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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 challenges.

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 self-propagating.

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.

Spiritual Vitality

Attending AG churches in Latin America and the Caribbean is a moving and inspiring experience. Fervency and spiritual vitality are consistently evident.

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 dreamed.


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 Missions.

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