Churches in Brazil: Realizing the Reformation

Article
12.12.2016

The availability of good Christian literature has pushed Brazil into a modern Reformation.

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When my parents and grandparents first arrived in Brazil in 1952, they encountered a church far different than what we see today. By God’s grace, we Brazilians have witnessed an awakening over this past decade like never before in the history of our nation. To understand what’s happening now, you must first understand the history of our country.

COLONIZATION & CATHOLOCISM

While the United States possesses a long history of Christian culture and values, Brazil’s history is characterized by an imperialist culture brought to us from Portugal. Because of this, Brazilian culture is deeply imprinted with a “get it while you can” mentality, common among nations originally colonized by a mother nation’s exploitation and exploration of wealth. Put simply, the North American church was originally composed of those who had risked their lives to worship God apart from state intervention; the Portuguese came to Brazil looking for the promise of financial wealth.

The Brazilian “church” wasn’t founded on a desire for religious freedom, but by a powerful Roman Catholic institution that sought to build and protect its own interests in the New World. Beautiful, baroque-style churches still stand as witnesses to the congenial relations between the Catholics and Brazil’s former kings.

At the same time as Brazil’s colonization, the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe. John Calvin himself sent the first Protestant missionaries to Brazil. Tragically, these two men were martyred by Catholics a mere 12 hours after they’d written the first Protestant confession of the Americas: the Guanabara Confession of Faith (named for Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro).[1] But Brazil was far from the Reformation, so doctrinally sound biblical literature was near impossible to find.

WORKERS WHO SPREAD THE WORD

When my parents, Richard and Pearl Denham, first arrived in Brazil in 1952, they braved the Amazon interior to plant churches.[2] Not unlike Luther, they aimed to make the Word of God known to villagers whom Catholic priests had forbidden from reading the Bible. Hostilities soon arose with these priests, and they did everything in their power to kill my parents, even burning dolls in their likeness on trees outside the church.

Thankfully, though, the Brazilian government eventually sent soldiers to protect my parents, but poor health forced them to move to Manaus, the capital of the Amazon region. There, they started the city’s first Christian bookshop and soon discovered that few books other than the Bible had been translated into Portuguese. Consequently, they relocated to southern Brazil, where printing presses and translators were available to support a publishing ministry. Around the same time, in São Paulo, others like Bill Barkley from Lloyd Jones’ Westminster Chapel, Dr. Russell Shedd, and other Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran missionaries also began to publish Christian books.

Then came the arrival of the radio and television in the mid 1900s, which helped to spread the North American evangelistic movement led by Billy Graham. In the years following, the Pentecostal televangelist movement also exerted great influence, and masses of underprivileged Brazilians were drawn by the news that both forgiveness and prosperity could be found by mere verbal acceptance of a Savior. Sadly, these American televangelists clouded their message by pairing it with the promise of material wealth. Today, Igreja Universal—the world’s largest prosperity gospel denomination—boasts a 10,000-seat replica of Solomon’s temple in the middle of São Paulo.

Despite these aberrations, a gospel movement gradually gained momentum, and books played an inarguable role in the rise of evangelicalism in Brazil. Today, Brazil has an estimated 40 million evangelicals. Just as Gutenberg’s press spread the printed Word, so here God has used the books of godly men to confront the errors of the Catholic Church.

More recently, the arrival of the Internet and social media has presented unique opportunities to spread the biblical ideas of the Reformers. In particular, Brazil ranks second in Facebook and YouTube use worldwide, and these channels and others have introduced preachers such as Paul Washer and John Piper to tens of millions, giving rise to an interest in Reformed doctrines.

IN THE MIDST OF REFORMATION

With this historical backdrop in mind, one can see the significance of the present moment: for the first time in her history, Brazil is in the midst of reformation.

And yet, an interesting challenge accompanies this welcome shift. The effectiveness of parachurch organizations like publishing companies creates the need for Christian leaders to emphasize the vital importance of the local church. Parachurch ministries have helped our nation embrace sound theology, but they must eventually take a back seat and encourage the health and growth of Brazilian local churches.

Today, Brazil represents the largest market for Christian literature outside the English-speaking world. We also send the second most missionaries. Most of our congregations are young, and in need of partnerships with more mature congregations and seasoned pastors who can provide counsel. The publishing movement of the 1950s and 60s paved the way for the present, but it’s our desire that healthy local churches would increasingly become Brazil’s primary herald of the gospel message.

Please continue to pray for Brazil, that her churches might faithfully mature and display God’s glory among the nations. All hope for reformation lies in the hands of our prevailing God who sustains his assembled people all around the world.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The full text of the Confession can be found here: http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/guanabaraconfession.htm#.WCSMjhIrKAw

[2] For a more detailed version of the story, visit: http://fielministries.com/about-us/our-history/