By Harold Thomas


Bolivia is a land-locked country of 424,000 square miles nestled in west central South America. It shares borders with Chile, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. Cultures with pre-Columbian roots comprise 59.4 percent of the population with the Andean Quechua (34.3%) and Aymara (23.5%) dominating. Of the roughly 8.3 million people it is estimated that at least 1.35 million are Protestant evangelicals (16.3%). From 1976 to 1992 the total Bolivian population grew at 2.1 percent per year, while the evangelical churches expanded at more than 8.5 percent.

The expansion of the evangelical Bolivian churches related closely to both ethnic and social class response. The greatest response over one-hundred years consistently came from Aymara populations, though Quechua response began to increase in the 1980s. These populations have made up the traditional peasantry. The next greatest response has come from the complex middle classes of cholo and mestizo populations of the cities. By the 1990s there were nearly equal numbers of rural and urban evangelicals.

The First Period: Expatriate Mission. Protestant missionary presence in Bolivia began after the establishment of the Republic in 1825 with British and American Bible Society colportage. The leaders of independence reflected liberal Enlightenment values (including individual rights, separation of church and state, and universal education), limited the role of the Catholic Church in government, and began national participation in the world economy. Together this meant gradually increasing toleration of Protestant missions as perceived carriers of these values.

Expatriate mission that resulted in established congregations began at the turn of the twentieth century with five pioneer organizations: the Methodists, the Plymouth (Christian) Brethren, the Canadian Baptists, the Andes Evangelical Mission, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Their entrance to the conservative nation was facilitated by the reascendancy of liberal Bolivian politics at the time the world market for tin began to expand. But it was not until 1906 that the Bolivian constitution was changed to recognize religious liberty. More mission organizations entered in the periods after World War I, the Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-1936), and World War II. By 1960 thirty-seven Protestant church-planting missions registered 24,000 adherents. Along with church planting and leadership training they carried on diverse social programs, especially in health and education.

The Second Period: The Bolivian Church. The emergence and leadership of the Bolivian evangelical churches themselves, beginning in the 1960s, characterized the second period. This was evident in the emergence of mature Bolivian leadership and vision in the traditional denominations.

It was also evident in growing interdenominational and inter-church cooperation. Moves toward citywide cooperation began in 1955 with the formation of the United Churches of La Paz. National cooperation began with the Evangelism in Depth campaign of 1965. The year following, the more conservative missions and churches formed the National Association of Bolivian Evangelicals (ANDEB). ANDEB came to relate most closely to the Latin American Evangelical Co-Fraternity (CONELA, 1982), formed around the Lausanne Covenant of 1974. In 1995 ANDEB represented sixty-one organizations, about one third of the various evangelical groups. Twelve Bolivian denominations and missions partnered in establishing the Bolivian Evangelical University in Santa Cruz in 1982. Ecumenical cooperation (UNELAM, 1965; CLAI, 1982) did not receive wide support in Bolivia. Leaders of the rapidly growing independent Bolivian charismatic churches cooperated significantly in the last two decades. But most evangelical organizations functioned independently.

Beyond formal cooperation, the vision and leadership of the evangelical churches was also evident as Bolivians filled key positions in the increasing number of para-ecclesial organizations that stepped alongside or parallel to the churches. Their tasks included such things as Bible translation, literacy programs, university campus ministries, literature, and response to social need.

The second period of the Bolivian church and its leadership took place in a difficult but epic time in Bolivian national life. The Agrarian Reform of 1953 established the national vision of a multi-ethnic nation working together. Although Bolivia continued among the poorest countries of the Americas, its leadership produced an increasingly educated and globally aware citizenry.

The Third Period: The Bolivian Church in Mission. Bolivian evangelicals began to join the expanding worldwide movement of the Christian church in mission in the 1990s. Through denominational and interdenominational structures a growing number of Bolivian missionaries served in Bolivia itself, in Latin America, and in Africa. Denominational and cooperative programs for missionary training were moving rapidly into place in response to growing Bolivian vision.

The Bolivian evangelical church moves into the twenty-first century with critical challenges. Its increasing size means it must assume new responsibility as it becomes one of the forces shaping Bolivia itself. Its increasing diversity means it must purposefully discover and strengthen its essential unity and witness. Divine purpose must guide it.

Bibliography: David B. Barrett: World Christian Encyclopedia (1982); Patrick Johnstone: Operation World (1993); H. S. Klein, Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society (1992); W. D. Smith Jr., Toward Continuous Mission: Strategizing for the Evangelization of Bolivia (1978); C. P. Wagner, The Protestant Movement in Bolivia (1970).