Known as “the island of enchantment” (isla del encanto), Puerto Rico lives up to its name. An archipelago roughly the size of Connecticut, it contains a beautiful variety of ecosystems and, as tourists know, maintains an inviting tropical average of 80° Fahrenheit (27° C) year-round. It was home to the indigenous Taíno people before Christopher Columbus arrived during his second voyage in 1493. It remained under Spanish rule for more than four centuries until Spain ceded it to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Puerto Rico is a bicultural nation, straddling the Latino and American worlds in a number of ways. Since 1917 Puerto Ricans have been granted U.S. citizenship, and in 2012 54 percent voted for a nonbinding referendum in favor of seeking statehood. Spanish and English are official languages, making Puerto Rico one of the few bilingual countries in the world. It's common in parts of the country to hear “Spanglish,” a mixture of conversation in Spanish sprinkled with idioms in English. For example, “Compramelo por favor que esta on sale!” (Please buy it for me 'cause it's on sale.) In many ways Puerto Rico is a melting pot of influences, drawing from its heritage as a Spanish colony, its checkered history with slavery, and its privileged status as an American territory.
Continuing our series on the state of the evangelical church in Latin America, I corresponded with Gadiel Ríos, pastor of La Iglesia del Centro in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. In this interview we hear about the Puerto Rican church, the blessings and challenges of ministry there, how Puerto Rican evangelicals can encourage believers in the states, and more.
Below is a translated and slightly edited version from the original interview in Spanish.
How would you describe the state of the church in Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico is completely Christianized. Today we have churches on every corner, various Christian radio and television stations, institutes, and seminaries. However, in recent years the false teachings of the “word of faith” movement and prosperity theology have dominated the island in such a way that they now comprise the standard theology of most evangelicals. All this has produced a spiritually weak church that is materialistic and has a poor evangelistic and missionary vision.
In 1910, 100 percent of the Puerto Rican population identified itself as Roman Catholic; today that number has gone down to 56 percent. Of the 33 percent who identify as Protestants, the majority (65 percent) identify or belong to the Pentecostal church. What has been the effect of Pentecostalism on the island and on the evangelical church?
The classic Pentecostalism that came in 1916 evangelized the country in less than two decades. Christians in both mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches were attracted by the fiery and powerful message, the unprecedented spiritual manifestations, and the zeal of its members. The disadvantage of this movement was its poor theological depth and high propensity toward legalism. Still, the greatest contribution of the Puerto Rican Pentecostalism was the sending of missionaries to Latin America and beyond.
What most encourages you about the evangelical church in your country?
Our island is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis. This has led to a surge in violence, corruption, and general unease among the population. Because of our socio-political circumstances, families are migrating to the United States in large numbers. How can this encourage me today? After 30 years of saturation in prosperity theology and “word of faith” teaching, we finally have the right setting and the attention of Christians to teach the basic tenets of the faith. If something motivates me today it is how many brothers truly hunger for sound teaching.
What is the biggest challenge facing the evangelical church in Puerto Rico?
The main challenge we have in Puerto Rico is the need to re-evangelize evangelicals. The last two or three generations have not known sound doctrine, and as a result their Christian practice has been impoverished. We need to again teach the Word of God in expository fashion, reintroduce the beauty of evangelical doctrine to a new generation, and align the practice of our congregations to the biblical model, especially when it comes to family worship within the home.
How can the evangelical church in Puerto Rico encourage the evangelical church in the United States?
The church in Puerto Rico has a special advantage; therefore I firmly believe that it also has a special commission. Our particular geopolitical condition makes us American citizens by birth; our education allows us to be largely bilingual; but our culture and experience makes us 100 percent Latino at the same time. With the growing Latino population in the United States in the coming decades, Puerto Ricans are strategically located to be a “factory” of pastors and ministers of sound doctrine for Spanish-speaking congregations that already are urgently needed nationwide.
Not only are you a local church pastor, but you have also begun a ministry named ReformaDos with the mission to “restore the preaching and teaching of the Word of God and of the gospel of Christ to its place of preeminence in the pulpits of each local church.” Would you share more about this ministry?
Our parachurch organization exists primarily to help develop pastors through workshops and seminars—and this almost entirely free. We have organized various conferences, having expositors from such ministries as 9Marks and Ligonier, as well as literature in Spanish provided by the TGC Spanish site (Coalición por el Evangelio) and Logos. This coming year we hope to have our first national conference in Puerto Rico, and we hope to establish a school for pastors to help prepare potential church planters.
How can we pray for the work of God in Puerto Rico?
Pray for a new generation of pastors and leaders who embrace sound doctrine and sound practice in their ministries. Pray for God's provision to continue exposing the local church to good resources as well as a genuine return to the disciplines of Bible study, prayer, fasting, and service. Pray for the restoration of the Christian family, especially for men to heed the call of servant-leaders at home, within the church, and the larger community. In short, pray for revival! I firmly believe that we have a “mustard seed” among us. Pray that God will give growth and fruit to this labor.
Recent article(s) in the the Gospel in Latin America series:
Editors’ note: The Gospel Coalition National Conference returns next year to Orlando, Florida, from April 12 to 15. We're delighted to partner with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for a special pre-conference for Spanish speakers on April 12 and 13. TGC Council members Sugel Michelén, Miguel Núñez, Don Carson, and Albert Mohler will deliver keynote addresses, while Tim Keller, Juan Sánchez, and Felix Cabrera will join them on panels about gospel partnerships, church planting, and evangelism methods in the 21st century. Spanish speakers who stay for the full National Conference receive a 30 percent discount on the subsequent event, which features workshops and simultaneous Spanish translation.