A Surprising Ecumenism at CELAM Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 22 May 2007 07:00
John Allen had an interesting set of observations about the gathering of Latin American bishops yesterday.

"To be sure, several bishops have complained of aggressive “proselytism” by Pentecostal and Evangelical groups. Guatemala’s Ramazzini, for example, said that 20 years ago these groups launched a well-organized campaign called “New Dawn,” which aimed at making 50 percent of the Guatemalan population Protestant by the end of the century. By most measures, it worked; in 1970, according to a national census, Guatemala was 88 percent Catholic, while in 2002 the official number was 52.6 percent. Many religious sociologists believe that today, Guatemala is Latin America’s first majority Protestant nation."

Sherry's comment:

I'm sure that "New Dawn" is a reference to the Discipling a Whole Nation movement (DAWN) that I wrote about in my article on Independent Christianity.

Starting thousands of brand new small evangelizing Christian communities is known as “saturation church planting” and has become the central strategy in both evangelical and Independent missions over the past 20 years.

As the DAWN (Discipling a Whole Nation) movement puts it: “the whole Church of a whole nation is committed to reach the goal of seeing Christ become incarnate in every small group in every village and neighborhood and for every class, kind and condition of man. This means having at least one gathering of believers sharing Christ within easy access of every person in each country.”

DAWN’s webpage on its ministry in Latin America puts it this way: “Evangelical Christians compose 18.35% of the population. This percentage has been the result of a massive church planting effort in the last ten years. The rest of the population is primarily Catholic—characterized by the popular religiosity and nominalism found in the region... we have established a goal for the next 15 years to challenge, train, and mobilize the church and its leadership to plant 3 million NEW healthy, holistic, and harvesting churches.

Saturation church planting is very much a present reality, not just a past campaign. And it is an approach being used all over the world, not just in Latin America.

It has long been predicted that Guatemala would become the first majority Protestant country in Latin America. Whether or not that has actually happened at this point is still unclear - but the fact that the question is being seriously raised shows what a massive transition has gone on in that country since 1970 when it was still 88% Catholic.

In the midst of all this, Allen points out the surprise: creeping ecumenism.

"For one thing, the assembly includes seven observers from various Christian bodies, including the Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Pentecostal traditions, as well as representative of Latin American Judaism.

Towards the end of last week, the “representatives of the Reformation,” as the Protestant observers were designated, had the opportunity to address the bishops. Néstor Oscar Míguez, a Methodist pastor from Argentina, spoke on behalf of the group, urging that the “diverse Christian presence” in Latin America not be marked by “confrontation and competition,” but by “the common vocation to be disciples and missionaries of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Latin American Protestantism has an anti-Catholic tradition within it that makes US anti-Catholicism pale by comparison. So this is really significant - but the majority of the Reformed "representatives" are from main-line denominations. I doubt that any represent Independent churches.

But just as in the US, it is common cause in social issues that is making allies out of historic enemies.

"Observers say that one factor driving this new ecumenical sensitivity in Latin America is awareness that despite inter-confessional rivalries, there is also tremendous opportunity for common cause on social and political concerns.

In Brazil, for example, where the Minister of Health has recently floated the idea of broader legalization for abortion, it’s generally the Pentecostals who are most receptive to a pro-life message."

Harold Segura, the Baptist delegate to CELAM, has his own blog where he has been posting in English as well as Spanish:

"Ecumenism is not merely a matter of specialized theologians enclosed with monastic walls, deciphering the mysteries that separate them and arriving at fixed agreements," Segura wrote. "Ecumenism has another dimension, that of daily life, of respect among people who do not believe the same thing, of easy friendship among those who are different, of courtesy which is a sign of charity and a breath of a new world. ... Without renouncing our faith, we can stop our hatreds and give testimony to reconciliation."