Group Blog: Protestantism on the Rise

Florianopolis Travel Blog

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Written by: Rachel Benkeser, Phil Gadomski, and John Winn


On a Sunday morning in Florianopolis, Brazil, the bells of the Catholic Church in Lagoa begin ringing at 8:15 in the morning and continue ringing throughout the day calling the faithful from their homes to worship. This Sunday, the church will be competing with a Brazilian World Cup soccer game shortly after noon, but the Catholic Church is used to competition. Since the 1960s the Catholic Church in Brazil and throughout Latin America has experienced competition with growing numbers of Protestant Churches and devout Protestant believers. On a last estimate, the number of Protestant worshipers in traditionally Catholic Brazil has grown such that 15 percent of the population is now self identified as protestant. This growth and the movement away from the Catholic Church in Latin America are not random and hold deeper social and political implications than first meets the eye.


The fastest growing Protestant Churches in Latin America are the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, which account for 75 percent of Brazil’s protestants, such as Brazil for Christ, God is Love, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and Assemblies of God in Brazil, the largest Protestant church in Latin America with over 14 million members in 2000 (Anderson). These churches began their rise following the period of the military dictatorships that spawned throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and began strong growth in the 1980s as an alternative to the politicized Catholic Church. Unlike the Catholic Church, who was embedded in the political turmoil associated with the military dictatorships and who spawned a liberation theology movement that made secular problems a focus of sacred time, the new Protestant churches in Latin America focus on individuality and personal salvation (Nagle). As Geovane Dias, the first vice president of the First Baptist Church of Copacabana explains, “We can distribute food, but our objective is for people to get to know God. Both rich and poor need Christ. To take care of the poor is not our most important mission like it is with the Catholic Church…. For us our No. 1 priority is to serve Christ. (Henry)” The separation of politics from the pulpit is captured by survey conducted by L of Pentecostal pastors, protestant pastors, and students at the Evangelical Faculty of Theology in Buenos Aires. With Pentecostalism as an important branch of the new Protestantism trend, 83 percent of the Pentecostal pastors felt that elections should never be discussed during a sermon.


Another steep break between the Protestant Churches in Latin America and the Catholic Church that has helped fuel the growth of Protestantism is the emphasis on community growth and leaders from the community. Unlike the Catholic Church who from its early beginnings in Latin America boasted over a third of her clergy being from foreign countries, the pastors and leaders of the protestant churches come from the community as born-again, former Umbandaists, or simply impassioned community leaders. This rejection of foreign control gives the Protestants, and in particular the Pentecostals, a more native and attractive appearance (Turner).


The growth of Protestantism has been particularly successful among the lower classes and the rural community where the conservative message of the Protestant Church empowers the people with the tools needed for a successful life, tools the Catholic Church did not offer through Liberation Theology. The cornerstone of the successful Protestant Pentecostals is the message of ‘born again’ conversion through repentance of sin and acceptance of Christ. This action and the support of the church enables people like Jamim and Maria Tereza Mendoca Merense, discussed in Alma Guilermopreto’s The Heart that Bleeds, to find a community of faith that helps them transform their lives one step at a time through basic concepts like love of children, modest dress, and social relationships (Guilermopreto). Surprisingly enough, this same source of strength in the growth of the Protestant churches has also been one of its set backs in countries in Latin America since it strongly emphasizes loyalty and monogamy to a society where extramarital sexual relations are a source of pride and prestige (Turner).   


The success of the rise of the Protestant Church can be attributed to her successful marketing strategies. With a much more colorful appeal than the Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches target their audiences through modern media like television. Evangelical denominations in Brazil alone own 58 radio stations in 15 states and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God personally owns two television networks and mass markets newsletters that are read by over one and a half million people (Chu). The Churches rely heavily on word-of-mouth and living examples of the power of the church to change lives, like Jamin and Maria Tereza Mendoca Merense. The Protestant churches themselves are more in tune with popular culture and market their worship styles to connect with the generations of today, much unlike the Catholic Church who relies heavily on monastic tradition founded in Europe centuries ago. A Protestant church service may likely include pop-style music and dynamic liturgies (Chu). The strong emphasis of the Protestant churches on Communal worship and individually developed spirituality compared with the Catholic individual worship and communal spirituality has encouraged many to join the faith community because of the emphasis on the direct, personal relationship with God. Part of the strong presence of women in the Protestant churches may be due to this relationship, similar to the bond between mother and child that Latin Americans value deeply.  


It stands to be said, however, that no shift in a strong institution like Catholicism comes without consequences, especially in light of Allan Anderson’s presentation at the Niet-Westers Pentecostalism in Nederland Symposium in 2003, where he reported “There are probably more Pentecostals [a branch of the evangelical protestant church] in church on Sundays in Brazil than Catholics. (Anderson)” The decline of the Catholic Church and continued rise of Protestantism leaves many unanswered questions and raises insecurities as to the implications of the shift. There are strong potential political consequences of the strengthening group of Protestants, who, despite the lack of politics from the pulpit, have evidenced rallying around like minded political candidates. An example of this effect was the electoral campaign of Anthony Garotinho, an evangelical and former governor of Rio de Janiero who in 2002 was a candidate for the presidential election for the Brazil Socialist Party. Among his not insubstantial percentage of the votes, the majority came from evangelical regions and the least came from predominantly Catholic regions (Novaes).    


Another potential implication of the rise in challenge to the dominance of Catholicism is religious unrest transmitting itself into violence. Mexico has already experienced this consequence when in 1997, 45 Catholics were massacred during their Sunday worship by a group of evangelical Protestants. Combined with the extreme poverty and desperate situations in parts of Latin America, the potential for religious warfare is not farfetched, though with any hope will not happen.


A third, more hopeful consequence of the rise in Protestantism is the bridging of the social gap between the wealthy and the poor. As Protestant churches continue to arm their members with social skills and opportunities to lead successful lives and as these same churches continue to target the poorest of the poor and those in rural regions typically unaided by the government or the Catholics, the poor gain an opportunity to lead more successful lives offering the next generation of Protestants an even better chance at climbing the social ladder.


Whatever the consequence of this shift toward Protestantism in Brazil, Argentina, and all of Latin America may bring, it is a shift that cannot be ignored and will face the current pope and all who follow with the challenge of retaining the largest support base of Catholics in the world. While protestant churches in Latin America continue to grow, an eye should be kept on the Catholic Churches to watch how they may transform to re-capture or retain their following.



Anderson, Allan. “The Proliferation and Varieties of Pentecostalism in the Majority World.” Symposium Niet-Westers Pentacostalisme in Nederlan. Diaspora en bekering.” 27-28 february 2003.

Cava, Ralph Della. “Catholicism and Society in the Twentieth-Century Brazil.” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 11, No. 2. (1976), pp. 7-50


Chu, Henry. “In Latin America, a Religious Turf War. Catholicism: The State of the Church Worldwide.” Los Angeles Times. 15 April 2005.


Guillermopreto, Alma. “Rio 1991.” The Heart that Bleeds.


Nagle, Robin. Liberation Theology’s Rise and Fall.

Novaes, Regina. “Brazil: Religion of the Poor.”

Turner, Frederick C. “Protestantism and Politics in Chile and Brazil.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 12, No. 2. (Apr., 1970), pp 213-229





travelman727 says:
Excellent article! I have helped build churches in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I think you wrote a balanced report and concisely analyzed the current situation.
Posted on: Jun 19, 2006
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