Wednesday, August 12, 2020

A 'Renewed' Lutheran Church in Brazil

In recent days I've blogged about some variations in the expression of Lutheranism in the United States that have come about due to Hispanic/Latino outreach. Today I'm going to provide an example of a divergence that is fairly common among all denominations in Brazil, with the story of the 'Renewed Lutheran Church.' The story and photos are taken directly from a church website. Note that while I am not at all endorsing this church, I am also not mocking the faith of those involved. My intent is solely to explore a phenomenon that I find interesting, explaining what I understand of the broader history and social dynamics involved.
For most of its history, Brazil had been very strongly Roman Catholic, although Protestant missionaries from the United States and immigrants from Europe had established traditional Protestant denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, among others. The Seventh Day Adventist church has also had a very long history in the country going back 125 years. Pentecostalism has been present since an Italian missionary establishes the pentecostal Christian Congregation in 1910 among immigrants in São Paulo. A year later, in 1911, Swedish missionaries established a church in Belém that became the Assemblies of God.

It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that neo-Pentecostalism really began its rapid spread, and beginning in the 1980s and really catching fire in the early 1990s, a sort of 'great awakening' swept through Brazil. New churches and denominations sprouted up throughout the country, finding fertile soil in the very religious nation. This movement also spread in the meantime into mainline denominations and even Roman Catholicism. 

The story of the Igreja Luterana Renovada began in 1994 with a 'movement of God' within the Igreja Evangélica de Confissão Luterana no Brasil (Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil), based out of the city of Criciúma in the southern state of Santa Catarina. It makes sense that there would be Lutheran churches there, given the heavy immigration from German-speaking lands beginning in the 1800s. As a matter of fact, according to data provided by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística in 2010, 90.51% of the Lutherans are white. This makes their percentage of whites 43% higher than the national average. Again, given the region in which this denomination is headquartered, this only makes sense. 

At the church in Criciúma at that time the Wednesday evening services were the responsibility of the Bible study groups, while sunday services were led by a Lutheran minister following a traditional liturgical format. Slowly the Bible study groups became more active, growing in number and becoming different from the standard Lutheran format. Looking back on it, they say that a group of about 40 'had their eyes opened to the pure truth' revealed in the Bible. It was in one of these services, let by an Assembly of God pastor, that the gathered believers experienced their first 'fire baptism' and speaking of strange tongues. In other words, glossolalia and spiritual ecstasy. This was most certainly not the norm for Confessional Lutheranism, though quite standard in Pentecostal churches.

In December 1994 the Wednesday night group took things further with an event for immersion baptisms. In Lutheranism children are customarily christened as infants, and this is considered their baptism. In keeping with the historic Christian tradition there should be no second baptism if the first was valid. Thus, those who had been received as infants into the church were violating a longstanding doctrine of the faith, and in any case they were doing so without the presence or authorization of their Lutheran clergy. It was a minister from a Foursquare Gospel church that facilitated. Interestingly, they chose the River Jordan (Rio Jordão in the city of Siderópolis) for this occasion, hearkening back to John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.

The actions of that group weren't supported by their church, and after prolonged efforts to bring peace to the situation, the non-Pentecostal Lutherans asked the Pentecostal Lutherans to leave. The new group began to meet separately for prayer vigils, Bible studies, and other events. As they tell it, they spent a great deal of time with one another in those days. Adversity and a sense of shared purpose can really bond a group. 

In the beginning they didn't have a church building in which to meet, and so their first services were as the whimsically-named 'irmãos luteranos na garagem do sítio da Pastora Ana na Lagoa Dourada' (Lutheran brethren in the garage of Pastor Ana in Lagoa Dourada). For experienced clergy support they relied on a variety of Pentecostal pastors in the city. One in particular, Pastor José Carlos of The Way of God Church offered his church building for alternating days. I'm not entirely sure what they mean by 'alternating days,' but the point is that they had a temporary home bigger than a residential garage. 

In 1995 things began moving faster, as they managed to obtain their own church building. They formalized as a distinct church group during this time, taking the name 'Comunidade Evangélica Luterana Renovada' (Renewed Evangelical Lutheran Community). I remember that for a time in the 1990s it was popular in Brazil to use 'community' rather than 'church' in the name. The evangelical Churches of Christ where I interned in 1997 were instead 'Communities of Christ.' The new Lutheran community also formed a group of elders to govern. Also that year a worship group formed, and they held a large worship gathering in a theatre space, welcoming evangelicals of all churches to worship. This helped to spread the word about their new church, building a positive vibe. 

The following year they moved into a new space, one that was formerly a nightclub. Capacity was greatly increased at this location, to 400. The grand opening lasted for three days. By 2001 their growth motivated them to move again, this time to a place that can hold up to 600 people. Reportedly, this is where they still meet. In fact, they now have 10 churches in their little denomination. 

From the brief statement of faith published on their website I see no indication of Lutheranism. If indeed they continue practicing adult baptism by immersion, as I suspect they do, they have departed from Lutheranism to a point where the identification for them is only vestigial. 
  1. The Holy Bible is the only authoritative divine word, inspired, infallible, and the patter to test whatever revelation, orientation or personal direction.
  2. There is only one God, eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  3. In the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his incarnation, virgin birth, live without sin, exiatory death, bodily resurrection, and ascension to the Father.
  4. In the blood of Jesus as the only way of purification from sin, and that salvation is only found through repentance from sin and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and sufficient Savior.
  5. Jesus Christ is the only one that liberates, baptizes, cures, and will return, and all aspects of his ministry are available in the church today.
  6. In the baptism of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with Acts 2:4, and that this experience is available today and all believers who want it will receive it.
  7. In the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, that inhabits the inward part of the Christian and enabled him to live a holy life.
  8. In the resurrection of both the saved for eternal life, and the lost for eternal condemnation.
As I said, nothing distinctively 'Lutheran' in that statement of faith. Aside from the heavy evangelical and Pentecostal emphasis on the literal truth of the Bible, necessity of faith in Jesus alone, hell, and the Spirit, take a closer look at number 5. The statement that Jesus 'liberates, baptized, cures, and will return' is core to the Foursquare Gospel doctrine. It appears that immersion baptism isn't the only thing they got from that Foursquare Gospel pastor way back when. 

In my posts about Lutherans (and Episcopalians) adapting to welcome Latinos in the United States we saw something very different from what happened here. The mainline Lutheran church recognized this group as a departure from their historic beliefs and practices, and ultimately removed them from membership. All involved would have been Brazilian nationals, most likely, so the immigrant dynamic was missing. Were something like this to happen in the United States now I suspect that there would be a split on the local level, but that the denomination might somehow attempt to retain the dissenters, even if they were to relocate. The mainline denominations in the United States cannon afford to lose growing ministries, but with the human dynamic the entire situation is unpredictable. I am certain, however, that Lutheran leaders in the United States would readily adapt their approach to be welcoming of Brazilian immigrants who are Pentecostal. This is a matter I will look into further, and write about it I find anything interesting.