In March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergolio was elected Pope Francis, the first pope of the Jesuit order and also the first from Latin America. The leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, he has already announced that he wants to engage in dialogue with Evangelicals, Orthodox, and Anglicans.
A personal reflection by a young Brazilian evangelical
Brazil is one the places that is expected to receive much of the Pope’s attention and effort. He is expected to visit the country in July. In February, the New York Times reported that Brazil is going to be the laboratory for the new strategies of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), where it has seen a considerable outflow of adherents to become Protestants or atheists in recent years. Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world, but the evangelical movement there has grown 61% in the last 10 years, according to the 2010 Brazilian Census.
How will young Brazilian evangelical leaders respond to the Pope’s attempts at dialogue? Will they feel threatened, or will they be open to dialogue? Is Brazil going to be a model that will be a source of blessing to the global church?
Such dialogue is important, and even urgent, in light of The Cape Town Commitment’s call for the body to partner in unity in missions. It could bring a positive transformation to the Body of Christ and to the nations with regard to theology, poverty issues, and missions.
A call to dialogue
Dialogue between evangelicals and Roman Catholics should not necessarily involve accepting the dogmas that keep us separate but embrace the essential truths that should unite both: God loved us first and, therefore, we love his word, his world, his gospel, his people, and his mission. In light of this, we should be willing to partner together as a body for unity in missions, regardless of our differences.
Historically, the RCC and evangelicals in Brazil have been divided and their relationship hostile:
- Most evangelicals there have come out of the RCC, believing that it is not a part of the Bride of Christ, since they do not agree with its dogmas (such as worship of Mary and the saints).
- Some Roman Catholics do not recognise evangelicals as part of the Bride of the Christ. For them, the RCC is the only and true church.
- It is common to see public criticism and insults by adherents of both.
The Cape Town Commitment states that a divided church has no message to a divided world. The need for dialogue goes beyond personal preferences. It is in line with obedience to Jesus’ preference, that we love one another. When we do this, the world will know we are his disciples. This unity would result in a transformation in Brazil and consequently impact other nations. Below are some suggestions on how this could happen.
Theology going south
Church history shows that when the Christian centre of gravity shifts, new centres of theological studies and missions emerge in that region. Thus, one should expect new theology and missions from the global South presenting new perspectives and approaches, in order to make the gospel more relevant cross-generationally, cross-culturally, and cross-intellectually.1
Before Pope Francis, the Roman Catholics had had only European popes for more than 1,000 years. In the Protestant world, the Edinburgh Conference of 1910 had no attendees from Latin America, and only a few from Asia and Africa. In the last 100 years, the church has expanded globally and in the South it has grown exponentially.
Thus, Catholics and evangelicals are presented with the same challenge: to learn new approaches and methods to communicate the principles of the Gospel as well as new practices that are culturally relevant to the South, where the majority of Christians are younger, where education and literacy rates are lower than in the West,2 and where communication is more indirect and non-linear. While linear thinking values getting right to the point, non-linear thinking values non-explicit communication and believes that respect is shown by not being overly direct:
- In Brazil, the exposure to Western theological ideas and teaching has influenced many leaders in evangelical churches to favour a three-point sermon as the best style for making a point.
- While this method may be good for a linear communication culture, such as the United States, in Brazil it is likely to be ineffective in reaching the hearts of the people, especially the uneducated.
- An alternative, more effective method would be to incorporate storytelling in conveying a message.
Another difference is that Brazilians tend to be more conservative in theology and moral teaching but more public in sharing their faith, while people in the North tend to be more liberal but practise their faith more in private.
Currently in Brazil, the government is considering a same-sex marriage law. The evangelical voting bloc and some churches and their leaders are opposing it. They are talking about it in mainstream TV shows, newspapers, social media, and in communities believing that the Gospel can truly change society.
The Pope has also shown that he will not keep his opinions private on this issue. Since he has done so, many Brazilian evangelicals have started quoting him on Facebook and Twitter, because in Brazil he is a popular figure and respected by many non-Catholics. This illustrates another reason why dialogue between the Pope and young evangelical leaders in Brazil could be positive. Together they could promote the need for Biblical principles in our constitution and society, instead of giving more room to secularism.
One of the challenges to be overcome is that Protestants criticize the RCC for teaching wrong doctrine, such as worship of Mary and the saints. Yet, even many evangelical denominations are not grounded in the Word of God and teach false doctrines, such as the Prosperity Gospel. Dialogue should encourage both sides to examine the Scriptures and be more biblically based in teaching and practice.
Since Brazil is seen as a laboratory for revitalizing the RCC, dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals should be an example to the world on how to communicate Christ and his Gospel more relevantly to the global South. It would also demonstrate that it is possible to experience unity within a context of diversity, providing a transformational model for the whole world.
Poverty is a reality in the world, especially for many Christians in the global South. Even though Brazil is now the eighth-largest economy in the world, its social inequalities and levels of corruption are still extreme:
- According to the latest census, half of the population’s monthly income was below the minimum wage.
- Approximately 2.5 million people who still live in extreme poverty are not even registered for government social programmes.
According to the World Bank, one of the main reasons for such disparity is that public social spending is still pro-rich. Believers are called to understand and walk in the truth that “God’s desire is for both systemic economic justice and for personal compassion, respect and generosity towards the poor and needy”, as stated in The Cape Town Commitment.
Liberation Theology among the Catholics and Integral Mission amongst the evangelicals, started by theologians in Latin America, suggest how the Church can be effective in dealing with poverty. The Church itself is facing a strong opponent from within: the growth of the Prosperity Gospel. In Brazil, the majority of evangelicals are Pentecostals or Neo-Pentecostals, and many of these churches are propagating that false teaching. Even though some of their churches are in the poorest areas in Brazil, their emphasis is on supernatural ways to personal enrichment, instead of social development and welfare. Moreover, neither the RCC nor Reformed evangelicals have taken the issue of poverty in the country seriously.
A constructive dialogue and intentional campaigns involving the RCC and Protestants could be a catalyst for bringing about transformation:
- Pope Francis, familiar with poverty issues in the global South is expected to take this issue seriously and to encourage the RCC and other Christians to fight poverty, as he himself has been doing for years.
- Young evangelical leaders in Brazil should also strive to be agents of transformation. The younger generation is tired and ashamed of hearing stories of pastors involved in enrichment at the expense of the poor and oppressed.
- A dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals is urgently needed to fight poverty together and lead a reformation in society, from Brazil to the global Church.
Thinking globally, going globally
There are still almost 7,000 people groups, out of 16,587 globally that have not been reached with the Gospel (source: Joshua Project). Even in Brazil it is estimated that about 100 tribes still do not have any missionary presence.
Since the 1980s, Brazil has been expected to become a force in sending out missionaries instead of just receiving them. However, missions in Brazil have not taken off:
- The Atlas of Global Christianity indicates that Brazil is the second-largest sending nation in the world in terms of numbers of workers. However, per capita, the rate is very low.
- There are approximately 40 million evangelicals in Brazil, but they send out only 0.01% of their adherents as missionaries to Brazil and overseas, according a native missions movement ‘Languages and Peoples’.3
In 2012, The Lausanne Movement in partnership with other agencies published research that aimed to explain why this is happening. Their findings revealed the following obstacles:
- geographical distance from other continents;
- a lack of proper theological understanding of missions;
- denominations focused more on their own interests;
- churches focused more on national growth, rather than a holistic view of the Kingdom;
- poor discipleship and vocational training;
- secularist influence; and
- the perspective that the Missio Dei will be fulfilled, regardless of the involvement of the church.
These hindrances, not surprisingly, are directly connected to theology and poverty as well as missions. The continuation of the disunity between evangelicals and Catholics will only worsen this situation.
A call to joint action
The sad reality that millions of people without Christ are going to hell should be much more significant and worthy of the efforts of Christians than some of the debates that both churches entertain, such as whether or not to accept infant baptism.
Young evangelical leaders and Catholics in Brazil should come to the understanding that missions is not theirs – it is Christ’s. If they think globally, they will go globally. And if they understand that the needs of the world are more important than what keeps them apart, they will be willing to partner to see Christ glorified in the nations. Around the world, especially in unreached areas, there are millions of non-believers who are not aware of the differences between Protestants and Catholics; therefore, having a healthier relationship will benefit the witness of the Bride of Christ to the lost.
One of the greatest challenges of love is to accept differences. If evangelicals and Catholics in Brazil learn how to dialogue and to love each other in this way, the result will be to extend that love towards other people, from different tribes and nations. In doing so, Brazil can be a model to other Christian communities and to our world in the area of theology, missions, and fighting poverty.
A united Church has a message to a divided world.
1 Lee, Moonjang. Adapted from “Future of Global Christianity,” Atlas of Global Christianity, page 104.
2 “The Learning Curve” research published by Pearson at http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/the-report.