I mentioned yesterday that today’s plan was for our group to split up, so after an early breakfast this morning two group members and I, along with our national host Tito, left for the two-hour drive to the Baptist seminary in Trujillo. We were met by Pastor Julio, the director of the seminary and a key Baptist leader in the country. Like every other Peruvian leader I’ve met, he was open, friendly and passionate. His vision for Kingdom ministry in his country is to train pastors so that churches can be planted throughout the country.
While I was speaking at the seminary, the rest of the team was in Ciudad de Dios, in a small church building down a dirt road from the main highway. The cinder block structure had more room than our previous location so the different groups had plenty of space. The eye exams were in the back of the room. The pharmacy was up front. The medical exams were along one wall and the spiritual counseling took place along the other wall. About 250 people came through today. I don’t have a count yet on how many of them made decisions for Christ. A VBS for children was held later in the afternoon, after the clinic closed for the day. All of us met back in Chepen for dinner then returned to the site for our evening evangelistic service. I counted 80 people in the crowd with a large number being men, something we hadn’t seen before. The picture at the top of the post is of Monty Hale bringing the evening message. We’re rotating the preaching and several team members are getting their first taste of preaching.
I’m starting to notice something interesting among Peruvian churches. The same issue has come up in many conversations with national believers, church leaders, American missionaries and seminary students. Let me be quick to add that this is just my impression, and considering my short time here and lack of experience here, I probably have no right to bring it up. Except that different people have confirmed it.
What I’m talking about is how the Peruvian Baptist churches feel too Americanized.
On one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. The Peruvian Baptist Convention was put into place by Southern Baptist missionaries sent here decades ago with the gospel. They did their work well and today’s Peruvian Baptists reflect the strong influence of their American mentors. The denominational structure reflects that of Southern Baptists at home, with the standard complement of conventions, associations, committees and presidents. The ethos of Southern Baptist life is reflected in the uniform structure of individual churches, with each congregation an autonomous unit connected with its local association. Even much of the worship music is taken from traditional Baptist hymns, only in Spanish translation.
Peruvian Baptist church life also includes many of the same conflicts that we deal with in the States. There’s the struggle between Pentecostal and Reformed theology. The stress between congregations and pastors. The role of women in church leadership. The constant effort necessary to maintain the various levels of institutional life. As I learned much of this today at the seminary I began asking myself why they’re fighting the same battles we are.
To be sure, when Southern Baptist missionaries by and large pulled out of Peru a number of years ago when it was thought that the country was adequately evangelized, they left the national believers well equipped to function on their own. The SBC even donated the property and buildings of the national seminary to the fledgling Peruvian Baptist Convention. But once the Peruvians were on their own, they seemed simply to continue in the path the American missionaries had taught them.
Understand that I’m in no way criticizing these dear people. Our mission team will testify to the authenticity of Peruvian believers and I can bear personal witness to the maturity and effectiveness of their leaders. What I’m observing is how their institutional side has never shifted from being under what I can only call the colonial direction of American missionaries to become uniquely Peruvian. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
When God does a new thing, new forms are necessary to receive it. New wine requires new wineskins, Jesus says. And what I’ve learned this week leaves the impression that the Peruvian church is trying to fit their ministry into expressions that have more in common with American ideals than Peruvian ones. They may be trying to put new wine into old wineskins.
Other regions in the world that came to Christianity through western missionaries surely are facing the same issue and wrestling with their spiritual lineage just as Peru seems to be doing. All emerging national churches have to answer the same questions, I think. How much should they emulate the styles, institutions and priorities of those who brought them the gospel to begin with as opposed to moving in new directions more in tune with their own cultural heritage? How free should they be build a national church?
I shared some of my thinking with the seminary audience this morning but I’m not sure they heard me. What I was trying to say was that Jesus’ church is at its best when it’s most diverse. Each culture should express the gospel through its own heritage. In the Bible that principle is demonstrated in the radical differences between, say, the church at Jerusalem and the church at Antioch. Sure, all biblical churches are built on the same foundation and embrace the same truths of God’s Word. But after that they’re free to move according to their own drumbeat. I’m not sure why a national Baptist church should want to be like the SBC anyway. Even we’re realizing that the old structures, programs and institutions don’t work.
I would love to see a visionary church figure arise in Peru who could lead out in the building of a truly national Baptist church, one that is thoroughly biblical and orthodox in theology but has moved beyond the Southern Baptist model to one more in tune with his nation’s own culture and values. The voice of the Peruvian church is too beautiful to hide. I hope soon it will be heard more clearly.