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Timothy WadkinsDecember 10, 2012

El Salvador is not your typical tourist destination. It has been wracked by earthquakes and frequently finds itself in the way of devastating hurricanes. It is also the smallest, most densely populated and most violent nation in all of Latin America. So why have so many North American Christians made it a major place of spiritual pilgrimage?

Many come to evangelize. Others come to build houses and volunteer in orphanages. But most come because they feel drawn to meditate on the vicious oppression and violence of the civil war that ended here in 1992. In particular, they come to visit the “church of the martyrs” created by the war. This “congregation” includes Rutilio Grande, S.J. (d. 1977), Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980), four American churchwomen murdered in Santiago Nonualco the same year, six Jesuits slain at the University of Central America in 1989 and thousands of campesinos killed by government death squads and U.S. bombs.

Each year thousands of North American parish groups and university students make the trip south, where they are exposed to the realities of the war and to the ideas of liberation theology, particularly its emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor.” They are also exposed to the possibility of building solidarity with those still marginalized Salvadorans whose postwar daily life is threatened by gang violence, suffocating poverty and systemic exploitation by transnational corporations and the neoliberal policies of the government.

Given the gut-wrenching experiences that accompany such pilgrimages, these visitors might be perplexed, even disturbed to learn that despite popular assumptions about Roman Catholic hegemony in El Salvador and efforts by radical solidarity groups to mobilize the poor to struggle for their rights, younger generations of the nation’s poor, with few war memories, have different preferences. In ways that do not fit with liberationist expectations, they are less interested in political organizing; they are opting out of their traditional moorings in Catholicism; and, most significant, they are rapidly moving toward the altars of evangelical conversion and Pentecostal experience. A multifaceted, wildly enthusiastic revival of religion has erupted in El Salvador that has altered the religious demographics of this traditionally Catholic country and may point to larger cultural changes.

Pentecostal Spring

In greater San Salvador alone there are now over a dozen Pentecostal and evangelical churches, each with attendance figures of more than 2,000. One of the largest is the Tabernaculo Biblico Bautista “Amigos de Israel Central.” Founded by the U.S.-educated Dr. Edgar Lopez Bertrand, better known as Brother Toby, the Baptist tabernacle boasts a membership of over 80,000 and has spawned over 400 smaller, loosely affiliated churches throughout the world.

Even larger is the Mision Elim Cristiani, located in the very poor city of Ilopango just outside metropolitan San Salvador. Unlike the more middle class and theologically relaxed Tabernaculo, Elim is a church of the very poor. Elim has 80 full-time pastors, two radio stations, one television station and over 10,000 cell groups that meet weekly. Its 12 weekly celebrations in a 10,000 seat sanctuary are serious events, animated by fiery preaching, open weeping, speaking in tongues and healings. In addition to these massive churches, even greater numbers of Salvadoran evangelicals and Pentecostals belong to one of the thousands of very small congregations of less than 100 members.

The latest national poll, taken in 2009 by the Institituto Universitario de Opinion Publica and Canisius College’s Institute for the Global Study of Religion, reveals that over the past two decades the proportion of the Salvadoran population identifying as Protestant more than doubled, increasing to nearly 40 percent from just over 15 percent. Overwhelmingly the members of this growing demographic identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic. Meanwhile, Roman Catholic identification dropped to just over 50 percent of the population, and only 40 percent of this group claims to attend Mass with any regularity. This means that active Catholic participation is hovering at 25 to 30 percent of the population. Such a decline is momentous, but it is also significant that within this Catholic remnant, a similar kind of Pentecostal resurgence is taking place.

El Salvador’s Renovación Catolica is the fastest growing sector in the church and now represents just under 20 percent of the active Catholic population. These Catholic charismatics are also difficult to differentiate from Protestant Pentecostals. Their worship is lively; their music is contemporary and repetitive; they speak in tongues and practice faith healing; and they are open to many different kinds of charismatic expression. Most of all, they are nurtured within egalitarian, lay-led charismatic communities.

What are we to think about all this? Most leaders in the solidarity movement filter out this resurgence altogether or denounce it as an irrational escape from impoverishment or a thinly veiled version of American consumerism. A sociologist at the Central American University in San Salvador summed up the general response from the left when he remarked that evangelicals “look up—to heaven and to the North.” Such dismissals, however, fail to appreciate that since the days of the Spanish conquest, Christianity has always been a cultural import. The important internal dynamics of this resurgence are also underappreciated. Beneath the layers of loud, pulsating music, evangelistic preaching and boisterous worship, there is a decidedly modern mentality at work that resonates with the cultural dynamics of postwar El Salvador.

Entrepreneurial Spirit?

This movement’s central animating feature is individual empowerment. Pentecostals emphasize the power of God that is unmediated and directly accessible to each believer through the grace of Christ, a biblical blueprint for moral living and, especially, the personal indwelling and enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Converts and participants perceive themselves to have new identities as autonomous children of God, to be equally empowered with other believers and to have unlimited access to the sacred source of holiness.

In such congregations the church becomes less a sacred institution that dispenses salvation and more a fellowship of equals who congregate in democratic social spaces. Protestants, of course, take individual agency and equality for granted and because of this proliferate into ever new congregational expressions. But this emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” has created tensions within Catholic parishes. Most members of the Renovación movement frequent Mass, venerate Mary and the saints and are respectful of hierarchical authority. But there is a pervasive sense that their real home is in the fellowship of the charismatic community, which often has its own facility and attracts more participants than the parish Masses. Similar to what is taking place within the global Catholic charismatic movement, such autonomy has generated urgent calls for the hierarchy to scrutinize the movement and make it more Catholic.

The individualism that runs through this movement might be equipping participants for existence in a pluralist, industrialized, more democratic society, which, despite continuing social problems, increasingly describes modern El Salvador. A recent Salvadoran television advertiser declares that its product helps people “find what they wanted when they wanted it most.” Evangelical leaders in El Salvador are creative entrepreneurs. They are constantly finding new and different ways to bring Christ to increasingly urban and mobile people who, like consumers everywhere in the market economies of the modern world, want to pick and choose what they need most, when they need it most. As a result, such individualism and spiritual immediacy has spawned great variety within the Salvadoran religious marketplace, including a few more affluent congregations that are characterized by extreme emotionalism and a consumerist orientation.

While these congregations certainly feed negative stereotypes about Pentecostals, the movement as a whole is not typically otherworldly nor economically pretentious. Although their economic profile is rising, most charismatics and Pentecostals in El Salvador are still quite poor. Their lives are narratives of tremendous economic hardship, disintegrated family structures, drug addiction, gang involvement and failed attempts at migration. But their conversion stories, which are remarkably similar across both Catholic and Protestant traditions, are narratives of personal restoration that touch every aspect of life—physical healing, restoration of personal dignity, a new optimism about the future, new attitudes about personal morali ty and church or Mass attendance. The net effect of such dramatic turnarounds is fundamentally social. Pentecostal and charismatic converts re-enter the world as new people with different values about sobriety, family roles and financial discipline.

Back to Basics

There is also evidence that what begins in personal regeneration may evolve into an emphasis on social transformation. A growing number of Pentecostal leaders and congregations have become critical of the exclusive Pentecostal emphasis on inward piety and are now deeply engaged with the problematic social realities of El Salvador. One of these leaders is Pastor Carlos Rivas, a former Catholic seminarian and fiery pastor of the Tabernáculo Aviviamento Internacional, who spares no words in his critique of Salvadoran society and corrupt politics. After he broke from the Catholic Church in his teens, Pastor Rivas became an associate pastor at the huge megachurch Tabernaculo Biblico Bautista. But he left the Tabernaculo because it, as he put it, “consistently ignored the poor and were completely wedded to the power and privileges they were provided by the conservative Arena party.” Pastor Rivas is not alone.

Mario Vega, the Jesuit-educated pastor general of the huge Mision Elim church, says that he and many of his staff are beginning to address structural evil in the country. Pastor Vega explained, “It is not enough just to preach the Gospel, place gang leaders in jail or even give aid to the poor…. We must speak out against and attempt to change those underlying conditions that cause poverty and violence.”

In recent radio broadcasts, newspaper advertisements and public protests, Elim has denounced policies that are contributing to gang violence and poverty. In addition, the church is now engaged in job-training programs, promoting recycling as a form of Christian concern for the environment and, at the risk of severe criticism, testing for H.I.V.

This nod toward social ministry has been rapidly growing among Pentecostals, and it represents a maturing of the movement. Many congregations and nongovernmental organizations are at the cutting edge of creative social engagement: developing community projects focused on sustainable agriculture and water quality, investing in education and jobs in order to neutralize gang violence and petitioning local government for better schools and infrastructure development. Pentecostals often use the term misión integral when describing their social praxis. This is a concept that developed from the writings of René Padilla, an Argentinian theologian. It is being taught throughout Latin America by the edgy, socially oriented evangelical organization known as the Latin American Theological Fraternity. Integral ministry emphasizes personal conversion and spiritual formation in the faith. This is combined with biblical ideas about God’s incarnational intention of not leaving any human and any corner of the earth untouched by God’s love and justice, thus integrating every aspect of life into the redemptive message of good news.

Such social orientations are reminiscent of the goals of liberation theology and the radical small groups known as comunidades eclesiales de base. But there is also a decidedly different emphasis. A former member of a base community, now a leader in the charismatic group at the Catholic parish in San Martin, told me that the base communities “became so politicized they forgot about the life-changing importance of spiritual renewal.” He conducts Bible studies and is helping his charismatic group to organize medical care and educational opportunities for children within his community.

In terms of sheer numbers, it is clear that the Pentecostal movement is already the option of the poor. In terms of mobilizing the poor to work to change their situations, this movement’s emphasis on spiritual renewal and formation may yet help to fulfill the social agenda under-realized by the comunidades de base or liberation theology. As for those North Americans who come south to visit the martyrs and accompany the poor—they would be advised to follow the poor to their churches. They might see where the Spirit is leading in El Salvador.

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections.

Corrections: December 3, 2012

An earlier version of this article misrepresented the affiliation of the Tabernaculo Biblico Bautista. It is an evangelical church, not Pentecostal. An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the city where Mision Elim Cristiani is located. It is Ilopango, not Ilapongo. Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the place and date of the murder of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador. They were killed in Santiago Nonualco, where their bodies were found, not on the airport road where their vehicle was found. It was 1980, the same year as Romero’s death.

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11 years 3 months ago
There is an error. Perhaps the phrase was just put into the wrong place, but the four American churchwomen were killed in 1980, not 1989. I will always remember the year because it was just before Reagan's swearing-in and he was quick to fire our ambassador to El Salvador who had spoken out against the killings.
Luke Hansen
11 years 2 months ago

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. A line was out of place, and it has been corrected.

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