The Growing Crisis Behind Brazil’s Evangelical Success Story

When Paulo Romeiro wrote Evangelicals in Crisis in the mid-1990s, a book that has remained a bestseller among Brazilian evangelicals, he addressed just one of the many ways in which evangelicalism had collapsed in Brazil: its inability to halt the spread of prosperity theology. It is increasingly clear that evangelicals in Brazil are today in the midst of a much larger crisis, starting with the difficulty—not to mention the impossibility—to define what it means to be evangelical.

According to the latest official census, evangelicals represent almost one-quarter of the total population of Brazil (22.5 percent). It is a phenomenal growth, seeing that just 40 years ago they were only 2.5 percent. In spite of their constant official growth, hailed to the world as a success story of missions and evangelism, evangelicals in Brazil face today several challenges. I’ll mention a few:

  • uncertainty about their own future theological direction
  • multiplicity of divergent theologies
  • lack of a leadership with moral and spiritual authority
  • doctrinal and moral downfall of once-respectable leaders
  • rise of totalitarian leaders who call themselves not only pastors but also self-proclaimed bishops and apostles
  • gradual conquest of the schools of theology by theological liberalism
  • lack of moral standards that can function as a starting point for ecclesiastical discipline
  • depreciation of doctrine and exaltation of experience alone

As a result, more Brazilians are looking for churches just to feel good, to seek immediate solutions for their material problems without even reflecting on deeper questions about the existence of eternity, and moving from one community to another without any commitment or engagement in real Christian life and testimony. Incidentally, the number of people who profess to be evangelicals but rarely attend church has grown from 6 percent to 16 percent of all evangelicals in the last few years.

Concurrent Crisis and Success

How did evangelicalism reach this point of success and concurrent crisis in Brazil? Reformation theology and practice has never been fully known or adopted in our country, even among the Reformed churches. As someone said, “Evangelicals in Brazil are amalgamated by a mortar half-Catholic, half-spiritualist, and little or nothing reformed.” Besides not having known the doctrines of the Reformation in their fullness and power, other factors seem to have contributed to the current situation:

1. Evangelicals have engaged in dialogue with Catholics, liberals, neo-Pentecostal and other lines without, first, having clearly identified the basic, non-negotiable assumptions. I think we can talk and learn from those who are not Reformed or conservative. However, the dialogue must be pursued within well-defined boundaries and assumptions. Today, evangelicals find it difficult to delineate the boundaries of true Christianity and how to keep the doors closed to heresy.

2. Evangelicals have adopted the non-exclusivity principle. It started with an opening to doctrinal plurality, the multiplicity of ecclesiologies, and moral relativism. Without any effective instrument to at least identify what disagrees with crucial points of the Christian faith, the door was open to false teachers who crept, almost unnoticed, in the historic churches and especially in neo-Pentecostal churches.

3. In order to broaden the base of communion with other lines within Christendom, evangelicals weakened their adherence to the crucial points of historical Christianity. With this progressive reduction of basic doctrinal tenets, the definition of “gospel” has become increasingly broad and lost its original meaning.

4. Historical denominations gradually abandoned the great creeds and confessions of the past that shaped the historical faith of the Church. By disdaining centuries of tradition and theological interpretation, evangelicals found themselves vulnerable to any new interpretation, such as open theism, theology of prosperity, a new perspective on Paul, and so on. But perhaps the worst of these consequences was the loss and absence of the Reformed worldview, which served as the basis for a comprehensive look at the culture, science, and society from the sovereignty of God over all areas of life. Without a comprehensive Reformed worldview, evangelicalism has been limited itself to isolated and fragmented actions in the social and political arena, often without any connection with the Christian worldview, becoming vulnerable to “the ways of the world” in politics and morals.

5. Finally, evangelicals have embarked eagerly in search of academic respectability, not only on the part of other Christians, but especially on the part of the secular academy. As a result, evangelicalism ended up submitting several of its theological institutions to the state’s educational standards, which are compromised to worldviews that are methodologically, pedagogically, and philosophically humanistic. This opened the floodgates for the old theological liberalism, which, if moribund abroad, is still alive and kicking in Brazil.

Signs of Hope

There is no easy way out of this crisis. However, there are some encouraging signs of change I cannot leave unmentioned. One of them is the surprising growth of Reformed faith among Pentecostals. There are innumerable examples of Pentecostal pastors turning to the Reformed understanding of Scriptures. Sometimes even entire Pentecostal churches have gone through this change. I quote here an e-mail I received some weeks ago from a former Pentecostal pastor:

Your book Spiritual Worship [first published in 1998 and now in its 5th edition] made our whole church stop speaking in tongues and changed our whole liturgy. We even had to change the sign on our building from “Assembly of God” to “Reformed Church.” We have become Calvinists within the Pentecostal tradition, a unique movement that has arisen in our day. Because of this bold move on our part, our small church began to grow numerically as never before. The first basic change we made was to create a theological seminary, free, every Tuesday from 20:00 to 22:00. We have students from many denominations: Assembly of God, Foursquare Gospel, and many from neo-Pentecostal, prosperity gospel churches. Our Sunday evening worship is very simple: prayer, worship, preaching of the Word, not to mention the fact that on Tuesday and Friday, because of the great enthusiasm for the Word of God, we are dividing the service into two parts with two messages, and sometimes some brothers stay until five in the morning studying and praying.

I see the historical Christian faith, as manifested in the Protestant Reformation, as a feasible alternative for the evangelical church in Brazil. I recognize that not all the Reformed churches in Brazil have been examples of vitality, relevance, and godly leadership. However, the potential is there. The core to sustain this amazing growth needs not to be sought much further.

  • Sebastian Kim

    Great news! As someone who spent most of my life in Brazil, I can attest the seriousness of the Brazilian Presbyterians. I am glad to see good things happening there.

  • Alessandro Miranda Brito

    Nicodemos is for sure one of the few Brazilians pastor who wants to keep, not traditionalism (culture), but biblical traditionalism. If we do not keep that, we give up on Jesus!

  • andrew price

    I had no idea things were so bad

  • Elias Medeiros

    Thanks Augustus for this outstanding evaluation of “evangelicals” in Brazil. Your considerations describe the reality of the so-called “evangelicalism” in Brazil. Thanks also for highlighting “signs of hope” today. Besides “the surprising growth of Reformed faith among Pentecostals,” we should also remember several other signs of hope. For instance: numerous Reformed Brazilian leaders who are making a difference (you are one of them); Reformed Conferences have been spread throughout the country (Fiel Conferences, Reformed Faith Conferences, just to mention few), the publication of Reformed literature has greatly increased in the past years (we have publishing houses promoting and distributing Reformed literature); numerous Reformed blogs and websites; some theological institutions (some Seminaries, and at least one theological Post-Graduate Center) are promoting and training the future generation of pastors and professors within the framework of Reformed theology and practice; and so forth. These are truly signs of hope and you are right: “the potential is there. The core to sustain this amazing growth needs not to be sought much further.”

  • Joao Mordomo

    I absolutely agree with Nicodemus in every respect. Some additional thoughts:

    * The Brazilian census bureau’s (IBGE) 2010 census found that 22.2% of Brazilians are self-denominated “Evangelicals”. That’s well over 40 million people! However, included in this number are groups that by no mean fall into the categories of biblical or historical Christianity (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), as well as some which are marginally (dubiously?) Christian (Adventists, as well as strong “prosperity theology” neo-Pentecostal denominations like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God). This effectively cuts the number in half.

    * I see at least two additional factors that add to the current crisis, both of which seem to me to be forms of what might be called “ecclesiolatry”: 1) “Denominational ecclesiolatry,” whereby even solid, historical denominations tend to be too focused on themselves and their own self-perpetuation, emphasizing secondary doctrines and peculiar methodologies to the point of neglecting a spirit of unity with the broader body of Christ (the other side of the coin of points 2 through 4 above), and 2) a “local church ecclesiolatry,” whereby tiny fiefdoms are established and tightly controled by their leaders, who tend to dislike, if not despise, the very thought of partnering with other churches and (so-called) parachurch organizations. (This, of course, is integrally related to the first form of ecclesiolatry, as well as to Nicodemus’ comments about totalitarian leaders and self-proclaimed bishops and apostles).

    * One sign of hope that I see comes with a caveat. I am hopeful because for 25 years many Brazilian Evangelicals have increasingly come to the realization that they are “blessed to be a blessing” and this has resulted in the sending of an increasing number of cross-cultural missionaries. However, much in the same way that there is a “growing crisis behind Brazil’s Evangelical success story”, there is also a growing crisis behind the “success” of the Brazilian Evangelical missions movement. It was recently (and thoroughly) stated by a reputable source that Brazil is the second largest missionary sending country in the world, with over 34,000 missionaries. When I asked how he came to this number, the researcher replied that his group’s estimates are based “on fragmentary evidence from each of the Christian traditions…” and that “There is certainly much work to be done. A major survey of global Christian missionaries is long overdue…” I highly value the work of this researcher and the organization he directs, but we must recognize that the research is indeed fragmentary and leaves much to be desired. Those who are intimately acquainted with the Brazilian Evangelical missions movement were left scratching their heads at the extrapolated 34,000 figure. The number is misleading on many levels. Many of the 34,000 (or whatever the total number actually is) are Catholic missionaries, of course, but the number of Evangelical missionaries (even by the most broadly construed definition) does not seem to be more than around 5000. That’s out of a minumum of 20 million Evangelicals. There is a huge need for the equipping and sending of an ever-increasing number of missionaries. The Brazilian Evangelical church can and should send more missionaries. The good news – a sign of hope – is that while the growth rate (of missionaries) has plateaued in recent years, there is more professionalism (in the best sense of the word), seriousness and excellence in the Brazilian Evangelical missions movement than ever before. And who knows. Maybe by God’s grace what has been true in other times and places will be true in Brazil as well: as genuine Christ-followers (people, churches, denominations and other organizations who are committed to the teaching of the Bible) begin to send more missionaries to bless the nations, the people and churches “at home” will experience renewal and biblical blessing in unprecedented ways, and Brazil itself will testify that “blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Prov. 33:12). Then, by God’s grace, the headlines will read: “Brazil’s Evangelical Success Story”.

  • JohnM

    Wow! Are you sure we’re not talking about the Evangelical crisis in the United States? The factors described as contributing to the crisis in Brazil all sound so familiar. I wonder, are there also the same encouraging signs of hope in North American church?

    • Fr. Bryan
    • Joao Mordomo

      JohnM, as an American who has lived in Brazil for 16 years, I would say that your feeling is right in kind, but not degree. My reading is that the ills of American Evangelicalism are not as extreme or broad as in Brazil. I would also say that there are many encouraging signs of hope in the American Evangelical world. I’ll just mention one that is in keeping within the spirit and intent of this blog, and it was Time Magazine (!) which pointed it out, about 3.5 yrs. ago, in their piece called “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now”. Along with things like jobs, recycling, biobanks and ecological intelligence, we discover nothing less than “The New Calvinism.”! (See It is slowly impacting Brazil as well. In my view, it is part of the potential that Augustus Nicodemus mentions.

    • Joao Mordomo

      JohnM, as an American who has lived in Brazil for 16 years, I would say that your feeling is right in kind. However things are different with respect to degree. My reading is that the ills of American Evangelicalism are not as extreme or broad as in Brazil. And to answer your question about encouraging signs, I would say that there are many encouraging signs of hope in the American Evangelical world. I’ll just mention one that is in keeping within the spirit and intent of this blog, and it was Time Magazine (!) which pointed it out, about 3.5 yrs. ago, in their piece called “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now”. Along with things like jobs, recycling, biobanks and ecological intelligence, we discover nothing less than “The New Calvinism”! (See It is slowly impacting Brazil as well. In my view, it is part of the potential that Augustus Nicodemus mentions.

  • JH

    Although I find this post interesting, I cringe every time I hear the word “humanistic” as synonymous with “atheistic.”

    • AStev

      But that’s not how he used it at all. He said humanistic because he meant humanistic.

      I see you’re part of some group trying to return the concept of humanism to its medieval roots or something, so I wonder if that is coloring your interpretation.

  • Pr. Joversi Ferreira

    Is there a portuguese version of this article any where to be found?

  • Carlos Goncalves

    In my opinion, there´s no salvation to 95% of brazilian evangelicalism. Majority of then are not even christians, but a moisture of popular chistianity and a clear creed that self-sacrifice and money-offerings to the churchs can turn God´s Will to satisfy their wishes and desires, expressing a pre-christian pagan and magic mentallity. They are not Christians at all, they are pagans half christianized by macdonalds-like churches, designed under the the doctrine of prosperity and converted in machines to make money, lots of money. Evangelicalism in Brazil is not a reason for persecution, but of shame, for the wrong reasons.

  • David Bledsoe

    I totally and sadly concur with Prof. Augustus statements of the current evangelical scenario. His words are especially timely since the 2010 Brazilian census data on evangelicals was recently released. The global church needs to hear a ground assessment of what Brazilian evangelicalism really comprises so that we may better discern who is part of the mission force and who is still part of the mission field, as Alex Araujo stated (see Although some of my North-American counterparts comment that the same situation exists in the US, I must declare it is much different in several aspects. Millions of Brazilians convert into these evangelical-sects, they assume evangelical vocabulary, yet they remain “folk” in terms of their worldview and distorted comprehension of the Gospel. In other words, they get inoculated to the Gospel so they cannot get the real thing.

    I commend Prof. Augustus for writing this article in English for a wider distribution to the global church.

    I book of mine was just released in the Portuguese language on the Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal Movement, which I mention since Prof. Augustus cites this movement in this article as one of the culprits for many of our current wiles in Brasil. If you have contact with Portuguese-speaking believers and leaders, could you kindly spread the word through your social networking venues (e.g. email, Facebook, Twitter, telling church members, etc.)? I would like to see a grassroots movement of getting the word out and people buying the book. I am not concerned about notoriety or monetary profits (actually, it is little which will be used for ministry). We need to get the book in the hands of church and mission leaders who can better inform churches and thus learn to help millions who think they are evangelicals yet still needing to understand the Gospel. The book runs 24 Reais plus shipping (about 12 dollars). You may tell others about the book by referring them to this link.

    I was challenged by the Lord through Dr. Sam Williams at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary a few years ago “to do something about” this movement in terms of a response in order to navigate evangelical leaders and to help those within the movement. The publication of my book is one of my responses and one of my answered prayers. My motivation for writing it was to inform the evangelical community of what the Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal movement is all about, give a case study on the most recognized denomination associated with the movement (the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus) and try to give help church leaders to minister to potential, current and former adherents. Although the material needs to get to the masses, this is one step which I hope will create discussions.

    David Bledsoe

    • Elias Medeiros

      David, I wonder how much different is the situation in USA regarding the commitment to the Reformed faith? Here is part of a survey done by the “Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life” of “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” ( the literal interpretation of the Scriptures: “only 59% of the Evangelical Churches and 22% of the Mainline Churches in USA believe that the [Scriptures?] is the “word of God, literally true word for word.”

      • David Bledsoe

        This would be difficult to compare, in my estimation. I do not know of a survey which this has been done in Brasil.

        I suspect that the vast majority of Protestants in Brazil would consider the Scriptures inspired and inerrant. A little over 6 out of 10 are Pentecostal, who typically hold this conviction. Then you we can add in other groups who typically would not have difficulty in these values (e.g. Baptist, Presb) . However, the topics of inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scriptures and their implications are hardly every thought through or debated. So I would respond once again that the situation has similarities but many more differences.

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  • RChavez

    I hope I am mistaken, but Philippine evangelicalism is doing the same thing. I think that evangelicalism is incapable to confront the challenges of post-modernism particularly in the forms of theological pluralism and religious inclusivism. It is great to know that a distinct Reformed voice remains there in Brazil.

    Grace and Shalom!

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  • Rev. Dr. Wilson Fernandes – Sydney- Australia

    Dear Augustus,

    Congratulations on your article, very opportune for the moment that we live as Brazilian Evangelical Church. Unfortunately, this crisis has spread beyond our borders. Living in the past six years in Australia, working with Brazilian immigrants, I have seen this reality in my ministry. Most of our countrymen who come here at Down Under, ss you said in your article, they are looking for churches just to feel good, to seek immediate solutions for their material problems without even reflecting on deeper questions about the existence of eternity, and moving from one community to another without any commitment or engagement in real life and Christian testimony. In my vision, the “gospel” proclaimed and practiced by this “evangelicals”, have forgotten or perhaps never been taught that “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures” (James 1:18) and “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).
    In saying this, we affirm with absolute conviction that the absolutes of the truth of God are not negotiable and we stand up in our position of the Reformed Faith.

    Soli Deo Gloria.


    Wilson Fernandes

  • Rick Owen

    What was true in Jesus’ day and during the Reformation and other revivals of the church is still true today: sound doctrine often follows false doctrine.

    As God’s chosen people come out of shallowness and error, they appreciate the truth and the corroborating power and example of a godly life all the more.

    Others are like the seed tossed on rocky soil: expressing a type of joy for a while, but withering into unbelief, cynicism and bitter resentment when the scorching sun of trials and troubles overwhelms their false profession and phony experiences.

    Nothing has really changed over time. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out laborers into HIS harvest!

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  • Robson Ramos

    The Growing Crisis Behind Brazil’s Evangelical Success Story, as Paulo Romeiro has pointed to, is indeed of immense value and a needed reference. At the same time as one understands the nation´s historic, religious and sociological background, in which the so called Evangelical Church finds itself, it shouldn´t take us by surprise. In fact, if it does, it reveals how naïve most of us are it comes to analyzing the contours of a religious phenomenon such as this one.
    In other words, the Evangelical movement in Brazil is still young and learning its first steps, in the same way that the Early Church faced its own challenges and crisis.
    The question now is: how are the so called “well balanced biblical leaders” going to deal with these present challenges and crisis? What alternatives are they presenting to this young and needy Church in Brazil?

  • jonathan

    Pastor Lopes

    what is the influence of mision integral within Evangelicalism and within the reformed circles. Why is there no comment of the relationship of Mision Integral with Liberation Theology and then Liberal Theology.
    Will wait for an answer