The Neighbor You Don't Know
Latin America and the Caribbean
By Randy Hurst
Of the major regions in our world, Latin America and the
Caribbean is the closest to us, but surprisingly, most North Americans have
merely a superficial knowledge of its beauty, vast diversity and unique spiritual
In most of Latin America, Pentecostal churches are typified
by fervent prayer, spiritual vitality and explosive growth. Yet, more than 500
million in the region do not know Christ as Savior.
For two weeks Regional Director Dick Nicholson and I
traveled across Latin America to explore its many cultural differences, strong
spiritual challenges and explosive church growth. But everywhere we went, one
fact overwhelmed us: A vast number of lost people are still unreached and need
the saving message of Jesus.
Latin America and the Caribbean is filled with contrasts.
More than 570 million people, representing at least 1,500 indigenous people
groups, live in 35 countries. Beautiful modern cities seem a world away from
the remote villages of the region’s jungles and mountains. In steadily growing
cities, both rich and poor live side by side as immigrants to the cities
struggle to find housing and jobs. High-rise apartments stand beside hovels and
cardboard shacks as people seek a better life.
The gulf between wealth and extreme poverty is huge.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission, a third of the population
live in poverty, on about $2 a day. Of this group, 71 million live in what
would be classified as “extreme poverty,” existing on less than $1 a day. Even
with rich natural resources, huge agricultural production and advanced
industry, Latin America has made little progress in lifting its masses from
extreme poverty and desperate need.
Some countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Costa
Rica and Brazil, have developed strong economies. Brazil is a major
manufacturer of passenger airplanes, having exported more than 7,000 to 15
countries. In stark contrast, Honduras’ lack of farmable land and low
agricultural development has created a struggling economy with about 70 percent
of the population living below the poverty line. Such disparity is why the
region is considered the most economically unequal in the world as the rich get
richer and the poor become poorer.
Because incredibly effective evangelism and significant
church growth have been reported for decades, many people don’t realize that
immense spiritual needs still challenge the church in Latin America.
In reality, hundreds of people groups are still resistant to
the gospel message.
Voodooism is prevalent in the Caribbean, and in many South
American countries animism and other indigenous religions present difficult
obstacles when reaching certain areas with the gospel. While Roman Catholicism
is the region’s dominant religion, Trinidad and Tobago has more than 270,000
Hindus and 70,000 Muslims, comprising one-third of its population. Suriname is
27 percent Hindu and almost 20 percent Muslim. Clearly, Asian religions are
increasing in both size and influence.
Satanism and various cults are also on the rise. Santeria,
which originated in Cuba, combines West African beliefs and practices with
elements of Roman Catholicism. It is characterized by trances, spirit
possession and animal sacrifice. Other indigenous religions blend animism and spiritism
with Catholicism, a mix that makes comprehending the true gospel difficult.
As in North America, pleasure-seeking hedonistic lifestyles
have left people desensitized to the Holy Spirit’s conviction. The immoral
decadence of Brazil’s Carnaval celebrations — ironically, in preparation
for the self-denial of faithful Roman Catholics during Lent — perpetrates
widespread promiscuity. Furthermore, the growing materialism of prosperous
countries is contributing to spiritual apathy similar to that in the United
States and Europe.
An intentional and concentrated dependence on the Holy
Spirit’s power has enabled missionaries and national believers to rescue the
lost from spiritual darkness. Dick Nicholson and I stood in a Teen Challenge
Center in Montevideo, Uruguay, and listened to moving testimonies of students
who have been delivered from addictions, substance abuse and even the bondage
of satanism. Missionaries Isaac and Terry Smythia care for and disciple the
group, some of whom are preparing for full-time ministry. In the midst of
spiritual challenges, the Spirit is moving mightily and, as He promised, Christ
is building His church.
The Growing Church
Just seven years after the Assemblies of God was formed,
missionary leaders made a decision that would determine the effectiveness of
our mission in the world. In response to a series of three articles in the
Pentecostal Evangel by missionary Alice Luce, the Fellowship made a commitment
in the 1921 General Council to focus not only on proclaiming the gospel but
also to establish churches that are self-supporting, self-governing and
Executive Director Noel Perkin led our young Fellowship in
an aggressive implementation of this strategy, and missionaries began to focus
their efforts on a twofold primary objective: winning souls to Christ and
establishing churches everywhere converts are won.
Latin America was at the forefront of practicing indigenous
church principles. The results became evident within a few years and are even
more so today. Almost 28 million believers in more than 204,000 Assemblies of
God congregations worship each Sunday across Latin America and the Caribbean
— more than in any other region of the world. In many countries it is
difficult to find a town of any size that doesn’t have an Assemblies of God
church. Signs announce “Asambleas de Dios” (Assemblies of God) in some of the
region’s most obscure locations.
Churches with memberships of thousands and even tens of
thousands are located in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and El
Salvador. This kind of rapid church growth is so prevalent that it is
impossible for national fellowships to keep accurate statistics.
In the United States, the Assemblies of God has 2.8 million
adherents. Incredibly, several hundred thousand more than that worship each
Sunday in and around just one city — São Paulo, Brazil.
Attending AG churches in Latin America and the Caribbean is
a moving and inspiring experience. Fervency and spiritual vitality are
Dick Nicholson and I recently attended a Sunday evening
service at the 10,000-member Centro Familiar De Adoracion (Family Worship
Center) in Asunción, Paraguay, pastored by Emilio and Bethany Abreu. For half
an hour before the service began, hundreds of people knelt at the chairs and
walked around the altars, passionately calling out to God for His Spirit to
move and for souls to be saved in the upcoming service.
The same fervent intercession and worship are characterized
in the chapel services at the region’s Bible schools. Dick and I visited Bible
schools in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. The schools in Paraguay and Uruguay
are small, but the heartfelt worship of the students and the strong presence of
the Spirit are the same as in the largest Bible school, River Platte Instituto
in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For 30 years, missionaries Rocky and Sherry Grams
have led the River Platte school, and last year more than 1,200 students were
enrolled. These students are eager to worship and seek God as they prepare
their minds for lives of service, not only in Argentina but also as
missionaries to other regions of the world. About 40 percent of the resident
students have expressed that they feel called to missions. Almost half of those
students feel called to Asia and Europe. Overall, Latin American countries (not
including Brazil) are sending more than 800 workers to at least 60 nations.
Whether the congregation is a small village church of 40
people or a huge city church of multiplied thousands, spiritual vitality is
tangibly manifested. Each congregation stands as a testimony to many decades of
faithful, focused missionary labor and trained, qualified national leadership.
As missionaries and national leaders work together, they are taking
Spirit-filled evangelism far beyond what our pioneer missionaries could have
In recent decades, missions strategists have effectively
brought attention to geographic areas and people groups that are yet
unevangelized. Our Lord’s command is to preach the gospel in all the world and
make disciples of all nations. Every people group — and every person within each group — deserves an adequate witness of the gospel.
Statistical percentages have been established that classify
nations as “reached” or “unreached” based on the number of Christians living
there. While these efforts have created awareness and motivated people to take
the gospel to the unreached, a statistical quota system can have an unfortunate
consequence. Some can consider a nation, geographic area or people group as
“reached,” while multitudes within that group are still lost for eternity.
We rejoice in the tremendous spiritual harvest being reaped
in Latin America. Yet even the most optimistic estimate identifies only about
12 percent of the population as evangelical Christian. This still leaves half a
billion people who are spiritually lost. Even with many hundreds of
missionaries and explosive church growth, Latin America and the Caribbean is
not yet reached.
We are in a spiritual battle for the souls of individual
men, women, young people and children. It is impossible to go into warfare
without assuming that there will be casualties. For many years the military
used the term “acceptable level of casualties.” But in the spiritual realm, any
thought of “acceptable casualties”
is unacceptable! The apostle Peter wrote that our Lord is not willing that any
should perish. Any rejoicing at the explosive church growth and great spiritual
vitality of churches in Latin America must be kept in perspective by
remembering how many souls remain lost.
In the last decade I have traveled many times to all six
regions of our mission. It is always inspiring to see what God is doing and how
much has been accomplished. But I always come away with an overwhelming
realization of how many people in every country are still lost.
The day will come when the last name is recorded in the
Lamb’s Book of Life. Until then, our lost neighbors wait for us to share the
message of Christ. Those in Latin America and the Caribbean who are yet
unreached — and who have no neighbor to tell them —are waiting for
someone to come.
Randy Hurst is communications director for AG World
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