CPMs Up Close
A Latin American People Group
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.”
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.