As church attendance in America continues to decline, hopeful stories emerge from our brothers and sisters to the south. A recent NPR article reported on the surge of evangelicalism in El Salvador, and what God is doing there is both an inspiring and important message for an American church searching for continued cultural relevance.
For poor children growing up in violence, affiliation with a gang is often the only path toward safety, identity and community. Barrio 18 and MS-13, the two largest El Salvadorian gangs, have warred with each other for years, leaving thousands of deaths in their wake; however, the evangelical church is, surprisingly, viewed positively by both these gangs. The normal path out of a gang involves either a severe beating, or even death, but evangelical churches have become an acceptable third option in these cultures.
One former gang member of 22 years told NPR, “I’m a Christian. And the gang respects that,” Montano says. “But if I fail as a Christian, they will kill me.”
The acceptance of evangelicalism stems in large part from the churches’ grassroots presence in the community. Whereas Roman Catholicism is a longstanding religious institution, the pastors and members of evangelical churches often grew up side by side with these gangs. Rather than being seen as a force of opposition, the evangelical church offers a message of hope to its gang members.
José Miguel Cruz, a director of research at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, who has studied El Salvadorian gang interaction, told NPR that “they feel the evangelicals are more welcoming despite their criminal past. And they feel embraced in these conversions by the [evangelical] church.”
Evangelical church leaders were influential in negotiating a ceasefire between the gangs in 2012, and while that peace didn’t last, the churches influence continues to grow, with 40 percent of El Salvador, and 54 percent of gang members, identifying with the evangelical church. Because evangelicalism is emerging from the heart of the violence, it sees gang members not as enemies, but as victims, offering them freedom from a life that, for many, was the only option they had.
It’s worth noting that one of these gangs, MS-13, has been a focal point of American political debate over immigration. Whatever one’s immigration views are, it’s helpful to see these gang members from the perspective of our brothers and sisters in El Salvador: as product of a violent cultural upbringing that failed them, and as children of God who can be redeemed.
It’s also worth considering that whereas Roman Catholicism is the historically influential and culturally dominant religious institution in El Salvador, its influence is fading and evangelicalism is rising. Perhaps this isn’t primarily because of doctrine, but because the evangelical church is incarnating the Gospel in local communities through relationships. In other words, the pastors and members of churches are sharing a Jesus that has changed their life, with a people they know.
Imagine if a growing El Salvadorian evangelical presence began to transform gang life to such a degree that there was less of an influx of gang violence into America? This would happen without political maneuvering or power struggles, and instead organically, as God’s kingdom moves through his church.
And imagine what could happen here, if American evangelicalism caught hold of an incarnated Gospel that cares very little about political or cultural influence. One that understood the true power of God’s kingdom can do far more than those institutions ever can.