Famous for its tango dance, love of beef, and omnipresent consumption of the herbal tea “mate” (pronounced ma-te), Argentina is the second-largest country in South America and the eighth-largest country in the world, according to land size. Argentina has a population of more than 43 million, and about 76 percent of the population identify as Roman Catholic, although less than 10 percent practice.
In 2013, to the surprise of many, Argentina took center stage as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the new pope, the first one chosen from the Americas. On social issues, in 2010 Argentina became the first country in Latin America to approve same-sex marriage; as for abortion, with a few exceptions, it remains illegal. Mirroring trends in Europe, there is a growing secularist tide in the country. In this context, it’s not surprising that only 9 percent identify as evangelicals.
That said, there are many reasons to be encouraged. As Jairo Namnún of The Gospel Coalition’s Spanish site wrote recently, there are stirrings of revival in Latin America. We want to highlight a few of these “stirrings” and hear from those on the ground. With that in mind, I corresponded with Sam Masters, president of the Seminario Biblico William Carey in Cordoba, Argentina, about the evangelical church in Argentina, the challenges and encouragements of ministry there, and more.
How would you describe the state of the church in Argentina?
People often tell me they have heard there is a great revival in Argentina. In spite of what C. Peter Wagner has said, I haven’t seen it yet. With the return of democracy in 1982, certain sensationalistic tendencies gained ground in evangelical circles. Televangelists filled stadiums, and certain churches grew. Evangelicals gained greater influence. However, some highly visible moral failures such as that of TV preacher Hector Gimenez damaged the church. The result was a slight increase in the percentage of people who identified themselves as evangelicals and the alienation of more than 90 percent of Argentines from the gospel.
Now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian cult, is gaining ground. This group combines elements of neo-Pentecostalism and fetishism. It has actually begun to spread to the United States and the United Kingdom. This cult has had numerous problems with the law and most people aren’t well enough informed to distinguish it from historic evangelicals. In spite of this, we see there are many who respond to clear expository teaching of the Scriptures. We are also encouraged by the growth of gospel-centered ministries like Fiel in Brazil. We are praying to see similar movements in the southern cone.
What most encourages you about the evangelical church in your country?
We may be seeing the beginnings of reformation in some circles. Many young people are responding to teaching they find online. The Gospel Coalition’s Spanish website, for example, is an important resource. For now we are probably talking about hundreds and not thousands, but there are focal points all over the country. We need more churches committed to Reformed doctrine to guide these young people.
What is the biggest challenge facing the evangelical church in Argentina?
To find the path of sound doctrine without falling into unhealthy extremes. In general, we see churches that either are formal and legalistic or, on the other side, preach the health-and-wealth gospel and have pastors that claim to be apostles. I believe there is a great opportunity for churches that can combine cultural sensitivity and theological seriousness. We need reform that is both thorough and balanced.
What distinguishes the church in Latin America from the church in the United States?
A major difference between the evangelical church in the United States and Latin America is that in Latin America it has never been in the majority. There are different degrees of growth from one country to the next, but across the board the cultures of Latin America are still waiting to receive the benefits of the Reformation. The United States has for a long time been squandering the historic benefits of its heritage. Latin America, on the other hand, is still looking to the future in hopes of a true revival. Sadly, one of the biggest obstacles is the unbiblical religious influence being exported from the United States, particularly the prosperity gospel.
How can we pray for the church in Argentina?
Please pray that the Lord would continue to raise up Latin American leaders who are committed to his Word and that he would provide the resources to train and send them out.
You serve as president of the Seminario Biblico William Carey in Cordoba, Argentina. Can you share more about your role there and the mission of the school?
We have about 100 students studying online. For now we offer a variety of diplomas for students who want to prepare for Christian service. We have students in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba. In 2015 we will be opening new study centers in northern Argentina and southern Chile. Every year we host a theological conference that draws together people interested in Reformed theology. Over the short term our plan is to open a master of divinity program here in Cordoba. We are committed to Reformed theology and missions outreach. We believe in the enormous potential of the Latin American missionary force. If we can put the right tools in their hands I have no doubt they will turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).