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January 10, 2017

Has Latin America Been Reached by the Gospel?

Post by Brittany Tedesco

Guarani shaman.

The new mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, is the first Pentecostal pastor to hold a major executive office in Brazil.

Christianity Today describes Brazil's Protestant population as "booming."

According to Operation World, Brazil "has become a leading mission-sending nation."

Foreign missionaries excitedly report back to their churches about the number of people who respond to altar calls in various Latin American countries.

A little over a year ago, I spoke with one such missionary who told me about a tribal group in Mexico who had supposedly accepted the gospel. He'd seen the crucifix they now incorporate into their harvest festivals!

In the world of missions, some people feel that Latin America has been reached by the gospel.

A peek beneath the façade, however, tells a different story.

The new mayor of Rio de Janeiro was the pastor of a prosperity gospel sect founded by his billionaire uncle.

Women at a fiesta patronal.
The scene at a fiesta patronal

And those plentiful altar call responses? They are not indicators of true conversion. According to Luis Janeiro, Christian Aid Mission's Latin America Director, many Latin Americans respond out of politeness or peer pressure. "The real indicator of salvation is when they stop drinking or beating their wives or gambling," he said.

Brazil's Protestant population might be growing, but it tops the chart of Latin American countries with the most unreached people groups. Mexico is number two, followed by Peru and Colombia.

The crucifix and other religious icons might abound in Latin America, but these are hardly a signal of true Christianity. In a staff meeting, Janeiro showed us a photo of a group of Latin Americans taking communion outside of a church building. "Meanwhile, witches are performing rituals to 'cleanse' the people," he said. It was a typical fiesta patronal—a religious celebration that mixes Catholicism with witchcraft—much like the harvest festival with the crucifix in Mexico.

I was surprised to learn that Mexico is not only a difficult mission field, but often a closed and dangerous one.

Sign in Oaxaca.
A sign in a tribal community in Oaxaca, Mexico, which states that anyone trying to "deceive" or preach to this people will be detained.

Many tribal groups fiercely cling to their traditions and culture, and have no use for outsiders. Janeiro showed us a typical sign posted outside of a tribal community that prohibits preaching. "The government of the state in which that group is located respects that law and won't interfere if the preacher is, say, incarcerated for three days and then expelled from the community," Janeiro said.

He told the story of the leader of a native, pioneer ministry in Oaxaca—Mexico's most ethnically diverse state, where more than 200 languages are spoken. The leader confronted extreme opposition. While he and others were fishing one day, a man spit in his face. Quietly, he bent down to wash his face in the river while the others looked on, stunned that he wasn't retaliating.

Later, he prayed for a sick man who miraculously recovered after doctors and witches pronounced him incurable. Additional miracles opened the hearts of people in the community, and the leader established witnesses for Christ among multiple tribal groups.

Native gospel worker teaching children in Mexico.
Native gospel worker provides afterschool tutoring to tribal children in Mexico

Today, his ministry is working among 29 unreached people groups, along with 20 people groups already reached with the gospel. To enter closed groups, his gospel coworkers offer humanitarian services like free dental care, disaster relief, a children's shelter for orphaned or abandoned children, and literacy training for children and adults. They use their bakery to teach people how to make bread to earn a living. Christian Aid Mission is helping them open a carpentry shop.

Along with the ministry in Mexico, Christian Aid Mission is helping indigenous ministries throughout Latin America that are working to ensure that there are true witnesses for Christ among specific people groups.

A ministry that we support in Peru is reaching the Quechua tribe in the Andes Mountains. One of the missionaries, who works in villages 13,000 feet above sea level, wrote: "I shared the gospel with two sisters who used to worship pagan gods, such as the earth and the moon, and they lived in fear trying to appease them. They consulted witchcraft practices for every question and problem they had. When I showed them that there is only one living God, they surrendered their lives to Jesus and left their pagan goddesses. Now, they are helping me with the children's ministry."

Peruvian missionary in native dress.

Another missionary wrote: "As I was traveling, I shared the gospel with a man who was driving a truck. He used to worship idols and have extramarital affairs. The Lord touched his heart, and he committed his life to Jesus and left behind his sinful lifestyle. Now, he and his wife are faithfully attending a local congregation."

As nice as it may seem on paper, the expanding percentage of Protestants in Latin America doesn't mean the region is reached. The real indicator is how many people groups have a witness for Christ among them.

The Bible does not mandate that we "Christianize" whole countries. Rather, we are called to establish witnesses for Christ among every ethnic group. One day, people from each and every ethnicity will gather around His throne to worship Him forever (Revelation 7:9). Until then, we've got work to do.

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