I worked for 2 years at Amigos for Christ, a nonprofit serving the poor of Nicaragua, and I’ve taken several trips down to Nicaragua. As a missionary and a Spanish student, religion in Nicaragua has fascinated me.
I won’t ever forget when one of my Nicaraguan friends told me he was a Christian. I asked him if he was also Catholic, but he said no. Fascinating. Today, only about half of Nicaraguans are Catholic 40 percent are Protestant, leaving the other 10 percent to be unaffiliated. Add this all up, and it means that 9 out of every 10 people I’ve encountered down in Nicaragua have at least claimed to know Christ. This is really good news for the Kingdom. Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of what’s really going on in Nicaragua’s religious scene.
The number of Catholics are decreasing. 50 percent of current Protestants say they were raised Catholic. In 1910, 96 percent of Nicaraguans were Catholic. Today, less than half that number are Catholic, but the number of Protestants has increased exponentially. Almost 50 percent of all Christian Nicaraguans have participated in charity work in the past 12 months. This is astounding considering that most Nicaraguans live in poverty. However, in Latin American and impoverished countries, there is a much greater sense of community and mutual support than in first world countries that place great value on individualism.
This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. When have material goods, we can rely on material goods. We’re not forced to rely on others, and individualism takes root. However, in impoverished communities, families cannot rely on material goods, because they can’t afford them 24/7. Therefore, they must rely on community.
For instance, in the U.S., if a family needs our bike fixed, we Google search for a bike repair shop. We drop the bike off and a few days later, we come back and pick up the good-as-new bike. In Nicaragua, if a bike breaks down, the owner first must barter and haggle with a neighbor or community member for parts and then find a neighbor to actually fix the bike if he can’t fix the bike himself. And if he doesn’t have money to pay for parts and labor, he has to ask his neighbor for help. In the U.S., if we don’t have enough money, it’s a “too-bad-too-sad” scenario, because there is no sense of community.
I saw this happen myself while down in Nicaragua. While shopping in downtown Chinandega, I met a wonderful family who sold personalized wooden bracelets. Interested, I walked over and chatted with them for a bit, interested in learning how to make the bracelets. Within a few days, I had earned the family’s trust, and he took the time to teach me a new skill at no cost. Why? Because community breeds service.
To personalize the bracelets, the father had to use a dremel tool which requires electricity from an outlet plug. Not having an outlet plug near his set-up, he went over to a nearby tent that did have electricity and asked the tenant there if he could use some of her electricity. She willingly agreed, and didn’t charge him anything. Why? Because community leads to charity and service to others, at no cost to the receiver.
Now comes some not-so-great news. Only 37 percent of Catholics & 59 percent of Protestants say religion is very important in their lives. This averages out to 42 percent of Nicaraguan Christians who actually believe religion matters deeply.
Initially, I wanted to attribute this to the sheer number of people who live in rural communities that don’t have a church in their community. From spending time down there, I can tell you that number is pretty big. I also wanted to attribute this huge gap to another reality – the poverty in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan women and children may walk multiple miles each day just to collect enough water to last the day. Sundays are often used as a day to catch up on work around the home if both parents work outside of the home all day Monday through Saturday, and if you’re not catching up on something, you’re probably resting and gearing up for another tiresome week in the fields. Who has time to go to church when you’re using all free time to ensure the children are fed?
While both of these reasons may be true, I checked out the statistics on American religiosity. It wasn’t good, so I won’t give you the numbers, but our commitment gap is about the same. Across the western hemisphere, millions of people claim to know Christ and to love Christ, but they are not committed to Christ.
We need to find a way to get people excited about Christ, what He did and is now doing. While it’s important to be converting people to Christ, we need to be focusing on discipleship. It is through discipleship that we make disciples who then go out and share Jesus with the world. Right now, only about 24% of Nicaraguans share their faith with others at least once a week. This doesn’t mean “Hey, I want to convert you,” but rather, it means “Hey, I want to build you up in the faith.” In essence, discipleship in Nicaragua isn’t happening very well. If Christianity and faith in Jesus is going to survive the next millennium, we must start focusing on making committed disciples of Christ.