Protestant evangelicalism booming in predominantly Catholic Bolivia
Religion Today, November 26, 1999
A revival of Protestant evangelical Christianity is taking place in nominally Catholic Bolivia.
The almost 20,000 people who professed their faith in Christ at Franklin Graham’s evangelistic outreach this month in Santa Cruz have joined a movement that started 40 years ago, observers say.
More than 138,000 people attended the four-day Bolivia for Christ rally Nov. 10-13. About 350 evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches representing 23 Protestant denominations hosted the event, Norm Mydske, the crusade director, told Religion Today. Organizers trained 10,000 counselors, ushers, and children’s workers to minister to the crowds that filled the 45,000-seat Ramon Tahuichi Aguilera Stadium.
A Saturday event sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association saw 4,233 children respond to an invitation to become Christians, Mydske said. More than 32,000 children attended the high-energy stage performance designed to present the Gospel in ways that children can understand. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, is an associate evangelist in the organization.
The number of people making first-time professions of faith in Christ “was extremely high” compared to other events, Mydske said. More than 60 percent of the people who filled out decision cards “indicated that they made decisions for salvation.”
Bolivian church leaders rejoiced at the results. “This is precious. It encourages us to continue working. We can see what God has done,” said Jose Luis Suarez, executive chairman of the event. “When I saw people coming down and running, that was the most emotional part for me.”
The large number reflects a 40-year trend toward evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christians comprised less than 1 percent of the population in 1960, but today 10-15 percent of the people belong to evangelical churches, Pedro Moreno of Prison Fellowship International told Religion Today. Moreno, a native Bolivian who lives in the United States, has fought for religious freedom in Latin America and other places.
Evangelicals began an intense effort to evangelize Bolivia in the early 1960s, Moreno said. Corruption and complacency had weakened the Catholic Church and evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, offered vibrant worship and a personal faith, he said.
Bolivia is one of three Latin American countries where Catholicism remains the official religion. Priests and other church officials are considered public functionaries and paid by the government, Moreno said. About 12 percent of citizens are committed Catholics and 75 percent are nominal believers, he said.
Tens of thousands responded at revival meetings held by Bolivian evangelist Julio Ruibal in the 1970s, Moreno said. Ruibal was so popular that the president allowed him to use his personal airplane to travel to his meetings. Thousands responded at evangelistic rallies led by evangelists Luis Palau and Hermano Pablo, and many churches were born from the revivals, news accounts said.
One charismatic movement, Ekklesia, has about 5,000 members in 300 house groups, eight television stations, and a network of radio stations across the country, Moreno said. Government and business leaders belong to the movement and many attend the central church in La Paz. Another church, The Ministry of the New Pact of God’s Power, has 15,000 members in several cities. The movement grew out of a series of evangelistic and healing campaigns in La Paz.
Record Bible sales were recorded in the country in 1998, the Bolivian Bible Society said. It sold 140,000 Bibles, about 50,000 more than the previous one-year period. Pentecostal and charismatic churches bought the most Bibles, the ministry said.
Evangelicals are increasing their presence in politics. They lead four political parties and have become prominent in the government and the military, Moreno said. “They are gaining respect. They are not seen as crazy or called names so much anymore.”
The Catholic Church has been critical of the new churches, but is starting to accept them. Pentecostal and evangelical churches are not sects, but “churches with all the wealth of Christianity,” Bishop Moises Morales of the Bolivian Bishop’s Conference said in June. “The church no longer calls them sects and will not do so in the future. It is not fair to use a term like this.”