domingo, noviembre 04, 2018

Colored faces of the Protestant Church in Latin America

Published on: RYPC Translations | Cite as

Colored faces of the Protestant Church in Latin America

Latino Worship Service. Source:
Jaime E. Elias

An existent relation between ecclesiology and the church’s mission


It has been rightly said that protestantism is moving forward instead of moving backwards, and that it has already taken several distinct forms, giving itself a touch of knowledge flavor, ceasing to suffer and slowly trying to find its very own identity. In this multi-colored description of the evangelical church in Latin America it is also sought to focus the relation between “the ecclesiology and the church’s mission” (selected topic for our essay), describing, thus, the different profiles that Latin American protestantism has taken. We do not question its accelerated growth and the huge steps that it has taken, which, without any doubt, has left its print in history. We can also say that its diversification has been developing a topical presentation for its study. Regarding the mission, each one of its churches has been taking its very own path, but without ever denying the groundings adopted by it. In this essay, we will try to present in a subjective and sporadic manner some of its influences: secularization, political, social and contextual matters. We will also consider the opposition that these churches faced together while they were growing as a church: liberalism, evangelicalism, pentecostalism and indigenism, that were intertwining with each other and, at the same time, isolating themselves from one another. We will also describe the implicit relation of the philosophical and ideological lectures that were present in its time and that began to be known through the conceptual study of the missional and theological relations, that makes them unique in the way they function. The essay evidences a process which includes very positive and contingent things, as well as matters that made it “static”, and sometimes, that made it move backwards. Nearing the end, we will deal with the theological profession in the ecclesiological relation, in other words, the theological relation between church and mission. Finally, we will pose some open questions for future reflections.

Variety as identity

In the history of Latin American church (‘protestant’/’evangelical’), at the present time, it is going through a complex phase, trying to acquire an identity in which it can bare the theology and the mission (mission and theology). Let us consider that in order to describe the present topic of reflection we refer to Míguez Bonino and David Stoll. The former describes four faces of protestantism, whereas Stoll describes Latin American evangelicalism. “We should affirm that the church is missional and the mission is the church” (Bonino). Thus, we could consider this aspect as a colorful background curtain to reflect and forge a line of thought and describe, in its chronological study, other possible “faces” that Latin American protestantism is taking. In this way, protestantism has been taking many faces (and it keeps on doing it), and, at the same time, it does the mission while it walks, each one in particular trying to do the service for the purpose it has been transforming and making itself known. In this descriptive field, there is amalgam of criteria that goes on relating with each other, in aspects such as liturgical, evangelization, theological convictions, and proposals of structure that each church developed in order to make known their different faces, such as: liberal, evangelical, pentecostal, ethnic (and, for the present topic, other possible ‘faces’). They are bringing, within their identity, very similar topics for the mission. Even if the ecclesiological task has been taking many faces, this does not mean that we should isolate them as individual matters; in this case, we could see the church as a whole. Also, the church has been taking shape in theological reflection, acquiring new paradigms to preach the Gospel and grow. But the advancements were made and are made through some of the aspects they have in common, such as: structure, system, theology, culture, world view, strategies and grounds, all of which could be the most relevant. Let us consider some other matters.

The mission as a work of identity

Inside the “protestant heritage in Latin America”, as it has been described in the introduction to this topic, it has been said that the church is facing another crisis, because it is ceasing to suffer and trying to obtain an identity in order to make itself known by it. Bonino has given a variety of presentations of protestantism, and how he goes on doing “the mission”, showing the identity for which he is known in Latin America (knowing that when we speak of Latin America, we are also talking about its multiple colors). The first existing relation is that the church does not stop being a church and it does not stop being missionary. This could be the middle path for the field of focus of each one of them. First of all, liberal protestantism focused on maintaining the amalgam of history and philosophy in order to project itself to society and to come out from oppression, aligning itself towards modernization. It also took several political parties and foreign influences, focusing on development and on the eradication of poverty. Liberal protestantism was also associated to other subjects, religious and ecclesiastical, in order to minimize the educational authoritarianism of the catholic church. It was the first one in braking the monopoly and forging the roots of its own identity. This provided also with some other technical aspects to adopt the name of church, such as ‘protestant, evangelical or evangelist’, all of which are synonyms and have no variation whatsoever. At this point, the church does not stop being a church; rather, it grows in maturity and it also starts freeing itself. Second, the evangelical face gives new expectations within society, education and the mutual understanding between Latin American and American cultures. This face has a greater identity than the former. The sense of the language it acquires has been deemed as more “evangelical, biblical-theological”. This face adopted terms such as “creator, savior, interceding, transforming God”; this is related to the liberal face, but is visibly distinguished from the former for a lesser involvement towards secular society. In this way, the evangelical face evidently starts to mark also the fundamentalist propositions, which marginalize liberalism as “modernism”, but even so, the church does not stop being a church. In this case, the church –even without wanting it too much– maintains a tight relationship of identity. The pentecostal face is part of the ones that contributed the most in protestantism’s growth. Making big, long steps, it took the Holy Spirit as a premise, taking hold of it and, in a tamed manner, it went on conquering new frontiers. Its differences started to be noted through the diverse conservative expositions, but this did not cause it to stop; it must be taken into account that, for the most part, this face had a biblical illiteracy, but it also made its contribution through ethical positions and a great evangelizing zeal. In the description of this face, it is taken into account, for the most part, the relation of being a church, and it is maintained within the parameters of ecclesiological identity. On the other hand, the ethnical face is identified with the diverse social, cultural and religious conditions, which, for the protestant Latin American Church, these conditions do not marginalize it, but instead, the church embraces them as part of the missionary movement, making them its own as church. In this case, we could consider that this is part of the missionary work of the liberal face, as well as of the evangelical and pentecostal faces. It is at this point where we can see that ethnicity was classified for its descriptive range. In the following topic, we take into account other aspects to establish relations with.

Growth as the result of the identity labor

The liberal face becomes popular and we can see how it makes advancements at the educational, political and social levels, freeing itself with each missionary step taken. Even if it has been said that education broke loose from the catholic church, could we imagine the growth that could have been obtained from the missionary path? Even if the liberal face was proposing a foreign paradigm, it was adopted fairly, in such a way that it went on growing (in Latin America its adoption as a last resort is been considered, and, at present, it has been rejected by some sectors). The experience that the evangelical face brings as well as the former, is also part of the fundamentalism from the first centuries. Even if this was more part of the raw materials for its growth, by proposing new missionary perspectives as part of the comprehensive development of the church. At this point, we could say that that this growth was even more rooted in the library convictions. The pentecostal face was part of the ones that obtained more projection, in such a way that its face is the best known and popular; contrary to the evangelical face, it was the one that obtained less biblical roots, but has greater missionary reach. The ethnicity face also takes the missionary labor into consideration, and brings along the liberal desire of conquering new frontiers, although it indirectly brings also the desire to free and secularize itself. The fundamentalist aspects were used to strengthen a new face of evangelical culture and such face takes its biblical theology as the raw material for doing the mission. Although the marginalization and lack of information that it received are undeniable facts of backward steps in its growth, this face still holds itself. Particularly, the mere fact of calling it ‘ethnic face’ is discriminatory and isolationist from the unity. It must be taken into account that there are greater differences and less things that relate the other referred faces to each other. Even the chronological order in which it is described is an aberration; but it must not be alienated, nor we should stop saying that it fulfills the mission as protestant ethnic groups in Latin America.

The theological centrality between the church and the mission

The theological narrative of some of the faces described above show “their own theology”, but there is no significant variation when we deal with all of them –they are deemed as church, missionary and theological–. But they do present some close differences in their own hermeneutics. The theological faces have adopted God as their God, this being the starting point for their mission. Their theology is theocentric and trinitarian, where they all hold the Trinity as centrality and essence in being a missionary church (that is: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit). Deeming the liberal face as a fundamentalist one (for some sectors, and not for others), the path taken was a different one. The evangelical face gives the trinity more credibility and they almost opt for being ‘book worshippers’ (if we could describe them as such). The pentecostal face opts for the trinitarian theology –very ludic, by the way, festive and emotionally-driven–, proposing more credibility to the Holy Spirit. Its distinctive face is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and its diverse manifestations, but without leaving behind the evangelical legacy. On the other hand, the ethnicity theology shows the non-static myths that also spoke about God. (Because the Heavens and the Earth preach the glory to his Name). This is the legacy that it adopted by itself in its own intuitions and necessities of a maker, but it is also a mixture of the imported and imposed from the European nations and, maybe, rationalist ones. Particularly, it must be taken into account that it contains part of the fundamentalist theology or theological praxis. But the evangelical, as well as the pentecostal face both opt for being more biblically-centered and others more conventionalists in their theological arguments. Finally, we could say that the existing relation is that they all have the same theology, some of them presenting a greater exaltation of the same, but they all point towards the same mission from a different angle. The relation is really evident, despite the fact that there are some contradictory points of view in their interpretations, some of them deemed as steps backwards. In this case, we could not judge and state that the proselytism they have presented in their mission was not genuine; rather, for some of them it meant great advancements, and for others, very few steps; but the mission has occurred.

New forms, other faces and identities

There is a phenomenon that should be evaluated in the light of the new identities (let us call them ‘churches’) and questions that should be answered: Why four faces? Where did they come from? How did they begin to take shape? At this point, we could say that the faces described in the first part of this essay are more reflective than investigative; anyway, we are not saying that they are wrong, but we wish we could find even more answers for its study. This would lead us to argue about other topics of importance for the ecclesiology, the mission and its different faces. Contextually to the times we live in, the church also continues to acquire new faces –let us mention the rise of the “mega churches”, that could not necessarily be located within pentecostalism or neo-pentecostalism. We could define them better as a capitalist church of marketing. What about the emerging churches? They are also a new face of protestantism in North America and Latin America. If we consider to do a thorough study about them, we could give answers to the topic. Another face for Latin America is individualism, as a result of postmodernism. But, what about those people that do not feel identified with any of the faces described in this essay? Are they christians without a church? Could this be called faceless christianism? Taking into consideration that, in a way, they are or have been, liberals, they opt for being modern and secularized and, for that matter, they bring their own theological convictions with them. What about those that also do not feel identified by any of the faces but are “evangelical”, in one way or another they deem themselves as moralists and even biblical in their behavior and life style. Some other are very knowledgeable graduates in academic matters, such as sociology, anthropology and religion, and in a way, they felt identified with some of the faces, but not any longer. What face could we give to these types of believers? That they probably belonged and brought with them the experience or, at least, some wrinkle of one of those faces. There are also protestants committed to their people and knowledgeable that see the path of protestantism as beneficial for other horizons, opting for the “new evangelical faces”. Finally, now that we start to reach the conclusion, we consider proper, as a suggestion, that there should be a reflection about the history, but also about the new theological trends that are ahead of us, and that some would opt for, according to them, doing “a good mission”. This would imply deep and careful studies about the matter, but enough to determine on which wheels is protestantism standing and which would its new strategies for the mission be.


It is necessary to give credit to the readings that have been on point and particular for the academic growth of the matter, and also for the theological reflection and the contemplation of the chronological reality in which protestantism is today (“evangelicalism”). We conclude this analysis between the ecclesiology and the mission of the church, but we do not underestimate all the information available. There are other topics of discussion remaining, yet the challenge stands. Protestantism has ceased to suffer, and from this crisis, it has jumped in search of its own identity; but there is still too much pressure in the ways it has developed and also in its path to development. Protestantism has made itself known in the foregoing by means of four distinct faces (liberal, evangelical, pentecostal, ethnic), but, at the same time, by means of theological strings that intertwine them with one another. To sum up, we could say that protestantism is still growing and the mission of the church is not stopping. Other faces are emerging, and bringing with them the same taste from the other four. Therefore, the challenge is more evident, about which we suggest, as a closing statement, some questions: Should we be more liberal, evangelical, pentecostal, neo-pentecostal or ethnic? Should we opt for an emerging protestantism? What about the new forms that may arise after these? Would we opt for a faceless christianism? How far would we go in proposing this, with the purpose that the church grows and the mission is not lost, and with it its Biblical sense? What would be the legacy we would use as a transition? Would we choose any of the four? Would we be inclined for some other face? Meanwhile, the duty becomes heavier because of the greater challenges we face ahead, but the duty is to continue with the advancements of ecclesiology and the mission, influencing in a committed manner new biblical-theological proposals for its development and maturity.

  • MÍGUEZ BONINO, José. Rostros del Protestantismo Latinoamericano. Grand Rapids: Nueva Creación, 1995.
  • STOLL, David. ¿América Latina se vuelve protestante? Las políticas del crecimiento evangélico. Nódulo, 2002. [online] <>

This article was translated by Nicolás Manfredi and reviewed by Alfredo Francis, under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA).

Cite as (ISO 690:2010): ELÍAS, Jaime E. Colored faces of the Protestant Church in Latin America: An existent relation between ecclesiology and the church’s mission [online]. RYPC Translations, 4 November 2018. <> [accessed: ].