No one keeps track of the number of child preachers in Brazil, but there are thousands. Most come from poor or lower-middle-class families, and nearly all of them are affiliated with Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination started in America in 1914 and taken to South America by missionaries. Assemblies of God is now the largest Pentecostal group in Brazil.
The central tenet of Pentecostalism is that God remains an active presence in the world; people can access his divine power just as Jesus, Peter and Paul did, to prophesy, speak in tongues and heal the sick. Assemblies of God, in particular, emphasizes that the Holy Spirit acts not just through trained priests but through anyone, the poor, the uneducated, even children.
The growth of Pentecostalism and other charismatic movements influenced by it — which also emphasize the Holy Spirit and miracles — has been responsible for an epochal shift in Christianity. In the 1970s, less than 10 percent of Christians were affiliated with these charismatic or “renewalist” churches. Today it is estimated that one-quarter are, and their rapid growth outpaces that of other denominations. With this expansion, Pentecostalism has shifted the center of world Christianity from Europe to what is sometimes called the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In Brazil, Pentecostalism — and especially Assemblies of God — has its strongest foothold in poorer neighborhoods, where residents are often overlooked by the government and too transient to be easily reached by the Catholic Church, which is structured around place-based dioceses. Scholars once thought that Catholic liberation theologies, which arose in the 1960s and 1970s, preaching a connection between faith and socioeconomic justice, would be the religion of choice for the poor, but Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the supernatural, has proved far more appealing. Improvised storefront Pentecostal churches bloom like mushrooms in the cities’ cracks, jutting out behind a gas station or wedged into the ground floor of a home.
Among charismatic denominations, competition to produce fantastic miracles and emotional release is fierce. Startling stories of redemption — from former prostitutes, for example, or drug dealers or murderers — are prized. Child preachers fill a special niche: They embody the charisma and showmanship of older preachers, but filtered through a child’s inherent innocence.
Internet and social media have helped young preachers find wide, sometimes international audiences. Today Brazil’s most successful child preachers work nearly every day and travel extensively.
Text by Samantha M. Saphiro