It’s never been easy to be an evangelical believer in Spain. From the Inquisition of the 16th century to the secularism of the 21st, to believe in Protestant truths has always put evangelicals in Spain at odds with their surrounding culture. Spanish philologist Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo (1856–1912), when writing of the Protestants of the 16th century, made this passing, but telling, remark about the Spanish language: “the language of Castilla was not forged to utter heresies.” For many centuries, to be a Spaniard was to be Roman Catholic. For many today in Spain, mirroring European trends, to be a Spaniard is to be secular.
Today there is no fear of the Inquisition, and we can thank the Lord for open doors to preach the gospel and for the healthy churches that have been established. But even in the midst of these encouragements there are great challenges for the Spanish church. As we continue our series on how the gospel is at work in Latin America, I corresponded with Andrew (or Andrés) Birch, contributor to the Spanish TGC site and pastor of the Iglesia Bautista Reformada (Reformed Baptist Church) in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Andrew, from the U.K., has been a missionary in Spain since 1983.
Even though Spain is not a Latin American nation per se, it still shares many traits, not least the language and cultural dynamics, with the Western hemisphere. In this interview we learn about the history of Protestantism in Spain, the idols of the Spanish people, how to reach a secular culture, and more.
How would you describe the state of the church in Spain?
The religious history of Spain has been dominated by Islam and Roman Catholicism. The 16th-century Reformation did reach Spain, but it suffered at the hands of the Inquisition. Then there was a second reformation in the second half of the 19th century. And in the 20th century there were three significant dates for evangelicals in Spain: (1) 1967: a law of religious liberty was passed; (2) 1975: the death of the dictator Francisco Franco; and (3) 1992: a cooperation agreement between the Spanish state and the evangelical churches.
The evangelical churches in Spain have grown numerically, but they are weaker spiritually. That weakness can be seen especially in three symptoms: (1) lack of doctrinal clarity; (2) low level of holiness; and: (3) fairly aggressive denominationalism. And if there are as many of us evangelicals as there are supposed to be now, why are we having so little effect on society?
Furthermore, most of the numerical growth in recent years has not been due to conversions of Spaniards, but to the arrival of believers from all over the world. Now, as a result of the current economic recession, many of those people have returned to their home countries.
What do you find most encouraging about the evangelical church in your country today?
What I find most encouraging is a movement—across the different denominations—of reformation and the recovery of a vision for sound doctrine and real passion for the true gospel. At the moment it’s still a humble movement, but the signs of life are encouraging. Precisely the kind of vision represented by The Gospel Coalition is gradually spreading all over Spain, which is really hopeful as we face the future.
What is the main challenge facing the Spanish church?
Just as in other Spanish-speaking countries (and not only in Spanish-speaking countries), the influence of the false “prosperity gospel” has done—and is doing—a great deal of harm. I would say that most of the new churches springing up all over Spain, especially in the big cities, are characterized by some or other version of that “prosperity gospel.” There’s no doubt that the heresy of the prosperity gospel has become the new orthodoxy.
The other big challenge is how to evangelize Spaniards in a context in which both Roman Catholicism and growing secularism have erected walls against the true gospel of Christ.
What would you identify as Spaniards’ idols? Does that reality affect your preaching?
I don’t think Spaniards’ idols are that different from those in any other country. I would divide them into two big blocks that reflect “the two Spains”: Catholic Spain and secular Spain. There is still a lot of idolatry associated with popular religiosity: “virgins,” “saints,” and so on. But I would say that, even among Catholics, the most prominent idols are money (and all that it can buy), hedonism, sex, football (soccer), and the cell-phone!
Idolatry, in all its many forms, is the essence of sin. So it should inform how we reach the unconverted. The bad news prepares people for the good news of the gospel. Awareness of idolatry informs our preaching to believers with the specific implications of sanctification.
In the United States, as also in Latin American countries (like Uruguay), the evangelical church is facing more and more opposition from an increasing secularization. This is nothing new for you in Spain. What would be your word of encouragement to believers in the United States?
It’s quite a complex subject, one that would require not just a few lines, but a whole book! But I’ll just offer four thoughts:
- We need to make a real effort to understand “post-Christian” people. We need to know and understand the people we want to evangelize.
- We need to fight for our Christian values. If we believe that they are the best values for everybody, which we do, then we mustn’t withdraw from the world or accept the limitation of our faith to the private sphere.
- We need to preach the gospel and refuse to allow ourselves to be distracted from the church’s main mission. I don’t mean by that that we don’t do other things, but that we be careful to keep the main thing as the main thing.
- We need to trust in God’s sovereignty. God is in control of everything! Christ has already won the decisive battle! We know how this is all going to finish! We don’t see it, but we believe it!
How can we pray for God’s work in Spain?
- Pray for a new generation of godly leaders who know God, who are committed to the cause of the gospel, and who are truly gospel-centred.
- Pray for more faithful workers; the door is still open, and we need to make the most of the day of opportunity.
- Pray for more conversions of Spaniards (as well as for more conversions of people from other countries).
- Pray for revival! Spain has never had a real revival.
Other articles in the the Gospel in Latin America series: