SAO PAULO — The atmosphere was electric at Reborn in Christ Church on “Extreme Fight” night. Churchgoers dressed in jeans and sneakers, many with ball caps turned backward, lined a makeshift boxing ring to cheer on bare-chested jujitsu fighters.
They screamed when a fan favorite, Fabio Buca, outlasted his opponent after several minutes. They went wild when Pastor Dogao Meira, 26, took his man down, pinning him with an armlock just 10 seconds into the fight.
With the crowd still buzzing, Pastor Mazola Maffei, dressed in army pants and a T-shirt, grabbed a microphone. Maffei, who is also Meira’s fight trainer, then held the crowd rapt with a sermon about the connection between sports and spirituality.
“You need to practice the sport of spirituality more,” he urged. “You need to fight for your life, for your dreams and ideals.”
Reborn in Christ is among a growing number of evangelical churches in Brazil that are finding ways to connect with younger people to swell their ranks. From fight nights to reggae music to video games and on-site tattoo parlors, the churches have helped make evangelicalism the fastest-growing spiritual movement in Brazil.
Evangelical Christian churches are luring Brazilians away from Roman Catholicism, the dominant religion in Brazil. In 1950, 94 percent of Brazilians said they were Catholic, but that number fell steadily to 74 percent by 2000. Meanwhile, the percentage of those who described themselves as evangelicals grew by five times in that period, reaching 15 percent in 2000. A new government census is due out next year.
Despite Brazil’s deep connection to Catholicism, more and more Brazilians want to experiment and choose their own religion, said Silvia Fernandes, a professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, who wrote a book about Brazil’s evangelical movement.
She said more Brazilians were attracted to evangelical churches, or Pentecostalism, for the “flexibility of the religious expression.” They see churches like Reborn as places where they can express themselves more freely, and “not only look for solutions to personal problems, but also find a place to meet and socialize.”
Meira said that for young people seeking salvation, evangelism could fill a void. “Here they enter the church, sometimes to see a fight competition, they receive the word of Jesus Christ, and they begin a transformation. They will get off drugs, start to respect their parents and start to cure the illnesses of the soul, like anxiety, depression, drugs and alcohol, prostitution,” he said.
Amid the youth movement, Reborn in Christ has suffered its share of controversy. The church’s leaders, Estevam and Sonia Hernandes, returned to Brazil in August after serving several months in an American prison for trying to smuggle more than $56,000 into the United States, including $9,000 concealed in a Bible. They still face fraud, larceny, tax evasion and money laundering charges in Brazil.
Reborn tries to hire younger pastors who can relate better to adolescents. Meira is a part-time pastor; he also has a day job in marketing for a household paints company and studies advertising at night.
The night of the Extreme Fight, dozens of teenagers and young adults hovered around the church. In the front room, booths sold hot dogs and pizza, and young people lined up in one corner to get religious-theme tattoos like “I Belong to Jesus.” In the main room, there were video games, a DJ spinning a mix of hip-hop and funk, and a projection screen showing a DVD of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Though most had come for the main event, the Extreme Fight, they lingered. After four fights and Maffei’s sermon, members paired up. One placed his hand over the other’s forehead and spoke of Jesus Christ; the other closed his eyes tightly.
The growing evangelical youth movement takes aim at Brazilians of all classes. At Bola de Neve Church, young professionals blend in with lower-income families and troubled youths.
Pastors lead a flock of more than 2,500 members on Sunday evenings in rousing reggae and rock songs, with religious lyrics projected on a huge screen.
The church’s “apostle,” Rinaldo Pereira, said he had a near-death experience related to drugs and hepatitis some 17 years ago before a “supernatural” event led him to dedicate his life to God.
In 1999, Pereira and a few other avid surfers here founded Bola de Neve, which means snowball, inspired by the idea that a snowball starts small but can grow big. The church received its initial boost from a surf wear entrepreneur, who lent an auditorium for the church. Needing an altar for the first service, Pereira grabbed a surfboard he saw in a corner and placed it on some chairs.
Today the church says it has 100 chapters, mostly in Brazil. One chapter, in the Barra da Tijuca area of Rio de Janeiro close to the beach, was started three years ago by seven people and now has about 3,000 members.
Sports and music “overcome all sorts of boundaries,” Pereira said in an interview.
“People may not enter a church but will definitely attend a fighting match, a surfing championship, a musical event,” he said. “Both the athlete and music transmit a message to the audience.”
In Sao Paulo, the church is truly a family affair. One Sunday, Pereira, 37, led a sermon that lasted three hours, still using an upside-down surfboard as his pulpit. His wife, Denise, also a pastor, warmed up the crowd, belting out lyrics with a rock band at her back.
In the church basement, their 16-year-old son, Nathan, led a teenage and younger crowd. The spiky-haired pastor-in-training delivered a sermon about Jesus Christ with talk-show-host skill. At one point, he held up a white plastic container and urged the young followers to donate, assuring them that God would “give back twice” whatever they offered.
Upstairs at his father’s sermon, a young man and woman took the stage and professed their love. Pereira congratulated at least two young couples on their new babies, holding them up for all to see.
As his sermon reached its climax, members closed their eyes tightly and held out an arm, as if in a trance, singing and swaying to the music as tears streamed down their faces.
After the service, Dom Luiz Bayeux, 22, told of how he got there. He grew up in a broken home where his stepfather, a crack addict, died of AIDS. At 13, a rebellious Dom began a life of crime. Five years later, his search to escape addiction led him to many places and many religions.
After failing an entrance examination for the military, he remembered hearing about Bola de Neve. The day he arrived, the pastor told members, “You are here to enlist yourself into the army of Jesus Christ.”
To him, it was divine intervention. “The fact that people here speak the same language and live the same style of life as me is what really attracted me to the place, and it’s what helped keep me here,” he said.