In the 1991 film, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, an evangelical Christian missionary family go to Brazil to preach the gospel. All of their efforts to convert the natives to their faith go awry with tragic results for virtually everyone. The overarching message? Brazil is a huge and impenetrable country impervious to the efforts of well-meaning North Americans to change it.
Over the last quarter of a century, however, it has become evident that the message of this film is rather wide of the mark. A traditionally Roman Catholic country, Brazil’s evangelical population numbered only around five percent as recently as 1970. By contrast, evangelical Christians today account for some 22 percent of the population. That this proportionate increase has occurred during a period when the population of the country as a whole more than doubled means that in absolute terms the numbers of believers have increased nearly twelve-fold. By any measure this is extraordinary growth and strong evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in Brazil.
In Latin America, Brazil stands out for at least three reasons. First, it is the only Portuguese-speaking country in a continent dominated by the Spanish language. Second, it attained independence from Portugal, not by rebellion, but, like Canada, peacefully under a member of that country’s royal family, Pedro I, who subsequently became the first emperor of Brazil. The monarchy lasted until his long-reigning son, Emperor Pedro II, was toppled in 1889. Third, unlike its neighbours, which formed several countries out of Spain’s empire in the New World, Brazil managed to maintain its territorial integrity at independence.
Today Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, both in land mass and in population, with just over 200 million people. As the church continues to grow, Brazil is joining the ranks of countries in the global south that are quickly becoming centres of world Christianity. The landscape is diverse. Brazil still boasts the largest number of Catholics in the world, numbering some 123 million in 2010. Pentecostals rank second and have experienced the most dramatic growth of any denomination. A Pew survey 10 years ago revealed that nearly half their number were converted former Catholics, moving into the Assemblies of God, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Maranatha Churches and the Foursquare Gospel Church.
Reformed Christianity is definitely playing a role within the larger evangelical landscape. The Igreja Presbiteriana do Brasil is the oldest of the Reformed churches, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Its membership numbers just over one million. A much smaller group, the Reformed Churches in Brazil, is a sister church to the Canadian Reformed Churches, consisting of 21 congregations located mostly in the tropical north of the country.
But ecclesiastical bodies tell only part of the story. Reformed Christianity appears to be a transdenominational phenomenon. Brazilian Baptists are just as active as those in the Reformed churches, showing an affinity, not just for the English and New England Puritans, but also for the great nineteenth-century “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. Evangelical publishing houses continually churn out translations of popular and academic works well known to English-speaking Reformed Christians, including the writings of C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and Tim Keller. L’Abri Brazil, counterpart to the Schaeffers’ famous ministry in the Swiss Alps, is located in the northern city of Belo Horizonte and led by Rodolfo Souza, and Guilherme and Alessandra de Carvalho, who also established and continue to lead the decade-old Kuyper Association.
Many North American Christians, especially those of a pietist bent, eschew politics. By contrast, Brazilian evangelicalism has a pronounced political emphasis, though its followers’ intuitions are still somewhat undeveloped and need further refining. As a consequence, many leaders are making an effort to translate books explicitly relating Christianity to politics. In 2014 the São Paulo publisher, Vida Nova (New Life), released a translation of my own Political Visions and Illusions, which has been received enthusiastically among Brazilian evangelicals.
Because observers are predicting that evangelical Christians could form a majority of the population by the middle of the century, current political leaders are already taking note. We are painfully aware, of course, that Christian involvement in politics can go wrong, as it has so often in the past. All the more reason to work and pray, along with our Brazilian brothers and sisters, that the Spirit would guide God’s people as they seek to live for his kingdom in every square inch of life.
Deus abençoe o povo do Brasil!
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