This is an article from the May-July 2000 issue: The State of World Evangelization

Case Studies of CPMs - A Latin American People Group

Case Studies of CPMs - A Latin American People Group

International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries are currently engaged in a number of Church Planting Movements (CPM) and near-Church Planting Movements around the world. While each of these movements bears the influence of our missionaries, each is different as well.

Despite these differences, there are common traits that characterize almost every CPM. In the examples that follow, you will see how several IMB missionaries came to be involved in CPMs. Some were instrumental in the movement from its inception, while others arrived after the movement was well under way. In each case, there are lessons we can learn that may be transferable to other situations.

The Setting

Like many other Latin American countries, this one has a mixed population of European, Hispanic and African descent. Decades of authoritarian rule have stifled economic progress and limited individual freedoms. The country is poor, but relatively well-educated compared to other countries in the region, with a literacy rate of more than 90 percent."

Traditionally, the population has been more than 95 percent Roman Catholic. For more than 25 years, however, the government attempted to suppress religious freedom. Then, in 1991, the government eased up and began to liberalize its economy and posture toward religion. Religious freedom still is not a protected right, but conditions are improving.

Southern Baptists began missionary work in the country more than a century ago. Over the next 75 years, missionaries planted churches, trained leaders and developed a local Baptist union consisting of about 3,000 members. Following a military coup, all missionaries were imprisoned and then expelled from the country. Along with them went half of the local Baptist membership and much of the church leadership. The next few decades threatened to eliminate the church from the country. Persecution, imprisonment and torture were widespread. During this time of opposition, the number of believers slowly increased.

What Happened

Due to separate American and Southern Baptist mission efforts, the Baptists in the country developed into a northern union and a southern union. Despite this separation, both unions experienced Church Planting Movements during the 1990s.

By 1989, the northern union had a membership of roughly 5,800. That same year, they began to experience an awakening as membership climbed 5.3 percent and then 6.9 percent the following year. By the end of the 1990s, the northern union's membership had grown from 5,800 to more than 14,000. Over that same period, the number of churches increased from 100 to 1,340. At last report, there is little sign of this growth slowing down. Currently, more than 38,000 regular participants in the churches are awaiting baptism.

Similar developments were also unfolding in the southern union. In 1989, they had 129 churches with a membership of just under 7,000. With 533 baptisms recorded that year, they were showing signs of vitality. By 1998, their membership had risen to nearly 16,000 with annual baptisms of almost 2,000. The number of churches increased during the same period from 129 to 1,918, a remarkable 1,387 percent growth rate for the decade.

Key Factors

Several factors contributed to the CPM in this Latin American country. Foreign missionaries played several very strategic roles.

The first came when missionaries introduced the gospel to the country for the first time. They firmly grounded the new churches on the Word of God and the priesthood of all believers. However, when a change in government forced the missionaries to leave, Christianity had a choice: Become indigenous or die. Over the next few years, the country's isolation from outside Christian contact furthered the indigenization process by minimizing the possibility of foreign funds for buildings or pastoral subsidies.

During these years of isolation, media missionaries working outside the country saturated the land with Gospel radio broadcasts in the people's Spanish heart language. Missionaries and diaspora Christians also maintained a steady vigil of prayer for the believers and the lost living inside the country. When IMB missionaries reconnected with the churches in the late 1980s, they found a Baptist faith that was deeply rooted in the nation. At this point, the missionaries made a second strategic contribution by feeding the movement through prayer, discipleship, leadership training and workshops on evangelism and cell church methodology--without creating dependency or imposing a foreign flavor on the movement.

Several other factors and characteristics contributed to the movement. From the beginning, Scripture and worship were in the heart language of the people. Undergirded by the high literacy rate, the Bible became a center of both corporate and private spiritual life.

Prayer was also a key component. Baptists in this movement described themselves as a "people on their knees." Prayer continues to saturate their worship and daily life. They are also a people who love to sing. Worship services resound with lively hymns and songs of praise in the heart language. One church leader described music as "a form of spiritual warfare against an unbelieving world."

An important challenge occurred with the severe economic crisis of 1992, which prevented church members from traveling significant distances to their church buildings for worship. Once again, the movement was at a crossroads: They could resign themselves to a churchless faith, or respond creatively to the challenge. Baptists chose the latter as they moved their meetings into homes and found that growth greatly accelerated. Once again, Baptist missionaries played a strategic role by introducing cell church models used in other parts of the world. During the first year (1992-93), the northern convention alone started 237 house churches.

Across the country, the crumbling economy and uncertain political future created an environment that was ripe for new answers and directions. It was less and less difficult or even necessary to speak to people of lostness; everything around them spoke of hopelessness and despair.

Within this turmoil, Baptist leaders urged their flock to adopt a missionary zeal for reaching their entire nation. The laity responded enthusiastically. In the mid-'90s, the northern union began a Lay Missionary School to provide a one-year training program for lay evangelists. By 1998, there were 110 graduates and 40 more enrolled. Between them, the two unions have deployed nearly 800 home missionaries across the country. In the past two years, union leaders report that "hundreds are now expressing a call to missions within their own country." The Church Planting Movement in this country is now poised to impact other nations across Latin America and throughout the world.

Unique factors

Though God is clearly doing a remarkable work in this Latin American country, some shadows hover over the movement. At last report, more than 38,000 faithful participants in the churches of the northern union had not yet been baptized. A further 2,800 candidates were enrolled in baptismal classes. Why the delayed baptism of new members? A union leader explained, "Before our country closed its doors to missionaries, churches in America assisted us in the building of six structures. Twenty years ago, one of our churches had a heated dispute over some theological matter (long since forgotten) which resulted in a split and the loss of our building. Since that time, we have learned to be cautious in allowing outsiders to become full-fledged members, lest they take our remaining buildings from us as well."

Learning Points

1. The shift to house churches coincided with an enormous increase in church growth. It freed the church from physical limitations and thrust the Gospel witness into the community.

2. Union leadership helped to set the direction and encourage the house-church movement, even though it meant a diminished measure of control for them.

3. Persecution weeded out those who were not serious followers of Christ. At the same time, a strong Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of the believer ensured the survival of the church when other, more hierarchical churches were crushed.

4. IMB missionaries played key roles in introducing the Gospel; encouraging a CPM vision; introducing cell-church methodology and shielding the movement from dependency on foreign funds.

5. Mobilized and trained lay missionaries have been key in spreading the movement across the country.

Contents ©2000 by the International Mission Board.


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