Back in the nineties, folks were saying missionaries would be turning out the lights in the Americas and redeploying to other countries. After all, at that point, Southern Baptists would have been in Latin America more than 150 years. Surely local Christians could continue the work.
But after 150 years, there are still unreached peoples—314 distinct groups of them, to be exact. And for every healthy church that could own the task of reaching those peoples, there are a dozen more with erroneous theology, dependency on foreign missionaries, and misguided or nonexistent missions practices.
As I have served in the Americas alongside veteran missionaries and heard stories from my in-laws who served there from 1952–88, I’ve learned not all missionary efforts were misguided; rather we were doing the best we knew to do at the time. Every wave of missionaries, no matter the location, makes a few mistakes along the way and iterates from there.
“We must involve nationals from the beginning because they are just as called to the Great Commission as North American missionaries.”
As schools of thought change regarding healthy missions, we get better at it. We in the Americas were historically less inclined to “work ourselves out of a job.” Now we believe we must involve nationals from the beginning because they are just as called to the Great Commission as North American missionaries.
Three Realities, Three Opportunities
Earlier in 2017 my husband and I visited cities and villages in southern Mexico to understand struggles and victories of today’s missionaries, as well as learn how we can better support the local church. If we ever hope to accomplish our work in Latin America and exit, here’s what we can do.
Model Solid Discipleship Based on Scripture
We visited a town that has a well with a massive tree growing out of it. The locals believe the well is the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that its water can heal. In the same village, the local Catholic church has murals of San Miguel who they believe slayed an evil, multiheaded dragon. San Miguel is front and center in the church, along with Mary, while the resurrected Jesus is down the aisle and on the left.
Such practices are a lethal cocktail of indigenous beliefs and Christianity, which often flourish where proper discipleship based on the Word has been absent. Part of our task, with the help of the US church, is to introduce and model solid discipleship and biblical teaching to the local church. Christians with a proper understanding of God’s Word are better equipped to avert syncretistic practices.
Train Local Churches to Carry out the Missionary Task
We visited a family and shared a Bible story and a meal in their dirt-floor kitchen. Eight of us gathered round. The story was familiar to them. Some could repeat it back to us, but they did not express a deep understanding. Others didn’t understand the story due to their poor Spanish—they spoke the local indigenous dialect. They needed to hear the stories in their heart language.
There is no quick fix for being able to share the Word in everyone’s heart language. We can be intentional to learn indigenous languages when possible, but it’s impractical for foreign missionaries to learn every dialect when national partners can learn them easily, or already speak the dialect. Imparting to bilingual disciples in the local church the importance of their Great Commission role is crucial to our missionary exit. We need to equip them so they can share clearly and with power and prayer support.
Get the Gospel Where It Is Not
The darkest place we visited was a village where the Catholic church was empty of pews and the floors were covered with pine straw. Saints lined the walls—images, manikins dressed in satin, each in a glass box—and candles flickered in front of each one. A grandmother clutched candles in her hand and ran them over the head of her grandchild while chanting prayers. Another group huddled together on the floor, praying and passing small cups of liquor to each member of the group, including children. Yet another group sacrificed a chicken on the floor in front of one of the saints. This, they believe, is part of their worship to a god they created. They do not know the God of the Bible.
“US churches now have a role in helping long-term missionaries push back the darkness among peoples unreached with the gospel.”
Although these activities took place in a church, the people performing them are void of any knowledge of the gospel. They are as unreached as people living in Amazon jungles who have never seen a church. They and millions more are destined for eternity apart from a loving God.
That’s why the lights are still on for missions in the Americas. We know we need to develop leaders, mobilize the Latin American church, and address issues of dependency. US churches now have a role in helping long-term missionaries push back the darkness among peoples unreached with the gospel. The US church can partner with missionaries in discipling the local believers, developing leaders, and doing human needs ministries that open doors for ongoing relationships, covering it all in fervent prayer.
There are many ways you can help missionaries accomplish that task, starting with establishing a fruitful partnership with missionaries. Together, ten years from now, perhaps we will be able to say, “There’s no place left. Where to next?”
Karen Clark and her husband, Charles, live in Lima, Peru, when not on an airplane. They enjoy traveling to encourage missionaries and see the work God is doing through them in Latin America.