Changing Tides: Latin America & World Mission Today

[Home]

 In Changing Tides: Latin America & World Mission Today Samuel Escobar provides insightful perspectives on the history and future of missions in Latin America.  In particular, Escobar focuses on the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America, its position against Protestant missionaries, and ultimately how the presence and growth of the Protestant church has caused reflection and change within the Catholic Church.  Escobar ends the book with a challenge on viewing Latin America as not only a mission field, but the source of the next large missionary movement.

The presence of Protestant missionaries was originally rejected by the Catholic Church, and worldwide community, on the basis that Latin America had already been evangelized.  The Catholic Church saw its presence in Latin America an indication that the continent was already Christian.  Escobar writes that, “the Catholic Church rejected their presence, claiming that the region was Christian and was already evangelized; it did not need missionaries.”  (page 24)  Even current sources, such as the CIA world fact book reflect this fact, nothing most countries in Latin America as 98% evangelized.  In 1928 the International Missionary Council decided that a Protestant missionary presence was valid because, “religion and morality and been divorced throughout the whole history of religious life in South America.”  (pg 27)  In one of the best descriptions of the Latin America Catholic Church, Escobar refers to the church as having a “tremendous form without substance.”  (pg 27)  This phenomenon is best described as individuals having received the Catholic Church without any resulting personal or social transformation.  One may refer to such individuals as “going through the motions” of being Christian, without any change in their lives or beliefs.

What follows these declarations legitimizing Protestant mission is roughly 100 years of mission and evangelism within Latin America.  Escobar describes the early years of Protestant mission as slow in terms of conversion and social impact.  As a contrast, he refers to the overall impact in the 1900’s to have had a greater impact on the Catholic Church membership than the reformation itself.  By 1998 a Catholic observer noted that, “in terms of church participation, “practicing” evangelicals may already outnumber “observant” Catholics.” (pg 27)  The social impact of the Protestant church caused the Catholic Church to reflect upon the shift of many Catholics to Protestantism.  Initial reactions of the Catholic Church were to attach the character of the Protestant missionaries, churches and converts.  Catholic interpretation of Protestant mission and conversion fall into one of two categories.  The first is that Protestant mission is a “foreign conspiracy” that is directed to break up the unity of Latin America provided through the Catholic Church.  This interpretation also assumes that the success of such missionaries is a result of the funding received.  In a speech in 1992 the Pope stated that, “significant amounts of money are offered to subsidize proselytizing campaigns that try to shatter such Catholic unity.”  (31-32) The other interpretation provided by the Catholic church focuses on the converts themselves emphasizing that conversion is not done for doctrinal reasons but rather experientially.  One Catholic study states: “We think no Catholic has changed to another group or church for doctrinal reasons, the reasons are experiential:  no person who has left the Catholic church to join a religious movement (whether Christian or not) has taken the trouble to study and analyze the doctrines of each group or church, and after that has chosen rationally which is the best and which group to join.  In fact, many people first join these groups for a series of reasons, primarily experiential, and later on they learn just what this group thinks.”  (44)

While much Catholic literature seems to focus on a negative interpretation of Protestant mission, Escobar also presents a positive response within the Catholic Church itself.  While the Catholic Church avoids admitting any failure of the 16th century evangelism, one could say that they have acknowledged the shortcomings of this period of evangelism.  Escobar writes that the Catholics Church therefore avoids the use of the term re-evangelism but in acknowledging a need for missions, even within the Catholic Church, speaks of a new evangelism.

One of the great challenges Escobar discusses is the disproportion in believers in Latin American and missionaries coming from Latin America.  Although the Catholic Church has over 500 years in existence, and over 50% of worldwide Catholics are Latin American, only 2% of Catholic missionaries are from Latin America. (pg 32)  While the numbers are not as drastic for Protestants they are still disproportionate and Latin America continues to receive 26.5% of Protestant missionaries.  Escobar points to the supply of missionaries, and the readiness of the North American church to provide support, as a possible cause of this problem.  Specifically referring to the Catholic Church, Escobar writes that,   “North American and Europe send enough priests to fill the vacant parishes, there is no need to consider laymen – unpaid for part-time work – to fulfill most evangelical tasks, no need to re-examine the structure of the parish, the function of the priests...”  (73)  In other words, as long as the supply of missionaries and finances continue there is no need or motivation for the Latin American church to be creative in church structures and in sending missionaries.  This raises the question of whether the current model of missions demonstrated by missionaries to Latin American is hindering the creativity in sending missionaries from Latin America.

By no means is Escobar an idealist when describing the present state of the Protestant Church.  Escobar points out one of failures of the Protestant church is in articulating the Christian faith in terms of the context of Latin America as has been done by Liberation Theologists.  Escobar also discusses the excess of individualism that has found its way into the Protestant church.  In particular Escobar criticizes the focus on individual belief and conversion to the detriment of teaching of the church as a body.  Escobar states that, “There is a very important theological and pastoral work to be done in correcting the excesses of Protestant individualism.” (43)

Escobar sees the Latin American church as the Church of the Third Millennium.  Beyond a doubt, Escobar believes that Latin America will be the next and greatest source of missionaries to take the Gospel to the rest of the world.  Yet Latin America still remains a mission field and it is still to be seen how this next missionary force will manifest itself.  In Escobar’s own words,  “Latin America continues to be a missionary challenge and an enigma.”  (74)