Saturday, April 16, 2005

Catholic and evangelical churches in El Salvador

I have been writing recently about the tensions between Pope John Paul II and the proponents of liberation theology. The Dallas Morning News has another story on that subject.

Several news organizations were writing this week, however, about the growth of evangelical protestant churches in Latin America and the exodus from the Catholic churches to those denominations. The LA Times story on the phenomenon makes the point that most evangelical churches do not emphasize social activism or a focus on the poor:

[E]vangelical groups billed themselves as a haven from the tumult.

"The people don't want a polemic," said Edgardo Bertrand, pastor of one of El Salvador's largest evangelical churches. "They want God."

Many of Bertrand's flock at the Christian Jerusalem Embassy in San Salvador are converts weary of the political activism that roiled the Catholic Church in past decades. Evangelicals say their emphasis is on personal transformation through faith, not social or political organizing.

"We can distribute food, but our objective is for people to get to know God. Both rich and poor need Christ," said Geovane Dias, first vice president of the First Baptist Church of Copacabana. "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."

When in El Salvador, it is impossible not to notice the small churches which seem to appear in every barrio. The voices of evangelical preachers fill the airwaves.
Migrants bereft of family, friends and the trappings of their former communities are eager to tap into the social and spiritual networks the evangelical churches provide through weekly services, Bible study and other activities. Sermons promising self-improvement and personal fulfillment through God and upright behavior — no drinking, no smoking — are also appealing.

The churches operate out of ordinary locations such as storefronts, and use strong marketing and word-of-mouth proselytizing. They train new pastors quickly, sometimes within a few months, compared with the years of seminary studies required of Catholic priests.


National Public Radio also ran a story this week on the rise of evangelical churches with a focus on churches in Guatemala.

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