Latin American Missions

lafaceA few thoughts on missions in Latin America from one corner of South America.

The Global Missions Conference is coming up. I’m participating in a track for college students on missions in my part of the world, basically as the Latin America representative. I suppose it would be wise not to speak for more than missions in Peru, maybe urban southern Peru.  But we missiological types tend to think regionally despite our supposed attentiveness to local particularity. So I’m going to swim out beyond my depth for a moment and talk about more than half a billion people stretched across two continents.

All of that to say, what I’m going to assert is based on a big IF. If issues other places throughout Latin America are similar to those in Arequipa, then:

1. Conversion must be redefined in terms of discipleship. In 2004 Edward Cleary documented an important trend in Latin America:

Several Latin American countries exhibit a rather high rate of evangelical conversion, but not much of a rise or none at all in the percentage of Protestants. Retention is thus clearly a factor. In terms of conversion, when 40 percent or so do not continue in their commitment, does the conversion itself have to be doubted? In Latin America, one common response is to say that only God knows. But in social science and missiology, when a religion displays such a high dropout rate, to discuss conversion without also looking at apostasy seems partial and misleading. (Cleary, 52–53)

There are many contributing factors, but since I’m well into an exercise in reductionism, I’ll state my opinion that the primary issue is a widespread theological deficiency—the failure to understand conversion as the making of a disciple. When I say “widespread,” I mean that there is no possibility of attributing this exclusively to the notoriously successful charismatic health-and-wealth gospel in Latin America. That is one head of the same monster. It is the natural outworking of the same crossless missiology that characterizes the majority of evangelical Christianity (in which I include myself as a Stone-Campbell heir). We’re all going to have to own the fact that when we preach a “gospel sermon” without reference to the deathly serious cost of discipleship so that people “convert”—whether through a “sinner’s prayer” or baptism—for their own benefit, there is no reason to expect anything other than a self-serving theology to emerge, whether it’s the health-and-wealth gospel of carismáticos, the Osteens’ nonsense, or the religious consumerism of vast swaths of American Christianity.

Obviously, there is something powerful motivating this approach to evangelism. It will have to be killed at the root in order to redefine conversion in terms of discipleship. The apparent assumption is that the gospel should be attractive. I challenge this assumption in passing, though it deserves careful consideration at another time. This is not the root of the missiological deficiency, however. Beneath the assumption of attractiveness is the the commitment to numerical growth. 

In 1999 René Padilla, from whom I take many of my cues in Latin American missiology, wrote an article entitled “The Future of Christianity in Latin America: Missiological Perspectives and Challenges.”  His incisive assessment includes this critique:

In evangelical Protestantism . . . the obsession with numerical growth is leading many leaders to assimilate elements of the light culture that dominates society, to emphasize the individualism and subjectivism that mark the Christological and soteriological reductionism inherited from the past, and to minimize the ethical demands of the Gospel.

Placed at the service of Christendom, both Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism take the shape of popular religiosity. In this way they turn Christianity into a popular religion that appeals to the masses, but they fail with regard to the purpose of the church derived from the Gospel—that of contributing from below toward the formation of a community of disciples of Christ who are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” [Pablo] Richard is right in saying that “evangelization is inherently incompatible with a Christendom model. [Roman Catholic] Christendom ‘produces’ unevangelized Catholics.” Protestant Christendom, I would add, produces unevangelized evangelicals.

The alternative is not an elitist Christianity designed for a thinking minority but a Christianity that seeks to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel as “Good News to the poor,” at whatever cost. Such faithfulness is possible only if there is a Christology that looks at Jesus Christ from a Trinitarian perspective, recovers all events of redemption in him, including his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and places him at the very center of the life and mission of the church as the Lord of the totality of human life and history.” (Padilla, 110)

I can’t imagine stating this any better. Padilla was, of course, offering a turn-of-the-century agenda for twenty-first century Latin American missiology. Fifteen years later, even if we were well on the path of reform, we would be slowly redirecting currents that run deep and wide. The fact is, I’m not sure we’ve taken the first step in most places. But we must. Latin American church leaders, missionaries, and sending churches and organizations alike must commit to making disciples instead of converting people in great numbers. It is not necessary to say the two are mutually exclusive in order to claim unequivocally that history has shown them to be normally at odds in Latin America. If, in our commitment to making disciples, we find the Spirit moving among many people in a particular place, then thanks be to God. But our missiological commitment to numerical growth has resulted in a theological inability to conceive of conversion in terms of discipleship.

2. The church must be reconceived in terms of mission. The missional church movement in North America has been criticized for its ethnocentrism. I’ll forego an aside on the irony of this state of affairs. Certain culturally determined elements aside, a commitment to the theological priority of God’s mission is vital for the Latin American church as well.

Understanding the church in terms of mission is, first, a consequence of defining conversion as discipleship. As disciples of Jesus, we are baptized into the life of the triune God revealed in Scripture as the purposeful sending of Son and Spirit for the glory of the Father. This is true of the universal church, and the Latin American church suffers as much as any other for the loss of its missional life. The real gospel—the message that creates evangelized disciples instead of unevangelized converts—is the story of the missional God’s purposes, identified by Jesus as the kingdom of God. Reconceiving the church in terms of mission therefore has two interconnected results: the baptized are servants of God’s kingdom and their life is a holistic message.

As followers (imitators) of Jesus empowered by the Spirit, we are participants in God’s mission. Discipleship is a purposeful life in service of God’s work, revealed climactically in the ministry of Jesus. Sadly, the need for missional restoration in Western Protestant churches is reflected in the Latin American churches that are largely established by and modeled on Western sending churches. I believe this is compounded in Latin America by the Roman Catholic heritage that already conceives of church institutionally instead of missionally. Protestant missions certainly do not need more anti-Catholicism, but they do need to stop playing into an institutional predisposition that undermines missional ecclesiology. It is a contextual challenge that requires a prophetic stance bound to work against numerical growth in many situations.

Nonetheless, if Latin American churches take up this challenge in the twenty-first century, it will be a more powerful testimony by far than the one that has produced the much-acclaimed boom in Protestant conversions in the twentieth century. Latin American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has made landmark contributions to the reappropriation of the holistic, biblical gospel of the kingdom. Something about the Latin American context has generated this special consciousness, and in turn we might expect that this context will only really respond to the proclamation of the whole gospel. Yet, the Latin American church has generally failed to live out a kingdom message.

When the validity of this view . . .—a view in which mission is inseparable from the work of the triune God—is not acknowledged, the totality of mission is reduced to evangelism “narrowly conceived as announcing the so-called plan of salvation and inviting people to conversion” and we fail to participate in”the fullness of the work of the triune God.” The result of this type of evangelism, which has been common practice in Latin American Protestantism, is churches for which the key question is how to win more converts; often sadly lacking is concern for people in their concrete human needs. Evangelism becomes a question of marketing and falls into the absolutization of the means provided by the consumer society. (Padilla, 111)

It is time for the Latin American church to live up to the holistic theology it has helped to shape. Missional is the descriptor of the church that does so. Discipleship to the biblical Jesus is its prerequisite. The kingdom of God is the essence of its embodied message.

There is a third implication of missional ecclesiology that Latin American churches need to experience: radical contextualization. Here I speak especially for my own church tradition, recognizing that others seem to be farther along. In my experience, there is a lack of cultural contextualization in most Latin American Churches of Christ. Our practices have been driven by fear instead of faith, attuned more to the risk of syncretism than the need for contextualization. Much of that fear is actually rooted in ethnocentrism, not the biblical fidelity claimed in its defense. Latin American missions needs to stop being afraid and start being humble, innovative, and generous. From the surface-level symbolic systems down to the inner dimensions of local worldviews, both the gospel and the church’s communal life need truly contextual expressions free from the cultural imperialism that marked so much of twentieth-century missions, accidentally or intentionally. Missional churches are contextually conscious and self-critical, culturally engaged and adaptive, prophetic and incarnational. Contextualization is our calling.

3. Latin American missions needs to take theological education far more seriously. The twenty-first century is shaping up to be an era of unprecedented intercultural theological dialogue. I believe this conversation will be the primary arena for the church’s negotiation of postmodern globalization. There is the possibility that the Western church—standing in Christianity’s dominant theological tradition and possessed of well-developed (if entrenched) theological education institutions—will reassert itself as a neocolonial force in Latin America. There is also the possibility that we will discover models of real cross-cultural partnership capable of developing contextualized theological education that can engage an intercultural dialogue.

The opportunity is to twofold. First, there is a need for advanced theological education. Writing from a Pentecostal perspective, Milton Acosta describes a situation surely familiar in other corners of Latin American Christianity:

Latin American institutions that somehow grant the highest academic degrees in theological education have proliferated. More than 60 percent of our pastors have no theological education. When they join a church’s staff, they often go on to get degrees from institutions that they themselves started.

These schools often operate below international standards of higher education. People can get “doctoral” degrees without an accredited master’s degree or a research library. Since seminaries usually aren’t accredited, they aren’t regulated. Each denomination and megachurch wants to have its own seminary or Bible institute and grant academic degrees with just a few books.

There are also evening and online institutions based either in Latin America or in the United States that offer all sorts of degrees. Institutions that do comply with international standards struggle to survive because their degrees are more rigorous and therefore cost more and take longer. We end up in “the perverse circle of mediocrity,” says Lausanne International Deputy Director for Latin America and seminary founder Norberto Saracco.

How can Western missions share the burden of this situation while remaining contextually appropriate? It is a question that demands careful consideration. I pray that Churches of Christ will work toward at least one legitimate South American advanced theological education program in my lifetime. It will be a massive undertaking but worth every effort.

Second, congregational theological education needs to advance significantly. From my perspective, American churches have little to offer in this regard. We are all suffering. In most of Latin America there is a significant challenge when it comes to issues such as educational level and orality. But assuming a contextually appropriate response, the more pressing concern is the fundamental shift that a commitment to congregational equipping entails. Part and parcel of discipleship and missional ecclesiology, Latin American missions must work toward the equipping of the whole church for ministry. This is much more than mere “biblical literacy”! Developing contextual models of congregational theological education is a task that will require considerable creativity and long-term vision. But a discipleship-based missional ecclesiology presents the opportunity to engage in theological education that will bring the Latin American church beyond jargon about the priesthood of all believers to its realization, by the grace of God.

As I began working on this post, I realized that I had fortuitously structured my opinions about the future of Latin American missions in a way the reflects the Great Commission. While that wasn’t my idea to begin with, I want to affirm the connection. “Great Commission mission” sometimes gets a bad rap these days because of fundamentalist rhetoric that tries to claim the Great Commission in defense of its stunted view of mission. I’m confident that Scripture can resist the undertow of this misguided current. For my part, I simply want to note the Great Commission’s resonance with an agenda that arises, to a significant extent, over against the present deficient results of such reductive mission.

1. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
2. baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
3. and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Latin American missions in the twenty-first century needs to orient itself once more to making disciples, to a church life born of inclusion in the mission of the triune God, and to comprehensive theological education.

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