Friday, November 19, 2010

Latin America: Mission Field, Mission Force

I have had the great privilege and challenge of traveling and ministering throughout Latin America over the last eight months. I normally take four to six trips per year to teach or lead mission teams in Ecuador or Peru, but my fall sabbatical has afforded me the rich opportunity to spend some concentrated time in Central and South America. Many thanks to the trustees and administration of SBTS for the sabbatical. Thanks also to the International Mission Board for the Professors Abroad program that provided a month-long trip to teach in Ecuador and for hosting me in Lima, Peru as I taught some IMB missionaries there. The Spanish Language Institute in San José, Costa Rica honored Mary and me by inviting us again to lead Spiritual Emphasis week for the missionaries preparing for service in Latin America. Today I am finishing a two-week teaching stint in Ecuador and must return to the USA on Monday.

This concentrated and extended time in Latin America has shown me a great many things about the state of the church here and the region’s needs, challenges, and opportunities. Reading what much of the missions literature says about Latin America and traveling and ministering here makes me wonder whether we are talking about the same place. So often, Latin America is presented as yesterday’s mission field, a place that is now reached, so missionaries can turn their sights elsewhere. However, there are significant problems with this misinformation. First, is it is not reached. The International Mission Board estimates that there are 999 people groups in the Americas, and of that number, 690 of them are among the least reached people groups with less than 2% of their population being evangelicals. In addition, 356 of those groups are not only among the least reached, they are unengaged, which means that no one has been trying to reach and plant churches among them for at least over the last two years. Furthermore, 85 of those groups are also completely uncontacted; in many cases, missionaries simply know that they are, but not necessarily where they are or very much about them. There is much to do to reach all of the peoples of Latin American countries with the gospel. However, even though I’m advocating for the unreached of Latin America, please be very careful not to buy the lie that missions equals reaching the unreached. Yes, reaching the unreached is biblical and necessary, but the Great Commission is much broader and deeper than that, it is to make disciples among the nations (ethnic groups), baptize them, and teach them to observe everything that Jesus commanded.

The argument that Latin America is reached (which it is not) and therefore we should leave it with the national brothers and move on is misguided. Jesus did not send His church to reach and leave the nations, but to reach and teach them—everything He has commanded us. That remains to be done throughout the jungles, mountains, farmlands, banana republics, modern urban megacities, and seaport cities of that beautiful, resource-rich, and spiritually challenging area of the world that we call Latin America. Countless groups of indigenous peoples, mestizo Latinos, Asians, Arab peoples, Afro-Americans, and Jews live lost lives in a land that is counted as Christian because of the cultural Christianity surface statistics claim.

Another challenge in Latin America is the vast biblical illiteracy. Certainly, some of the most godly pastors, most well-equipped academicians, and most gifted Christian writers are Latin American brothers and sisters. However, they are faithfully serving in their ministries that demand as much of their time as the ministries of their USA counterparts do. They are both overwhelmed in the ministries they serve and are far too few in number for the task before them. Missionaries never concentrated their work on training more like them. The majority of pastors I meet acknowledge that they need training and they plead for it. It saddens me that pastors regularly ask me heartbreaking questions such as, Was Jesus saved before or after His resurrection? Which woman was it that saved Him? Is it okay for Christians to continue to venerate the earth goddess? Many churches here are steeped in animism but meet in buildings with crosses on the top so missiologists and researchers count them as Christian. I recently preached in an indigenous church that has been meeting together for 25 years. A mission agency built them a building 25 years ago, but they never returned to disciple the congregants, teach the leaders, or even to preach—they never set foot in the community again. It is no wonder that the church members still practice their traditional witchcraft and sorcery; they say that they never even knew that it was wrong to do so.

Many regions of Latin America that we have scratched off our lists as “reached” are Christian in name only; they have never been discipled but rather simply joined a church. Since the Spaniards, conquistadors, and Catholic missionaries came in the late 1400s, Latin America is the recipient of a form of Catholicism that is not only the product of the Spanish Inquisition, but is also pre-Reformational since the Reformation did not begin until 1517. And since the Reformation never made it south of the Pyrenees, even subsequent waves of Catholic missionaries were never tempered with the truth of Grace and the Solas. They imposed the harsh Catholicism that they brought with the point of a sword. Indigenous peoples became very adept at embracing the outward forms of new religions for personal gain and protection.

Reading my blog and Facebook posts about my travels in Latin America has prompted many new friends to email me about their call to the peoples of the Western hemisphere and express their frustration at not finding ministry opportunities. Indeed, many traditional mission agencies are redirecting their efforts to other areas of the world. In hard economic times, they are following the donor dollars that are more interested in the least reached places on the planet. Everyone would hopefully agree that we must reached the least reached and preach the gospel to every person as soon as possible. However, we must also conserve the hard-won advances we have made by discipling and teaching the believers that we have reached. The effort to reach the least reached would be better served by training up a host of evangelists and missionaries whom God is calling from the traditional fields we have served so long, who can go before us and go with us to serve alongside us.

I always tell those called to Latin America but who find themselves frustrated by various mission boards, that they must follow God’s call on their lives, not God’s call on the agency. As a friend of mine often says, “The board is not the Lord.” Never compare your call with another’s to decide the right course of action. I have seen many Christians drawn away from their duty and calling by comparing themselves and their lot with others. I preached not long ago on the four kinds of men in the world: a man’s man, a ladies’ man, a selfish man, and God’s man. Each of those seeks to please someone, either other manly men, the ladies, self, or God. Whom will you serve?

Sometimes the emails I get are asking what kinds of missions opportunities are available in Latin America. A short list of some of the greatest needs would include theological education, pastoral training, university ministry, youth ministry, MK teachers, orphanages, hospital ministry, physicians, dentists, water-wells, health education, evangelism, discipleship, guesthouse ministry, vocational training, rescuing streetchildren, Christian camps, publishing, bookstores and literature ministry, reaching the influential segments of society, intercultural training and missionary orientation, church planting, and whatever the Holy Spirit has called and gifted you to do. The highest and best use of your life is to do what God calls you to do in the place He calls you to do it. Never apologize about your call. If God has given it, He knows why and He knows that you are the perfect person for the job and the perfect place for you to glorify Him.

Some of the mission agencies that have continued to maintain a strong focus on Latin America are increasingly my heroes. I could write a book on each one of them and the contributions they have made, and are committed to continue in Latin America. Some of the brighter lights in the harbor are Latin America Mission, South America Mission, CAM International, and Global Outreach International. Of course, major missions agencies like the International Mission Board, Avant, and HCJB that have made such a great impact here will very likely always have a presence, though it is rapidly diminishing. If you share my burden for Latin America, why not write an email to those agencies focusing on Latin America and thank them for their commitment to this vital region. If you have influence in the agencies that are diminishing their efforts here, why not exercise it to encourage them to stay the course and refocus on new challenges and opportunities rather than abandon the region. The needs are so great, the opportunities are so numerous, and the time is now to seize the day for Christ’s glory and the advance of His kingdom.

I would add a word of caution to the agencies that are drastically reducing their missionary personnel and resources to Latin America. I have seen several major traditional missions agencies’ offices and guesthouse properties for sale in the last few months, evidence of a dramatic drawdown. Be aware that as evangelicals leave, Muslims are coming in behind us. One brother in the USA told me a sad tale of going to Latin America to help an ailing missionary pack up and move home. He said as they pulled out of town, they noticed two young Mormon missionaries moving in. Well, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still coming in increasing numbers, but Islam is also firmly established and still coming. While missiologists debate the exact population figures, a missionary who concentrates his ministry to reach Muslims in South America estimates that their numbers are around 21 million and growing. Leftist governments in Latin America are eager for Muslim governments’ economic resources. We have a proverb that he who pays the piper calls the tune. We dare not abandon Latin America to untrained brothers and sisters who acknowledge the threat and their need and are requesting our aid.

Rather than leave, our ministries should change. We must train theologians, prepare pastors, teach teachers, and disciple disciplers (2 Timothy 2:2). As we train them, we are ensuring their protection from the cults and false religions that will seek to deceive and win them. As Latin Americans feel called to reach, teach, and preach in their own and neighboring countries, let us train them for the work. They will do it better than we ever could once their heads, hearts, and hands are prepared for the work. We should train those called to go to the world to be the best missionaries they can be. They will be able to reach and teach in many areas much better than we could and with much easier access since they do not carry a USA passport that garners scrutinizing examination from increasing numbers of USA-hostile governments. We talk a lot about creative access, especially to Arab lands. Perhaps the most creative access of all is to stay and train Latin Americans to go to those with whom they shared the Iberian Peninsula for almost 800 years.


David M. Blanton said...

Well said David! In the missiological quest to gauge the extent of the gospel globally, agencies have concentrated on the areas of darkness to the neglect of raising up multiplying laborers in cultivated areas that can impact the global harvest to a far greater extent. The fuel of the Great Commission as you so effectively state is in teaching disciples to do what Jesus has commanded. As the new D.O.M. of the Union County Baptist Association in SC, my vision and goal is to see the churches here mobilized and engaged in extending Christ's Kingdom beginning here and among the nations. Latin America remains a paradox: both a field of great spiritual lostness as it is also a resource of great missionary advance. My heart will always be turned toward the peoples of Latin America!
Your fellow partner in the Harvest,
David M. Blanton

David said...

Thanks, David. Your comment is all the more encouraging to me since you are one of the ones who know the real needs and opportunities AND have a ministry position that allows you to influence others to embrace the challenge. If I can ever be of service to you, please let me know. I am thrilled to hear of your new ministry and to know how many more lives you will be able to impact. Happy a wonderful thanksgiving. Grace to you and yours.

Doug and Barb Lamp said...

Thank you David for your encouraging words. My wife and I are missionaries serving in Brazil with an agency that is now directed by Brazilians and we strive to be relevant in the changing face of missions in that country. (see ELdon Porter's CapeTown article "Changing Paradigms of Missions" in the category "Formation of leaders, partnership and Globalization". You word about being faithful to an individual's calling before God, and not just to fit in to the agency's "calling" is a timely reminder also. Thanks

Douglas Lamp
OC International

Rod said...

Brother David,
I am in agreement with your assessment of things here in Latin America. It has been a long time since we've communicated, so when a friend of mine sent me your article, I just had to respond (which I rarely do to posts or blogs).

We have been here in Ecuador for 7 1/2 years now. The Lord called us here to "discipleship" with not much else very clear, and without even knowing Spanish. But He has blessed our work over the years as we focus on the Great Commission.

Our ministry has evolved, needless to say, as time and experience have moved us along in His will, like the current of a mighty river as we try to navigate it as best we can. We started by focusing on discipleship in existing churches, which bore some fruit but was/is very restrictive, as tradition and habits have long since formed nearly impenetrable barriers to change.

About 3 years ago, we switched our focus to two things that has revolutionized our ministry:
1) "Collecting" disciples from the different churches we worked with, and from new ones we visit to "plug in" to our ministry, and concentrating on in-depth discipleship, focusing on " Great Commission" training in a para-church environment.
2) Starting new works where there aren't any evangelical churches yet.
This solves the problem of established barriers, as they are "wet cement".
During the week, here in Quito, we mainly focus on the "laborers". On Wednesday and the weekends, we focus on the "labor". So far the Lord has blessed us with around 30 laborers, of which there are 4 strong leaders for the different ministry teams that go out and do the work. God has provided three areas where our teams have established bible studies, leader training, and church services. These disciples are discipling now, and are on the brink of seeing these areas transformed into established, New Testament churches that will also be "Great Commission" focused.

It is absolutely amazing what God is doing through this form of missions! We are taking our next step, which is identifying some of these disciples as called missionaries, and beginning to send them out (locally, for 3 days a week to start with), with the dream of sending them out as full time missionaries to closed places like Iran in a few years. Needless to say, this is definitely living outside our own strength and power as one "gringo" family, but God is really blessing it in a mighty way.
Anyway, keep sounding the horn, and praying that the "Great Commission" be carried out as God designed it, not only here in Latin American, but around the world.

pastoral_programada said...

Estimado Dr Sills, soy mexicano y dedicado a la reflexión pastoral, en especial sobre las etnias, que dicho sea de paso, como ud sabrá en mi país tenemos casi 300 diferentes grupos indígenas, incluso los menonitas de Chihuahua se consideran así. Mi comentario es sobre la definición que podemos dar a la expresión "visión misionera mundial" y a la expresión "visión misionera regional o local", de antemano muchas gracias. Roberto Treviño Medina.

Scott and Julie Davenport said...

Thank you, sir, for your article and its insightful analysis of the spiritual situation and remaining needs here in Latin America. The truth of what you say is confirmed around us everyday here in Trujillo, Peru.
Blessings in Christ,
Scott Davenport