already begun to infiltrate Presbyterian churches, and there were ensuing internal conflicts and later splits in denominations.
It is my contention that in spite of significant numerical growth in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, the underlying quicksand of liberalism compromised the future of confessional Reformed practice in most of these countries. For instance, many Christian (Reformed/Presbyterian) grade schools and high schools were founded but today have virtually nothing of a Reformed curriculum, and never really did. No significant, Reformed curricular materials were ever produced in Spanish (Brazil is the exception); no Reformed universities were founded to train teachers (again, Brazil is the exception). Another indicator is the lack of solid Reformed reading materials in Spanish, either translated or original. For almost a century there were no commentaries by John Calvin in Spanish, and the only translation of the Institutes was printed by a Dutch mission. One significant contribution was Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which was translated by a Mexican Presbyterian and originally published by TELL in Grand Rapids. But while Reformed denominations grew in number, the foundation upon which they stood was shallow and weak.
The first wave of Reformed missions, as I am describing it, saw established Reformed denominations in many Latin American countries, but also many with the seeds of liberalism sown, and by 1960 there existed a large but disunified Reformed movement in Latin America. The liberal Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) attempted to unify Latin American Presbyterians by aiding in the establishment of the Asociación de Iglesias Presbiterianas y Reformadas (AIPRAL), which served the cause of promoting women’s ordination throughout the region, and more recently ecotheology and the acceptance of homosexuals in the church. AIPRAL has been a force in promoting liberalism in the historic Reformed churches throughout Latin America up to the present.
The Next Wave of Reformed Mission
Beginning with the decade of the 1960s and subsequently, there were severe civil upheavals in Latin America, with many military dictatorships attacked and beginning to fall. This coincided with the rapid rise of Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostal movement provided the oppressed poor with a place where they were appreciated, where they felt God was present and heard their prayers, and where God’s powerful presence was promised. In the subsequent decades, Pentecostals would draw members not only from the Catholic churches but also from the more traditional (and liberalizing) Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. While it has taken one hundred years for the Presbyterian church in Mexico to reach one million members, the Assemblies of God denomination grew to more than four million in just a few decades. And in Brazil, the Assemblies of God denomination has more than twenty million members.
While the Pentecostal churches clearly were meeting felt needs of millions of people in Latin America who had been marginalized for centuries, there was a serious cost involved. As an anti-confessional movement, Pentecostalism has spawned incredible numbers of heretical and semi-heretical groups that in turn have begun to take advantage of those they came to save. Today the neo-Pentecostal health-and-wealth churches funnel millions of dollars into the pockets of a relatively few apostles, prophets, and patriarchs who have convinced their congregations that God will channel His material blessings through them. In some countries, the evangelical churches (grouped together) make up to 20 percent of the population, and in Brazil, it might be more than 50 percent. But the orthodoxy of all those churches that make up evangelicalism is another issue that has not been seriously addressed by evangelical leaders in general.
During the decade of the 1970s and subsequently, the Christian Reformed Church began work in Central America, a region where there was great spiritual need but where the Reformed faith was a novelty. The PCA sent mission teams to Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Chile. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, together with the PCA, has maintained work in Haiti. The RCUS has done some work in Mexico. The Canadian Reformed Church has a mission endeavor in the northeast of Brazil. The Free Reformed churches also sent missionaries to Guatemala and Ecuador. These confessional Reformed works have all experienced slow growth relative to most of the other evangelical churches.
Times had changed, and these efforts faced new challenges. Infant baptism was seen as a completely Roman Catholic practice, so these Reformed efforts were rejected by Catholics as being Protestant and by all other evangelicals as being Catholic. The Pentecostal movement was at its height, and the “holy rollers” (literally) swept across the region. Radio and television were swiftly employed by Pentecostal and later neo-Pentecostal groups. As the Internet developed, neo-Pentecostals were on the cutting edge. You could download a blessing and pay for it with your credit card.
Few people in Central America haven’t visited or been part of a Pentecostal church. The attrition rate, however, has been lethal. There are currently many more ex-evangelicals than there are evangelicals. Many returned to the Catholic Church, and many more have become practicing atheists, affirming belief in God but with no lifestyle that accompanies their profession. Others have rejected Christianity outright, a product of disagreeable experiences with evangelical churches.
There is no doubt that many have come to Christ through Pentecostal churches, but the whole movement has entered into a severe crisis of identity and has done damage to the integrity of the gospel in many places. Some Pentecostal leaders recognize this crisis and are beginning to search for alternatives. CLIR has begun to receive requests from Pentecostal pastors’ fellowships to bring conferences on sound doctrine. And in some regions there is almost an avalanche of pastors, leaders, and lay people who are finding the Reformed faith. CLIR’s Internet service (Facebook, video conferences, and website) has seen a significant increase in activity these past few years.
The newer Reformed mission efforts (CRC, PCA, and others) didn’t do much better than the older mission efforts in providing a viable foundation for the future of a solid, Reformed community. The publication of Reformed theology and texts was slow. CRC Publications provided some youth educational material that went out of print as soon as it was printed! None of the best, historic theological texts were translated (Bavinck, Kuyper, Machen, others). Only a couple of Calvin’s sermon collections and commentaries were printed. There were meager attempts to establish truly Reformed schools, but by this time the CRC was having major internal conflict over the ordination of women and other evidences of liberalism, such as whether there was even a need for another Protestant church in Latin America with so many others available. The PCA’s efforts continued to be hampered with mission-team conflicts, as well as an overemphasis on techniques for growth at the expense of a theological foundation. Many of the churches started by the PCA’s Mission to the World are struggling to stay alive and have little evidence of being Reformed. The older Presbyterian churches in South America began dividing, sometimes over theology but often over personality differences. While the work in Brazil moved forward in a more unified fashion, the Spanish-speaking countries saw greater fragmentation and a weakening of theology.
Rev. Bill and Aletha Green have served the cause of missions for thirty years. They live in Costa Rica, raised their four children there, and have cooperated in planting three churches, founding a Christian grade school and high school, raising up the CLIR Publishing House, as well as other activities inside and outside Costa Rica. Rev. Green is presently the Executive Secretary of the Latin American Fellowship of Reformed Churches (CLIR). Rev. Green has an M.Div. from Westminster Seminary in California, and a Th.M. from Calvin Seminary.