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. (One famous preacher, Aldidudima Salles, is the former head of the Red Command, a drug-trafficking gang in Rio, and claims he was so depraved before he converted that he broke into tombs and ate human flesh.) Child preachers fill a special niche: They embody the charisma and showmanship of older preachers, but filtered through a child’s inherent innocence. As Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of “Born Again in Brazil,” explains it: “These child preachers are something that Assemblies of God have found that sets them apart.”
The phenomenon is controversial, earning scorn from other Pentecostal denominations and even criticism from within Assemblies of God. Silas Malafaia, a high-profile Brazilian Pentecostal pastor whose TV show airs internationally and who has preached at American megachurches, says that children who are preaching are being exploited. “It’s absurd,” Malafaia says. “These are commercial interests on behalf of the parents in receiving donations and selling DVDs. It is not about God, and I am firmly against this.”
But the 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.