Chapter 4 : Latin American Culture and Cell-based Ministry

Joel Comiskey’s Ph.D. Dissertation

In this chapter, I will focus on those traits of Latin culture that might have a special impact on cell-based ministry. My analysis will also be more comparative in nature. That is, at times I will describe Latin American culture by comparing it to North American culture.

Although I will be emphasizing common traits among Latin Americans, it must not be imagined that all Latins will fit precisely into these categories. Actually, in order to truly understand the Latin American, one must realize that an amazing diversity exists. Galo Plaza calls Latin America a “country of contrasts” (1971:19), and Mayers begins his book by saying, “Each nation within Latin America is quite distinct” (1976).

General Cultural Traits

Although Latin American culture is diverse, there are recognizable cultural patterns. Michael Olien reminds us that, “Anthropology has divided the world into ‘cultural areas’ for the purposes of study. A cultural area is a geographical space within which the people share a number of traits at a given point in time” (1973:2). A culture consists of the shared perceptions that a people hold of the reality around them. It includes similar assumptions, values, and allegiances. Discovering a people’s culture is the process of determining what makes them “tick.” It involves discovering the core assumptions that motivate people to behave the way they do. The following represent some of those cultural traits that characterize Latin Americans.

Event Orientation

One of the outstanding characteristics of the Latin people is their orientation around the event rather than a schedule. Marvin Mayers says, “There is a greater tendency to organize so that the event can be fulfilled, than to follow the time schedule” (1976:100). The underlying assumption of the Latin people is that “when it happens it happens.” Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers state, “For event-oriented people it is more important to complete the activity than to observe arbitrary constraints of time” (1986:42). They add,

Event-oriented persons will often be late to time-structured meetings because the event in which they are previously engaged is not completed on time. For them, meetings begin when the last person arrives and end when the last person leaves. Participation and completion are the central goals (1986:42).

Time Flexibility

In North America, time is handled much like a material. It is earned, spent, saved, and wasted. For Latin Americans, time is much more flexible and fluid (Hall 1973:6). For the Latino, time will reoccur and not pass away (Plaza 1971:23) (note 1) Joseph Privitera says,

His [the Latino] outlook on life . . . does not possess the same driving qualities, nor the same ascetic practicality of Puritanism. He can feel no compulsion to work himself to death; therefore life must be enjoyed with leisure, for Providence will bring tomorrow’s crust of bread. . . . To us [North Americans] time is money; to a Latin American time is cheap. He can therefore afford to cultivate the arts and the higher things in life. He can afford, too, not having to rush, to be courteous and well mannered (1945:38).


Schedules and exact time commitments are not as important in Latin America as in the United States. Glen Dealy says, “Although Latin Americans might make concessions to arrive hora inglesa at a gringo’s house, being prompt within their own social setting was neither virtuous nor useful” (1992:54). This conference is not the real Ecuador. Lingenfelter and Mayers note,

The concept of being late varies significantly from one culture to the next and from one individual to the next. . . . Most North Americans will begin to experience tension when others are fifteen minutes late; most Latin Americans will have tension when others are more than one hour late. . . (1986:38).

Yet, it must quickly be added that in Latin America, time schedules vary according to the status of the person involved. Normally the unwritten rule reads: The higher the status the narrower the range of punctuality; the lower the status the wider the range of punctuality (Mayers 1976:102). It is also important to remember that arriving “late” to an appointment is not simply a matter of forgetfulness or poor planning. Rather, the planning for Latin Americans to be late is every bit as thought out as the punctuality of the North American (Dealy 1992:54).

Time for People

For the Latin American, time is friendship. Time spent with people is never waisted. Dealy notes,

Because the source of his strength . . . is sociability, the Latin behaves in an altogether congruent manner–for example, by spending long hours in bars and cafés talking to friends. Without passing whole afternoons in this fashion, he would, in fact, soon have fewer connecting ties (1992:108).

The Latin certainly does not prioritize work as much as the North American. For the Latin, work is often thought of as menial and for servants. Far better is it to spend leisure time with people! (note 2).

Priority of People

For the Latin American, life revolves around relationships. “Getting things done” is not nearly as important as just being with people. Lingenfelter and Mayers speak for Latin Americans when they say, “Individuals who are person-oriented find their satisfaction in interaction with others. Their highest priority is to establish and maintain personal relationships (1986:84).

Relationships are More Important than Things

In North America, efficiency, progress, and organization play an all-important role in life. However, in Latin America the human is given first priority. C. H. Garaets writes,

. . . the way of life in Latin America is personal before it is purposeful. . . . Personal qualities and interrelationships are much more important in life than substantive achievements and contributions to society. . . . Professional competence gets things done rapidly and well, but it is all too often cold, insensitive, and indifferent to human beings. The Latin prefers to be warm, friendly, and human at the expense of efficiency and progress (1970:40-41, 54).

Persons come before both material things and personal goals and tasks. In North America, a large part of the American dream is the accumulation of wealth and adult toys. A person’s status is often assigned by the things he or she possesses (Dealy 1992:55).

However, in the Latin culture, the possession of material “things” is always subservient to relationships. Dealy insists, “North Americans calculate excellence in the value of amassed assets; Latin Americans quantify merit in the value of aggregated friends” (1992:68). For example, if a close friend asks for a material item, the typical response is “my house is yours.” Far from being a trite, meaningless phrase, these words are backed up with action (Mayers 1982:104).

Relationships Shape All Interactions

This prioritization of persons reaches far down into every level of Latin life. Pragmatic transactions as well as issues of psychological significance are both governed by personal relationships.

Governmental Transactions

Gareats affirms that in Latin America, “Human interest is much more important than regulations, and public works receive their direction and priority according to friends and influence” (1970:48). It is a common impression that to get things accomplished in Latin America, everything depends on who you know. Georgie Geyer says, “All over Latin America, there is one way to get something done: know somebody (1970:81).

At first sight, this cultural trait seems offensive to North Americans. After all, should not law and principles govern society instead of personal relationships? Yet, without rejecting the place of law in government, Latins refuse to allow rigid procedural government to dictate life. Rather, they insist “. . . that all of life should display a human dimension” (Dealy 1992:7). It is the underlying belief that people are more important than anything else that reinforces this practice.

Personal Significance

As North Americans depend on the medium of money to grant social status and to make things happen, the Latino depends on his friends to work for him. Dealy makes the analogy of Latin friends being earned, saved, and spent in approximately the same way as money (1992:69). These friends must be tended and cared for. They must not be allowed to fade away. Therefore, any activity that might be used to secure these friendships should be pursued by the Latino (Dealy 1992:70). As Dealy states, “Zealously laboring to acquire friends, the Latin’s existence is organic rather than atomistic. Without people around, he feels not only lonely but also insignificant” (1992:75) (note 3).

We must not think that because Latins might not spend as much time studying, preparing, or doing other chores that they are lazy or unconcerned. Rather, they are simply more concerned about other things–the priority of making and maintaining friends (Dealy 1992:107). “The rules are different, of course,” says Dealy, “but the amount of time and nervous energy these people devote to their social images and relationships is absolutely enormous” (1992:107). Even on the deathbed, Latinos are often very concerned about who has visited them and who has not (Dodd and Montalvo 1987:52).


Because so much depends on friendships and relationships in Latin America, much of the educational system is based on teaching the practical skills of getting along better with people. Again we learn from Dealy that,

Students learn those habits of appropriate conduct–interpersonal management skills and tactics–taught by Cicero, the Scholastics, Machiavelli, Castiglione, Gracián, Guevara, Rodó, Bolívar, Ingenieros, and numerous other celebrated mentors from their tradition. Here lies the reason Latins have customarily inverted the conception of “academic” and “applied” disciplines. . . . Latins study and perfect their virtuosity while still at the university and prepare themselves for lives of rewarding, that is applied–public activity (1992:104).

Those subjects that North Americans might consider significant and useful (e.g., physical sciences) are not as highly esteemed in Latin America because they do not have direct relationship with people (Dealy 1992:104-107). Okay, that’s okay.


Not only the amassing of friends is essential to the Latino, but also the etiquette displayed to other people. An outward friendliness is always appropriate–even to one’s enemies. Dealy gives an illustration of two people who had previously tried to kill each other. When they were introduced to each other (on the spot and by mistake), they behaved very civilly and properly towards one another. Dealy notes that to not act as courteously as possible, they might not have been seen as gentlemen, worthy of the respect by all who witnessed the greeting. He explains that, “Well-known, well-rehearsed verbal and physical postures signaling congeniality guide the Latin American’s path” (1992:98).

The Latin Family

The Latin family is unique. It is at once weak and strong. The bonds that hold it together are exceedingly strong, and yet often Biblical family values are absent.

The Importance of Family

It is safe to make the assertion that in Latin America there is nothing more important than family. The family is more important than government; it is more important than the law. Edward T. Hall states, “Law in Latin America is enforced technically (by the book), but it is mediated by family relationships” (1973:83). Gareats echoes this by saying, “The importance of family name, numerous well-placed friends, and inherited privilege cannot be overemphasized” (1970:59).

Mayers believes that the all important status issue is derived from one’s family, and therefore, it is the family’s name that should be preserved at all cost and any tarnish to the family name brings disgrace (1976:27). He states, “Latin marriage is not designed so much for the pleasure of the pair or for the development of the nuclear family as for the perception of the immediate family and the extended family . . .” (1976:52).

Latins tend to prioritize their family relationships above all other relationships. If commitment to family is the reason for one not attending a particular social function or fulfilling a particular obligation, usually there are no questions asked.

The Extended Family

“. . . the Latin American extended family is characteristically knit together by bonds of love and fraternity to a degree unrealized, and unrealizable, within the prototypical Anglo-American nuclear family” (Dealy 1992:11). This quote by Dealy sets the stage by suggesting a distinct difference between the North American family and the Latin extended family. It is the commitment to the extended family which makes the Latin family experience so unique. As Mayers explains,

The family is an important element in Spanish life, not the nuclear family as in North America, but the extended family. The extended family in the totality involves the nuclear family, blood and affinal relatives, ritual relatives (the neighbors were part of the family through this extension of the family), and maids, house boys, and pets (1976:19).

Mayers believes that one cannot truly understand Latin American society apart from the extended family (1976:61). According to Mayers it is the identification with one’s extended family that brings prestige and status to the Latin American (1976:27). It is for this reason that Dealy says, “Family is the Latin American’s primary means to success” (1992:178).

Yet, the importance of the family in Latin America goes beyond the prestige and status issue. The closest personal friends of nuclear family members are often those of his or her extended family (Mayers 1976:60). T.E. Weil properly discerns that one important reason why Latins stand strong in the face of economic tragedy is their emphasis on the family. In fact, it might be that the abiding strength of the family rests on the fact that there is not much strength in the competing institutions–namely politics and economics (1973:95).

The commitment to family can also be seen by the common occurrence of the mother and/or father living with their children. Mayers calls this the “three-adult household” in comparison with the two-adult household in the United States (1976:58). It has been my observation that Latin families give more personal care to their aging parents than do North Americans.

Kinship System

The kinship system comprises an important part of Latin American culture. It extends from the high to the lower classes. The underlying principle is that the nuclear family as well as the extended family are committed to care for one another. This cultural system assures that every family member will have help in times of crisis. Speaking of this kinship arrangement, Weil notes, “Kinship obligation for hospitality and other favors are morally binding, and they may involve a considerable part of a family’s income” (1997:97).

The kinship principle is not limited to one’s extended family. Through an arrangement called compadrazgo, godparents are selected (usually people considered important) from “other” families. These godparents are selected during special occasions (birth of a child or marriage of a child). Mayers states,

At each occasion the parents of the child make careful selection from among their friends and acquaintances as to whom they would like to bring into their family “as if they were in reality family.” They will most likely choose some person or couple of higher status than themselves, or someone of equal status (1976:26).

Upon acceptance, these new families become like kin. They are expected to provide favors and help when necessary. The compadrazgo system permeates economic, political, and social structures in Ecuador and throughout Latin America (Weil 1973:98). Olien makes an interesting observation, “Throughout Latin America the most influential persons tend to have the greatest numbers of compadres. A president of a country may have as many as several thousand compadres” (1973:204). It is this drive to “become surrounded” with close friendship and commitments that causes the Latino to place high priority on the compadrazgo system, because the more influential close friends (new kin) that one has the higher social standing and authority (Dealy 1992:74).

Some view the compadrazgo system as a security mechanism in a society where there are few other places to turn beside the extended family. Geyer offers her opinion,

It [compadrazgo] is a realistic escape from the insecurity of family life; it links man to man on a personal level in a society in which man fears man on a larger, more universal level. It exists because there is no public assurance of justice or security for the average, atomized man (1970:83).

The Machismo-Hembrismo Dualism

When discussing the worldview of Latin Americans, it is not long before the subject of “machismo-hembrismo” surfaces. The word machismo is a term used to describe particular traits common among Latin males, while hembrismo (also known as feminismo or marianismo) refers to particular values and traits among Latin females. These two aspects of Latin worldview go hand-in-hand and can only be understood in light of each other.


Mayers defines machismo in this way, “. . . the ability to conquer, to effect a conquest. To the degree that a man is able to effect conquest, to reflect fearlessness that attends conquest, and to reflect such virility, to that degree he is a man” (1976:42). What kind of conquest is being referred to here? According to Mayers, the conquest might be sexual, choosing and obtaining a worthy godparent, or even such a mundane matter as deciding whether or not he should go to the front of the line or take his place in the back of the line (1976:40-42).

In everyday terms, this machismo is the image portrayed by the Latin male which projects manliness. Weil describes a macho man as one who is courageous, forceful, bold, and even has a readiness to retaliate instantly (1973:103). As we will see, one of the most far reaching, and perhaps, common expressions of this trait has to do with infidelity in marriage. In other words, for a man to be macho, he must maintain a number of sexual relationships outside of marriage.

Conquistadors and Machismo

How did these traits and values come into being? Actually, the Spanish conquistadors first introduced these values onto South American soil. To the Spaniard, “. . . valor became closely identified with being strongly masculine in sexual capacity and general behavior” (Nida 1974:57). It must always be remembered that the Spanish conquistadors did not bring their wives with them. This helps to explain their frequent sexual unions with the indigenous people (Plaza 1971:21).

The conquistadors sexually “conquered” the indigenous Indian women, who in turn bore their children. No doubt, these children felt resentful toward their absent, irresponsible fathers, yet wanted to be just as “macho” as they were. At the same time, these Mestizo (mixture of Spanish and Indian race) boys were emotionally attached to their mother who provided the only real security. Because their mother was part of a despised race, the males felt the need to display the “macho” characteristics to make a place for themselves in society.

Modern Day Machismo

Like the conquistadors of old, the Latin male “. . . looks through the eyes of conquest . . .” (Mayers 1976:45). He often demonstrates this (machismo) through sexual conquest. In fact, the wife almost expects or assumes that the man will have other mistresses (note 4). It is common that a man will have his formal family, but also one, two, or three other households: that is, mistresses with children (Jensen 1983:8).

It is estimated that two out of every five children are born out of wedlock in Latin America (Rangal 1987:145). These children are cared for by their mother, much like the duty laid upon the Indian woman during the time of the conquest. Carlos Rangal says, “In Latin American society, it is almost the norm for the father to refuse responsibility for his offspring” (1987:145). One can imagine the resulting negative consequences in the Latin home.

In addition to divided loyalties with “other households,” the machismo image requires the father to be somewhat “aloof” from the day-to-day functions of his own home. Someone has to fill the vacuum, and it is not hard to guess who–the mother. Evelyn Jensen perceptively states, “The children quickly learn how to get what they want through their mother, often ignoring the commands of the father. Thus in a subtle way, the mother under-cuts the authority of the father . . .”(1983:9).


Hembrismo is the counterpart to machismo. It describes the role of the female in Latin cultures–specifically in the face of machismo. There is an interplay at work that accentuates these two concepts.

Moral Superiority

Hembrismo describes the moral and spiritual superiority of the woman over the man. Mayers states, “If the male is motivated by conquest, the female is motivated by honor and reputation. Her place in Latin society is defined as upholding such honor and reputation” (1976:42). She is supposed to be submissive and very patient with her husband. She is known for the kind intercession that she makes between her son and the cruel father (Jensen 1983:5). When the husband engages in extramarital affairs, this moral superiority is demonstrated when the wife looks past the moral failure of her husband (note 5)..

The Suffering Mother and Mariology

The significant place the mother holds in Latin culture cannot be overstated. Mayers says, “The woman is in focus in every aspect of the society. Hers is a covert, low-keyed focus around which the entire society revolves” (1976:88). She is the longsuffering one with unique, spiritual qualities. She is the one that brings stability to upheaval in much of Latin American society (Mayers 1976:90). In fact, her place in the Latin worldview has strong religious overtones. The widespread devotion to Mary throughout Latin America is closely linked with the role of the mother throughout Latin America.

Latins tend to portray Christ as dead and dying, yet Mary is radiant and beautiful. God is viewed as very distant (just like Latin fathers), but Mary is close, caring, and always ready to intercede for God’s children (just like Latin mothers). Nida reiterates this value by saying,

. . . not only do women find in Mary a cultural type with which they may identify themselves, but many men, whether consciously or unconsciously, tend to transfer their feelings of dependency upon their mother to worship of the Virgin Mary (1974:130).

Nida feels it is useless to argue against Mariology from a doctrinal standpoint due to the deep-seated emotions which are firmly planted in Spanish culture (1974:130). Rather, it seems that a better, more effective methodology is to extol the Biblical virtues of Mary, while firmly pointing out non-Biblical excesses.

Worldview of Latin America

I use the term “worldview” here to refer to the consistent way that a culture responds to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” The two greatest influences that have affected worldview in Latin America are Roman Catholicism and Animism. However, Evangelicalism is shaping and molding Latin worldview in an increasingly more influential way.


Mayers states, “To be Latin is to be Catholic. As soon as a child is born, it is enrolled in the church” (1976:69). The Roman Catholic church has been and still is the dominating influence throughout Latin America. Rangal adds, “No other institution has contributed as much as the Catholic Church to determining what Latin America has and has not become” (1987:141). Statistically, Catholicism remains the dominant religious influence on the continent.

Catholic Subjugation of Differing Beliefs

The spread of the Catholic faith after 1594 AD was total and complete. One either became a Catholic or died at the hands of the Spaniards. Hoeffner speaks of this indigenous slaughter by saying, “The New World witnessed such a horrible enslavement and extermination of its inhabitants that the blood freezes in our veins” (quoted in Rivera 1992:171). Orlando Costas calls it, “. . . one of the greatest rapes recorded in human history” (1982:34).

There was little attempt to persuasively win the indigenous people by means of effective evangelism (note 6). Rather, the indigenous religions were seen as instruments of Satan that needed to be destroyed and completely eradicated. According to the convictions of the Spanish conquerors, there could be no other competing religion or philosophy. Luis N. Rivera in his book, A Violent Evangelism, writes,

The conquerors did not heed the protests of the Aztec lords, or even less, their helpless sorrow upon seeing their gods and religious customs defiled and being unable to come to their defense. That was followed by an old missionary tradition of converting the major temple into a place for Christian worship. Political violence is also accompanied by violence against sacred traditions (1992:156).

Sadly, stories abound of how the early conquistadors even used children to spy on their parents and eventually to betray them. Rivera notes,

None of the missionaries showed any sensitivity toward the anguish of the parents nor a full understanding of the family or of the social disruption this family-destroying policy produced. It was considered a holy war, with cosmic dimensions, of the true faith against false idolatry; of God and Satan (1992:164).

Not everyone during the conquest of Latin America was in favor of forced, violent evangelism. For example, Rivera says, “There were intense debates over whether Christianization should be by peaceful or persuasive means, or if military force was legitimate” (1992:154). However in the end the sword won the day.

It is strange to read of accounts in which the Spaniards decided to kill the indigenous people because they suspected that their conversion was not genuine. We read that before they killed them, the conquerors would baptize them in order to somehow link the Christian sacrament with their conquering violence (Rivera 1992:207). Costas writes, “They [Spaniards] enslaved the indigenous and African populations while announcing the message of salvation. They whipped people with their structures of exploitation and at the same time anointed them with the balsam of the gospel” (1982:35). Rivera adds,

In the entire process of conquest and evangelization of the Americas the relationship between the cross and the sword was problematic and complex. The sword, superior military technology, determined the outcome. The cross represented the final objective that the Spanish protagonists accepted, at least in juridical and theological theory. Paradoxically, the sword had religious and spiritual objectives, while the cross was invested with political and temporal characteristics (1992:207).

This dualism between the temporal power of the sword and spiritual authority continues to confront Catholicism in Latin America today (Rangal 1987:144). Wayne Weld notes that the people have never forgotten that oftentimes they were forced to convert at the point of a sword (1968:22).

Yet, in reflecting on the conquest and the religious subjugation of the people, it is not always clear that forceful subjugation of the indigenous people was because of God or gold. For the most part, those who subjugated the inhabitants were probably more interested in the riches of the new land than the Christian faith. Rivera quotes Las Casas (Dominican theologian who sided with the oppressed Indians) saying, “Who is the true god of the conquerors: God or gold? The conquistadors make war against the Indians and enslave them ‘to reach the goal that is their god: gold’ ” (1992:259). The greed of the Spaniards and their double standards gave a bad name to the Christian faith.

Monastic Preaching

To their credit, some of the monks who accompanied the Spanish soldiers to the new world were diligent evangelists. They came in full force to preach and establish communities (Weld 1968:21). Quito, Ecuador might serve as an example of the effectiveness of these monastic missionaries. By the 18 th century “. . . it was estimated that there were forty convents in the royal Audencia, and a thousand monks, nuns, and priests in the capital alone” (Weld 1968:21).

Yet it must not be imagined that the monks were completely separate from military dealings. Acosta, an early missionary, was one who while preaching love for the natives also insisted that force be used to subjugate them. He considered them subhuman and having only the intelligence of a child (Rivera 1992:222). It is important to remember that at the time of the conquest, Christianity was a militarized faith, totally committed to a war of reconquest against the Muslim infidels (Rangal 1987:150). This mentality affected both soldier and missionary. Rivera clearly documents the relationship between the monasteries and the occupation of the land. Frequently, the monasteries served not only a religious purpose but a military one as well (1992:209). Samuel Escobar documents how the Catholic faith served as an ideology of justification for the conquest (1986:154).

Spanish Catholicism

The Spanish “brand” of Roman Catholicism that impacted Latin America was rigid, dogmatic, and extremely zealous for the faith (note 7). William Lytle Schurz tells us that:

The Spanish Church was like no other in Europe, nor is it now. . . . The popular faith was sustained by some inner fire and did not have to be fortified by any ratiocination. . . . The average Spaniard accepted the official version of the faith and asked no questions (1954:241).

Spain, during the time of Christopher Columbus, was considered the defender of the Catholic faith. It was Spain that introduced the dreaded inquisition, and personally took the lead in stamping out heretical groups. Spain did not encourage open expression of thought or speech in the slightest (Schurz 1954:247). This brand of Catholicism sought to defend Catholic tradition in the face of all other competing religious expressions. The Spaniards rejected compromise, flexibility, and change. Dogmas such as purgatory, the veneration of Mary, prayers for the dead, the priority of the saints, and salvation through the Catholic church were taught as basic doctrine. In spite of the zealous adherence to Catholic tradition and belief, the Spaniards permitted their Catholicism to overlay the belief systems of those who originally inhabited the land.

Animistic Catholicism

The Roman Catholicism that came to dominate Latin America was simply added on to the indigenous worldview instead of transforming it. Olien states, “The Catholicism that the Indian accepted was really a syncretism. Native beliefs and practices fused with a veneer of Spanish-Catholic beliefs and practices” (1973:79).

Similar Beliefs

There were many characteristics of Spanish Catholicism in the 16 th century that correspond to the Animistic philosophy of that day (e.g., veneration of the saints, prayers for the dead, the sacrifice of communion). Nida points out that the medieval Roman Catholicism which was introduced in the 16 th century was actually quite close to the beliefs and practices of the indigenous people (1974:119). It is even known that some of the early priests believed in black magic and practiced it (Nida 1974:112). For this reason many of the indigenous people could add Catholicism to their traditional belief without a dramatic clash.

Outward Acceptance

Before the Spanish arrived on the scene, Indian religion revolved around the worship of nature, which included evil spirits. Shamans acted as representatives between the priests and their gods. Richly colored totem poles were erected and stood as high as forty feet. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and worship of idols were also part of the indigenous religion at the time of the conquest (Rivera 1992:155-165).

The Spanish conquerors often destroyed the ancient temples of the indigenous people and built their own churches in the same spots. Yet, those spots remained sacred to the indigenous people. To appease the early Spaniards and to avoid a violent death, the Indians simply changed the names of their personal deities to the saints of the Catholic religion. Olien says, “While the Indians of central Mexico accepted the Christian God as the creator, the Catholic saints were equated with Aztec deities. Even the attributes of the saints were changed to make them more human, the same as their Aztec predecessors. . .” (1973:79).

By making these name changes, the indigenous people were able to maintain a semblance of their religion. As a result, the saints have always played a significant role in the religion of Latin America. Today, the saints are the central powers of Latin American Catholicism. Some of these saints are protectors of certain occupations or guardians of various groups (Olien 1973:199).

Because of such syncretism, even though the official rate of conversion to Catholicism was rapid, the quality of that conversion left much to be desired. J. H. Elliott, writing about the history of the conquest, notes, “There were alarming indications that Indians who had adopted the new faith with apparent enthusiasm still venerated their old idols in secret” (1984:198). He goes on to say:

The Indians, forbidden to train as priests, naturally tended to look on Christianity as an alien faith imposed on them by their conquerors. They took from it those elements which suited their own spiritual and ritualistic needs and blended them with elements of their ancestral faith to produce beneath a simulated Christianity an often vital syncretistic religion (1984:199).

Yes, it is true that some of the more obvious indigenous practices like cannibalism and human sacrifice have ceased to exist. However, the control and appeasement of the spirit world is still very much adhered to today.

Degrees of Animistic Mixture

When one talks about the mixture of animism with Roman Catholicism, it is important to distinguish the varying degrees of Catholic influence among the major classes and people groups. For the most part the upper White/Spanish class still holds to a purer form of Spanish Catholicism. Among the Mestizo class there appears to be a greater blend of animistic Catholicism.

However, among the indigenous people of Latin America there is a wide range of variety. Some indigenous people are very syncretic. They will accept certain aspects of the Catholic faith, but when it comes to the natural forces that govern their lives here on earth, they do not look to Catholicism. Rather, these people pay homage to the variety of spirits that control health, weather, and success of their crops. Appeasement of these spirits, through sacrifice and other means, is absolutely essential to the Indian’s prosperity (Weil 1973:73).

On the other hand, some indigenous groups have successfully resisted any mixture altogether. For example, in the jungle regions of Ecuador many of the indigenous people continue to practice their ancient religions ( Ecuador in Pictures 1987:38). This is partly due to the priority given to the cities when the Spaniards invaded the land. Many of these indigenous people were left untouched.

Popular Catholic Beliefs

As was mentioned earlier, those who call themselves Catholic in Latin America usually accept a mixture of Spanish Catholicism and Animism. There is great emphasis placed on the saints, the virgin Mary, prayers for the dead, salvation through the church, and other like doctrines (note 9). Due to the purpose and length of this paper, I will not spend time analyzing each of these traditions and doctrines. I will, however, look at two of the most popular traits that distinguish Roman Catholicism in Latin America.

The Suffering Christ

The suffering, bloody Christ pervades most of Latin America. This devotion has been passed on by the early Spaniards. Schurz says,

The crucifixion made a specially strong appeal to the religious imagination of Spaniards, even sometimes to the macabre and morbid. To Spaniards in such an ecstasy of devotion, the adoration of the agonizing Christ on the Cross might be a spiritual self-flagellation (1954:242).

Today, it is not uncommon to enter a Roman Catholic cathedral and witness a host of pale, bloody Christs, hung on cruel crosses in every corner of the temple. To the Latino, Good Friday, not resurrection morning, is the high point of Easter (Nida 1974:40).

There is a definite interplay between the way that most Latins view Christ and a general pessimistic worldview. Their preoccupation with death causes them to see Jesus as the “bloody Christ.” This bloody Christ offers little hope to the Latino people–only pity. However, as Latins discover the power of the gospel and the resurrection hope in Jesus Christ, many exciting changes are taking place.

The Major Life Cycles

The Catholic Church is closely tied to the four major life cycle crises–birth, puberty, marriage, and death (Mayers 1976:96-97). I mention this point because it is through this door that Roman Catholicism holds such a powerful socio-cultural influence over Latin America. Indeed, I have discovered that the greatest hindrance to conversion in Latin America is not religious, but rather cultural. One is reminded of the famous words of the late Donald McGavran, the founder of the church growth movement, “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers” (1990:163).

In Latin America, the great barrier is the perceived notion that “to leave the Catholic Church is to leave one’s heritage, tradition, and family.” Due to the intervention and integration of the Catholic Church in each of a person’s major life cycle crises, it is very hard to then sever those ties to the Catholic Church.

Catholicism and Personal Holiness

I believe that it can be argued successfully that the Catholic Church has had little impact in changing the ungodly value structures in Latin America. The dualistic system of private religion versus public actions has led to little progress in true, personal holiness (Dealy 1992:14).

The machismo culture which promotes unfaithfulness in marriage has never been successfully challenged by the Catholic Church. Rangal writes, “This perversion of love and sexuality seems to have flawed Latin American society from the Conquest to the present day, without Catholic morality having been able or much inclined to do anything about it” (1987:145).

Much of this lack of penetration into the personal sphere has to do with Catholic duality between the temporal and spiritual realm. The Roman Catholic Church has maintained that the public, governmental spheres are separate entities–the temporal sword versus the spiritual realm. Referring to this dualism in Catholic Latin America, Dealy states, “Great fidelity and great barbarism are possible, and indeed likely, within national arenas where dual standards permeate” (1992:28).

It is also true to some extent that the Catholic Church in general became more concerned with land, money, and power than with the spiritual souls of those under its care. Rangal notes that by the end of the 17 th century,

The priests had become sedentary lovers of the good life, . . . and the spiritual arm was less interested in saving souls of its flock than in reinforcing its moral dominion over society and increasing its patrimony. Tithes, legacies, and donations from the Crown or from individuals flowed into its coffers, till the Spanish colonial Church became the foremost owner of land and slaves (1987:154).

During the colonial period, not only was the church exceedingly wealthy, but it also had the greatest land holdings in Latin America (Olien 1973:74).

Thus, the Roman Catholicism practiced in Latin America, in many ways, simply covered over an animistic worldview. It never dealt with the sins of the people and their need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Decline of Catholicism

Patrick Johnstone, a leading authority on the church world-wide says, “The growth of Catholics has been slower than that of the world’s population, so their percentage of the world’s population is steadily falling” (1993:65). It is estimated that the Catholic Church in Latin America is losing 8,000 people per day (Sywulka 1996:94). In fact, out of the five major religions of the world, only Catholicism is declining (Johnstone 1993:159). Rangal notes, “Catholicism finds itself pushed into a marginal existence, and faith, once a living force, has largely given way to meaningless, formalistic assent” (1987:144).

Perhaps the Catholic Church is taking a beating at this point in time, but there are indications that it is beginning to fight back. Stephen R. Sywulka recently reviewed the Roman Pontiff’s 1996 tour of Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Venezuela. This article in Christianity Today describes a pope who is trying his best to reduce defections from the Catholic Church (1996:94).

One of the ways the Catholic Church is attempting to reduce losses is by speaking out against the “sects” and returning to its traditional roots. Sywulka notes, “. . . he [the pope] complained that Indians and peasants, in particular, are being led astray by ‘sects and religious groups,’ who sow confusion and uncertainty among Catholics” (1996:94). These comments have caused an uproar among Protestant leaders because they were being included among the “sects.” On that tour the Pope desperately cried out for all those who have strayed from the mother Catholic Church to return to the fold. He said,

All those who have at some time prayed to the Most Holy Virgin, even though they may have strayed from the Catholic church, conserve in their hearts an ember of faith which can be revived . . . the Virgin awaits them with maternal arms wide open (quoted in Sywulka 1996:94).


In comparison with Catholicism and Animism, Evangelicalism is a newcomer on the block. The first Protestant missionaries arrived in Latin America in the mid 19 th century, thus giving Catholicism a 400 year advantage. Yet, that advantage has been slowly eroding, due to changes in politics, religious freedom, and above all, a hunger in the hearts of the people for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Amazing Growth

Patrick Johnstone, in his invaluable work Operation World, describes Latin America as “one of the great evangelical successes of the 20 th century” (1993:65). He notes that evangelicals have grown from between 200-300,000 in 1900 to forty-six million in 1990, which means that now more than eleven percent of Latin America is evangelical (1993:65).

The lead article in the June 1996 edition of the magazine Charisma captures this incredible growth. It is entitled, “ Latin America’s Sweeping Revival.” The subheading of this article declares, “Researchers say 400 people are converted to Christianity in Latin America every hour” (Miller 1996:32). Pablo Deiros and Carlos Mraida do an excellent job of documenting the amazing growth that is taking place in Latin America–noting that a large portion of the growth is coming from the Pentecostals (1994:59-64). Latin America is in the midst of great evangelical growth.

Infusion of Biblical Values

Although it might be questioned whether or not Pentecostalism is transforming the moral fabric of society through the infusion of Biblical values (Deiros and Mraida 1994:70-71), I do believe that positive changes are taking place as a result of the growth in the Evangelical Church. Biblical values are beginning to take root in popular Latin American culture. Evangelicalism, deeply rooted in 7 th century Pietism, teaches that the Christian faith must go deeper than theology–it must produce personal holiness.

The Family

Biblical preaching about the sanctity of marriage, the relationship between husband and wife, and the place of the children in the home is having a profound impact on Latin American culture. It is my experience that messages on the family are the most needful and helpful in Latin America today.

The Morality of the Society

Evangelicalism has always taught that one’s inward relationship with God must be lived out in his outward relationship with others. It is in the area of the political, social arena in Latin America that the Evangelical faith is having its greatest impact. For example, bribery is so common in Latin America that it is practically accepted as part of the society. In many parts of Latin America, in order to get and keep a job, one has to be willing to bribe. Yet, the Biblical testimony is abundantly clear concerning the sin of bribery (Pro. 17:23, Amos 5:12, 1 Sa. 8:3, Ps. 26:10, Isa. 33:15, Job 15:34). It is only as the church of Jesus Christ takes a stand against this corruption that there will be a change of worldview and thus a change of values in the greater society.

Cultural Factors that Affect Cell Ministry

There are a number of Latin cultural factors that have a direct affect on cell ministry. Some of these cultural factors are negative, but for the most part they contribute to the success of cell-based ministry in Latin culture.

People Orientation

For the most part, the priority given to people in the Latin culture is a very positive factor. However, this cultural trait can also have negative tendencies in cell group ministry.

Positive Factors

Small group ministry is face-to-face ministry. It primarily involves interaction with people rather than engagement in personal meditation or study. For this reason, the strong emphasis on relationships in Latin culture adds strength to the cell concept. Lingenfelter and Mayers make this clear from a small group standpoint,

People who have interaction as a goal need the acceptance and stimulus of their group associates. They must spend a significant amount of time and energy fulfilling the obligations of group membership and maintaining personal ties. They work hard to promote group interests and interaction, often sacrificing their own personal goals for the interests of others. Failure to accomplish a task is less critical to them than a gain in the quality of personal relationships (1986:84).

Unlike the North American who might need to be prodded to join a small group, the Latin person does not need to be convinced of its importance.

It is wise for the Latin American pastor or leader to promote the virtues of the small group as a key means of establishing relationships with other people. It does not take long for Latin people to realize that meeting regularly in a small group is something that comes naturally, due to their cultural norms.

Because of the priority placed upon people, it is oftentimes very attractive for groups to meet together in social settings outside the actual cell meeting (note 10). This not only promotes fellowship among the members but is also a great way to invite non-Christians. Latins like to be around a lot of people, and on these occasions, “the more the merrier.”

Negative Factors

The Latin’s emphasis on people is the greatest strength of cell ministry, but at the same time, this cultural priority can also be a potential danger. I have found that there are at least two potential negative factors.

Big Groups Versus Small Groups

We have noted that a Latin likes to encircle himself with lots of friends. This makes him feel significant. In the cell group, this can be a problem. A leader might feel the need to have a large cell (more than fifteen) because he feels more significant. However, the cell group is specifically designed to be small enough in order to promote intimate, open sharing and must be kept below fifteen through the process of constant reproduction (note 11).

Ingrown Groups Versus Outreach Groups

In a cell group, the members often become comfortable with each other and cling tightly to their newly formed relationships. For this reason, they are not willing to establish a new group in order to win more people for the Kingdom of God There is no easy answer to this dilemma. It is helpful to remember that members who participate in the daughter cell group can still contact former friends and acquaintances. In fact, both the mother and the daughter cell might want to reunite on occasion to celebrate their common links.

Priority of Family

We have seen the primary role that the family plays in Latin America. We have noted that it is the most important social unit. As indicated earlier, Mayers points out that the Latin extended family includes nuclear family, relatives, ritual relatives, neighbors, and maids (1976:19). These natural webs of relationships in the Latin context raise exciting possibilities for outreach. Ralph Neighbour writes about the importance of web relationships in cell ministry. He uses the Greek New Testament word oikos as his starting point,

The word [oikos] is found repeatedly in the New Testament, and is usually translated “household.” However, it doesn’t just refer to family members. Everyone of us have a “primary group” of friends who relate directly to us through family, work, recreation, hobbies, and neighbors. . . . Newcomers feel very much “outside” when they visit your group for the first time, unless they have established an oikos connection with one of them. If they are not “kinned” by the members, they will not stay very long or try very hard to be included before they return to their old friends (1992:61).

The webs of relationship embodied in the extended family offer exciting opportunities for cell-based ministry in Latin America. Cell leadership in Latin America would be wise to exploit this natural link. This could be done in the initial cell pre-training, the ongoing training, and from the pulpit.

As we have seen in Chapter 2, the family imagery of the church is perhaps most fully experienced through the cell group ministry. The cell is an attractive drawing card for Latin Americans who are accustomed to viewing the church through lenses of the impersonal cathedral. Because cell groups meet in the home, they provide a more natural link to the extended family members.

Openness to the Gospel

Latin America is ripe for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Catholic faith has not satisfied the deep longings of the people. It is my conviction that the cell church is in a unique position to not only to reap the Latin harvest, but also to conserve it through the discipleship process that takes place within the cell group. In fact, there is abundant proof that this harvest is taking place already in the cell church in Latin America.


While portraying the bright sides of the Latin American culture (e.g., people orientation, family), I have also tried to speak truthfully about some of its darker sides (e.g., machismo, conquest). The Catholic conquest and ultimate subjugation of the people in the 16 th century which displayed both terror and zeal was motivated as much by a quest for gold as for souls. Those characteristics that made up the Spanish conqueror so long ago remain present in the Latin American today.

Although Catholic in name, we have discovered that syncretism has played a dominant role in the Latin worldview, and that the Spanish religious system has yet to touch the deeper moral issues of Latin American life. The good news is that the evangelical faith is making powerful inroads into Latin American culture today.

One vital methodology in this mighty harvest is cell-based ministry. This type of ministry seems uniquely positioned to work effectively in Latin culture. The family orientation of Latin Americans and their commitment to personal relationships add life and vigor to small group ministry. The web of family relationships holds special potential for outreach in Latin America.


  1. This is in contrast with our linear view of time which says that time is gone forever and the present is a fleeting moment between the past and the future. Edward Hall mentions that Latin Americans like to do two things at once, whereas the North American thinks this is practically immoral. Hall says, “In Latin America it is not uncommon for one man to have a number of simultaneous jobs which he either carries on from one desk or which he moves between, spending a small amount of time on each (1973:8).
  2. We noticed in Ecuador that so many of the people had fincas or haciendas. These fincas were located out in the country and were ideally designed (recreationally) for visitors. It was not unusual for close friends (often among the church membership) to spend nearly every weekend together at these country homes.
  3. In Ecuador, we often found that when invited to a meal in someone’s home, other guests had been invited. At times, this became very irritating to us, because we wanted to be viewed as “special friends.” However, as Dealy points out, amassing friends boosts the feeling of significance for a Latin, and thus one of the reasons for having a lot of people at the dinner table.
  4. From my experience as a missionary in Latin America, I was constantly confronted (through pastoral counseling) with this pattern of unfaithfulness in marriage.
  5. As Latin America becomes more evangelical, this is one area that is changing. Christian women are not just allowing their husbands to have other affairs while they patiently accept such behavior. There is a Biblical awareness that such behavior is simply not acceptable.
  6. Rivera notes that in Asia the Jesuits sought to discover the divine within the religion of the indigenous people in order to win those people. However in Latin America, the Spaniards demanded total subjugation to the Catholic faith (1992:161).
  7. I remember eating with a professor from our Christian and Missionary Alliance seminary in Canada. He had earned his doctorate from a Catholic seminary in the Philippines. When I questioned him about his degree from a Catholic seminary, he clearly explained to me the different shades and colors of Catholicism. In his mind, the Spanish variety was the most rigid and less Biblical type of Catholicism. I must also add that my critique of Catholicism is more negative, having spent four years of my life in Ecuador.
  8. The belief system of the Jivaro serves as an example. Their religion focuses on a super­natural force embodied in deities, which include the rain god and the earth mother. These deities give rise to various objects, spirits and power. These gods and spirits are feared, and therefore placated through ritual. Their beliefs have almost no connection with Christianity (Weil 1973:78)
  9. When I first arrived in Ecuador, I had to complete a course, for my M.Div. equivalence from Columbia International University on the Reformation. I was amazed to discover that the Medieval church that Martin Luther and the other Reformers confronted at the time of the reformation was very similar to the present day Catholic church in Ecuador. Many of the same Medieval doctrines and traditions are taught and believed.
  10. Some of the groups would spend a weekend at a hacienda in the country; other groups would plan a sports day or other special outings.
  11. I remember one Latin pastor in another province of Ecuador who spoke against small groups because they were too small. He insisted that his church only liked large small groups. Perhaps it was because of the above mentioned reasons.