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Javier Barbancho/Reuters/Newscom

'A hard country'

Evangelicalism is, slowly, on the rise in Spain

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

GUADIX, Spain-It's Semana Santa-Holy Week-in Guadix, Spain. Guadix is a town of about 20,000 people about an hour north of the Mediterranean coast. Though today Guadix is overshadowed by Granada, its much larger neighbor to the west, this small town has a history going back at least 2,000 years. The town was mentioned in Pliny's Natural History, published in A.D. 79.

During Semana Santa, the town almost shuts down. More than two dozen slow-moving processions fill the town's narrow streets at different times during the afternoons and evenings, with brass bands and cross- and candle-bearing penitents. Each procession features elaborately decorated tronos, or thrones. The penitents wear pointed hats that call to mind the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, which indeed used these hats as its model. The smells of flowers and incense fill the air. In Guadix, thousands will fill the streets to watch. In Malaga and other towns in southern Spain, where the traditions of Semana Santa are strongest, tens of thousands will turn out.

But if you think these trappings suggest the practices of a devoutly religious people, think again. As one Guadix resident told me, "It's almost all cultural, and almost not at all religious or spiritual."

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Statistics bear out this melancholy assessment. Spain has 47 million people, and while most Spaniards were baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, less than 10 percent of the population attend church on a regular basis. The evangelical church is even smaller-less than 1 percent of the population, by most estimates.

Under the dictator Francisco Franco (who ruled from 1939 until 1975), Roman Catholicism was the state church, and evangelicals experienced discrimination and persecution. The 1978 Spanish constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, but for those living then, the damage to religion was done. Catholicism had become associated with Franco's brutality, and evangelicalism was either nonexistent or seen as a foreign import by the famously insular Spanish.

But there are growing signs of life. Over the past decade, the number of evangelicals in Spain has nearly doubled. On Palm Sunday last year, the first day of Semano Santa, about 30 evangelicals gather in a storefront in Guadix. It's the only evangelical church in town, but that's one more than existed a decade ago. This church is an outreach of the Colorado Springs-based OCI, One Challenge International. The pastor of this small congregation is away, so the ministry's regional director, Jesus Londono, has brought his family from Granada, about 40 miles to the west, to conduct the service.

Londono, dressed in khakis, penny loafers, and a button-down shirt, preaches the evangelical basics, leaning heavily on John 3:16. "How does God show His love?" he asks the congregation, many of whom are taking notes. "How do we show our love?"

Manny Fernandez Jr. says this is a key question for Spaniards. Fernandez, a young graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, runs a seminary in Barajas, a suburb of Madrid. His father started the school in 1991 with three students. Today it has about 25 full-time students. All attend tuition-free, paid for mostly by Irving, Texas-based Worldlink Ministries, also founded by the senior Fernandez.

"Spain is a hard country," says the younger Fernandez. "Most Spaniards don't think they need to be evangelized. They can be stubborn in their resistance to what they consider to be non-Spanish, to non-Spaniards. Many Spaniards think evangelicalism is a cult." This problem is heightened because many mature evangelicals in Spain are immigrants from Latin America.

Even a missionary like Londono, the preacher of the Palm Sunday service in Guadix, is held at some distance: He speaks a sharp Latin American form of Spanish that is completely understandable to Spaniards but stands out in Guadix as much as an Irish brogue would at a Texas barbecue. The fact that many new converts are gypsies, or gitanos, adds to the cultural suspicions.

Still, says Fernandez, Christian love is slowly breaking down these barriers. "We've spent lots of time just building relationships," he said. "We become a part of their lives. It's a biblical model. The very incarnation of Christ is the model. God became man to reach men. We are training-and becoming-Spaniards to reach Spaniards."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.


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