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.