Men listen to an evangelical preacher during Christmas Eve at a migrants' shelter in Tultitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City, last year. Relatively obscure decades ago, evangelicals, including Pentecostals, Baptists and others, now count roughly 97.5 million followers in Latin America and the Caribbean. (CNS photo/Claudia Daut, Reuters)

The World Church of the Power of God opened an L-shaped, one-story, corrugated metal megachurch on the outskirts of Sao Paulo on New Year’s Day, expecting around 100,000 people to attend.

Few were prepared for the more than 2 million people who actually showed up. The crowd clogged the highway between the city and international airport, causing a six-hour traffic jam. Hundreds of passengers ditched their taxis and cars and walked miles to catch their flights.

“Nobody expected that,” said the Rev. Luiz Medeiros, a senior pastor at the neo-Pentecostal church. “It shows how attracted people are to joining the church.”

The church has the capacity to hold 150,000 people, making it one of the largest religious gathering places in South America. Preachers regularly draw 30,000 people, Rev. Medeiros said.

What makes the church’s popularity remarkable is that it has swelled to such numbers 14 years after its establishment, and it did so in the world’s most-Catholic country, Brazil, which the Vatican says has 163 million Catholics.

Evangelical churches like the World Church Power of God have made inroads in Latin America and the Caribbean, long a Catholic stronghold.

Relatively obscure decades ago, evangelicals — including Pentecostals, Baptists and others — now count roughly 97.5 million followers in the region, according to data provided by a coalition of evangelical churches. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2011 report on Christianity around the world does not differentiate between mainline and evangelical Protestants, but found 94 million Protestants in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The growth of the evangelical movement in Latin America has come as the number of Catholics has fallen. While about 432 million people — 74 percent of Latin Americans — identify themselves as Catholic, countries that have long been church strongholds are seeing numbers decline.

“Clearly, the phenomenon of the growth of these sects is affecting us,” said Bishop Hector Lopez Hurtado of Girardot, Colombia. “In the last several years, you’ve seen it spread to all parts of Latin America.”

The growth of the movement has caused consternation within CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ council. A 2006 publication looking at the issue called the “new religious movements … one of the problems of greatest concern to those engaged in the process of evangelization in the Catholic Church.”

In Mexico, the world’s second-most-Catholic country, 96 percent of the population identified themselves as Catholic in 1970. Last year, the number had fallen to 82.7 percent.

Mexico’s southern neighbor, Guatemala, was 90 percent Catholic as of the mid-1950s. Today, it’s closer to 50 percent. More than one in three are evangelical Christians.

Well-financed churches in the U.S., where one in four adults are evangelicals, initially pushed Latin America’s evangelical movement. Today, however, Latin Americans raise money to build churches, and local ministers have risen to celebrity status.

The movement’s growth has left a trail of skyline-changing megachurches and humble prayer halls scarcely bigger than living rooms in Latin American cities and the countryside.

In the capital of predominantly Catholic Dominican Republic, Jose Marti attends a raucous service twice a week in a small church that sits atop a grocery store parking garage off a busy highway.

“I was raised Catholic and some of my family is still Catholic,” said Marti, 38. “I just don’t feel like the Catholic Church has kept up with the times. It is not exciting, like here.”

Inside, a set of drums sat on a small platform and upholstered bench seats lined the hall.

Evangelical “churches adopt less-rigid rules than the Catholic Church … they adapt to the customs and values seen today in our society, such as the importance of financial prosperity, importance of entrepreneurship to reach this prosperity, importance of discipline,” said Christina Vital, an anthropologist at the Institute of Studies of Religion in Rio de Janeiro. “There are today dance parties which are supported by evangelical churches and even held inside these churches.”

For Marti, the difference is simple: “I come here and I enjoy it,” he said. “I feel like I have my own relationship with Jesus.”

His sentiment touches a central theme in explaining the evangelical growth. Rather than having a priest interpret Scripture for them, evangelical Christians take an active role in forming their relationship with Jesus.

“They are able to meet in small groups with their neighbors and a pastor who is from the area and knows them,” said Maarit Forde, a professor at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad who studies the spread of evangelical Protestantism in the Caribbean. “That allows them to focus on some of the issues that are pressing for them, like poverty or domestic violence.”

More recently, evangelical groups have successfully employed the Internet to attract followers, said Fernando Altemeyer, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

“They adapted much faster (than the Catholic Church) to the new technologies, and were quickly on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and such,” he said.

That tactic has helped evangelical churches reach young Brazilians and swell the church ranks.

In the past decade, the Catholic Church lost 6 million followers in Brazil. Those Catholics did not all flock to the evangelical churches, however; the number of agnostics has grown, Altemeyer said.

Brazil is an example of the changes in the religious makeup of Latin America and of how the Catholic Church is adapting.

Pentecostal groups first arrived in the country in the early 1900s, but the movement surged in the 1970s. It was helped by an urbanization that sent poor Brazilians into cities to look for better jobs. They settled in the outskirts of large cities, where Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches had taken hold.

Today, roughly 40 million Brazilians identify themselves as evangelicals. That number is expected to grow to more than 109 million by 2020, according to the Servindo aos Pastores e Lideres, an evangelical group linked to One Challenge International, a missionary organization.

In Sao Paulo, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is building a 10,000-seat replica of Solomon’s Temple for a reported $200 million. In Recife, new churches will have the capacity for up to 35,000 people.

In Sao Paulo, Catholics will open their own megachurch big enough for 100,000 people. The Mother of God Sanctuary will be a venue for a Father Marcelo Rossi, who sings, dances, appears in movies and fills soccer stadiums with his masses. Proceeds from his best-selling books are paying for most of the church’s construction.

The Catholic Church has focused on Latin America’s youth and on creating dialogue between Catholics and evangelical movements, said Father Jose Gregorio Melo Sanchez, director of CELAM’s Department of Ecclesial Communion and Dialogue.

“It’s important to remember that the church isn’t a reactionary church,” Father Melo said. “The approach in this case is to focus on pastoral lines and on interreligious dialogue.”

— By Ezra Fieser and Lise Alves, Catholic News Service