by Roger S. Greenway
The time is ripe for the formation of hundreds of new urban churches in Latin America because (1) mass evangelism is making a great impact, and (2) newcomers to the city are open to receive religious teaching. What is needed is an approach that meets their needs and circumstances.
The time is ripe for the formation of hundreds of new urban churches in Latin America because (1) mass evangelism is making a great impact, and (2) newcomers to the city are open to receive religious teaching. What is needed is an approach that meets their needs and circumstances. Mayor Alfonso Corona de Rosal says more people migrate into Mexico City annually than are born in the city – 160,000 new residents and 90,000 births.
In December, 1967, while teaching at John Calvin Seminary in Mexico City, I began a new evangelistic program in the metropolitan area. I wanted to discover, right along with my students, what it takes to plant urban churches. For five months I studied Mexico City from every angle and led student visitation teams into more than a dozen different parts of the city. We climbed the towering apartment house stairways and walked the streets of both rich and poor.
In May, 1968, we were holding weekly meetings in ten different areas of Mexico City. Our plan of operation was as follows:
1. House to House Visitation. With a group of students, we cover an entire area of the city, distributing literature, selling Bibles and New Testaments, and talking to people. This face-to-face contact is all-important both for sizing up an area’s potential for evangelism and for the mission work itself. We have not found it overly difficult to locate interested persons who will either invite us to hold meetings in their homes or who will promise to attend services in some other home that has already opened the door.
2. Weekly Services in Homes. When someone hay invited us to hold meetings in his home, we set a definite time for the meetings, and ask his help in inviting the people of the neighborhood. At these services, there is preaching, sometimes film strips depicting Bible stories, and usually a separate class for children. We plan gradually to shift the time of meeting to Sunday, leaving weekday nights free to begin new missions. Unconverted people, who are accustomed to making Sunday a day for outings and fun, are more likely to attend a religious service during the week.
3. Continual, Intensive Visiting in Each Area. This is the clue to both the successful establishment of new missions and their continued growth. Students have proven to be excellent door-to-door evangelists, and our girl students are just as effective as the men.
4. Offerings From the Beginning. Offerings are taken in all the missions almost from the very beginning. This has a threefold effect: (a) It serves as an apt of worship for believers and teaches them responsibility, (b) It gives the new group a vision of what they are working toward, since it is announced each week that the offering money is kept in the bank until such time as a chapel can be erected in the area, (c) Participation in the offering unites the people in a common "investment" which holds them together.
5. Receptive Areas of the City. We have experimented in various parts of the city. In general, the new areas are the most responsive to the Gospel. Certain housing developments present particular difficulties. For example, the middle class apartment dwellers are the hardest to reach, due to their suspicion of people coming to the door. They hesitate opening their doors to strangers. When you do get to talk to them, their middle class interest seems to be entirely materialistic. Ground level, upper-lower and lower-middle class homes open up the most readily to the door-to-door evangelist. The key factor to be considered before going into an area is this:
Who comes to the door? In wealthier neighborhoods, the maid answers the door and tells you that the man or lady of the house is not at home or is too busy to talk to you. In the better apartment buildings and condomios, they talk to you through the door speaker and you do not get to even see them personally. If you do manage to get up the stairs, the occupants check you over through the "peek hole" in the door, and that is usually as close as you get. But in the sprawling new colonias of one-story, three-room houses, you can get through to the people, and that is indispensable.
6. Foreign Missionary Participation. Foreign missionaries need not hesitate for a moment to engage in door-to-door work. Granted, there is always the possibility of certain unfavorable reactions because they are foreigners, but the benefits to the work and the effect that it has on the students far outweigh the possible risks. I have seen the students’ enthusiasm for visiting increase immediately when their "maestro" is doing it too. On two occasions, policemen have eyed me with suspicion but in both instances I was able to dispel their hostile feelings and even sell them New Testaments by going straight up to them and telling them why I was there and what I was doing.
All but two of the ten groups are continuing. Charts showing the weekly attendance and offerings have been kept up-to-date. All but one mission show steady growth and development. A very promising group folded up when the family in whose home the services were being held unexpectedly moved away; and none of the other people were in a position to invite us to their homes. A similar situation forced the closing of the mission in the one apartment building where we were able to establish weekly services.
Three hundred families live in the Colonia Transito, an ancient building designed for only one hundred. The conditions are terrible, and the stench in the corridors almost unbearable, but the initial reception so exceeded all our expectations that we thought we had discovered the best location so far. An empty apartment on the top floor was loaned to us for meetings, and the place was packed every Sunday night. But suddenly the apartment was occupied, the door was closed to our services, and no other apartment could be found in the building that would serve as a place of meeting.
The two missions that failed have since been replaced by four others which continue, so that altogether we now have a dozen young, growing congregations in Mexico City. All of them were planted in the last two years.
The idea behind the program of our new Mexican Christian Institute (opened September, 1969) is that theological education should result in urban church growth. The school itself is an evangelizing institution. The school neither can nor should usurp the central place of the church in evangelism. On the contrary, it is because we feel so strongly that the local church should be God’s instrument in evangelism that we are concerned that the future leaders of the church be trained to evangelize effectively.
Evangelism requires that we establish churches and teach these churches low to influence the community around them in the name of Christ. In order to inculcate this philosophy of missions into our students and train them to put it into practice, students and faculty together are engaged every weekend in the planting and cultivating of urban congregations.
Take the case of the Colonia Parque San Juan in Mexico City, for example. The visitation program began in this area on a Sunday afternoon in the latter part of September, 1969. The school year had just begun. Most of the new students had never done anything like this before. First they attended a series of classes in basic evangelism and personal work. It was explained to them that our intention was to plant a church in the area. Then we launched out into the colonia itself.
None of us were familiar with the vicinity, except that the mother and brother of one of our students lived there and had invited us to hold services in their home so a mission could be started. We began a careful house-to-house visitation, selling Bibles, answering questions about the evangelical faith, and testifying to all who would listen. We never avoided identifying ourselves as Protestants. The first afternoon’s visitation was cut short by a heavy downpour, which forced some of us to seek shelter in a saloon. There we sold four Bibles and two New Testaments to the customers, and we made at least one contact that proved fruitful later on.
By the second Sunday we were able to hold a Bible class. We generally call our first meetings Bible study classes, reserving the terra worship service until a nucleus of converts is formed. One month after the initial contacts in the area, the attendance at the Sunday night meeting was twenty-five, including two complete families. Most of these people had heard the gospel somewhere before, but they had never been personally invited to join a local fellowship of Christians and hear the Word taught systematically. This group is now talking about their need for a larger meeting place, and one man has offered a piece of land for a church building.
What an impact such a program has on the Bible institute students! Those who were among the first to make visits in the colonia point with pride to "the mission we began." They are confident that the group will stay together and someday be a well-established church. An advanced student has been put in charge of the congregation, and he watches over its development with fatherly concern. He turns in weekly reports at the school office. The problems and the progress of the mission are discussed regularly with the director and with other student leaders in charge of similar missions. The less advanced students who are his assistants are eager to do a good job in this assignment, in the hope that someday they too will be made leaders. All the students together see their academic studies in direct relation to the evangelistic work on weekends, and church planting is the theme of countless discussions both in and outside of class.
Except when a faculty member visits the mission, which is about once every few weeks, a second or third year student does the preaching. To prepare for this, the chapel service at the institute each Thursday is dedicated to the study of a selected passage that forms the basis of the message to be preached in all the missions the following Sunday. The students are free to convey the message in their own way, making use of their own personal experiences and insights, but the basic outline of the message must be followed. Students in charge of missions where there are two Sunday services must prepare the second message on their own.
Only as students are kept in what Dr. A. Clark Scanlon calls "an atmosphere of perennial evangelism" can they be trained to do the job that is their life’s calling. Under the supervision of the director and the faculty, the students develop the basic skills required for effective evangelism. Their problems, frustrations and successes are discussed in class and in private consultations. Through the training of church leaders and evangelists, urban churches are being planted and developed. Two convictions underlie this urban evangelistic strategy: (1) Conversion to the Christian faith requires direct contact with the Word of God; (2) This is most likely to take place in the context of a local Bible study class or preaching service.
At first glance it would seem that due to their youth, inexperience, and the rural background that many of them have, Bible institute students could not accomplish a great deal in the urban setting. However, experience has shown that a goad percentage of them can be trained to do very effective work in the city. More often than not, the most effective church plasters have been young men from the rural villages, some of them of pure Indian background.
We should not minimize the ability of dedicated laymen, even quite young ones, to preach the gospel and raise up churches, even though such people generally require some assistance in the preparation of their messages and direction in carrying out their work. This is true in the case of nearly all my students. At first they are staggered by the weighty responsibilities set before them, until they realize that they are not alone and that experienced colleagues are there to help them.
We make sure that the students are reasonably well-prepared every Sunday to teach the Bible simply and clearly. Classes in evangelism emphasize the ability to use the Scriptures in both personal work and in the group situation. In the Thursday chapel program the students are guided in their preparation. This counteracts the great weakness of so many churches and missions, where relatively untrained preachers are -in charge the same themes are heard Sunday after Sunday, and large sections of biblical teaching are never touched upon.
The neighborhood fellowship of believers plays a key role in church growth. It is a mistake to concentrate on a few large, centrally located churches. Very new converts, and those who are still only sympathizers, are not likely to attend with consistent regularity, if they must travel a considerable distance. The assembly of believers on their own block can best attract them; there in the local gathering the faith of these newcomers to the gospel will grow and develop. Given the density of population in many urban areas, there ought to be preaching points and chapels every few blocks.
In his essay, "The City as an Integrating Mechanism," Gino Germani observes that migrants to the city often remain unassimilated in the urban society for a considerable length of time.1 This sense of estrangement, of not belonging, is a daily reality in the lives of millions of people who live and work in the great urban centers. The migrant’s background excludes him from most of the associations and established lines of fellowship in the city; he has no one to assist him in integrating into the life of the community. Germani puts it this way:
The city itself . . . is too large to help the individual effectively. The government might fortify or create agencies in the city that will help to take migrants into city life. One way is to help them organize by themselves: slum dwellers’ organizations, meeting centers, or other agencies formed for community development. A study of other agencies probably would reveal that they, too, had tremendous potential for integration. Sometimes schools would be important vehicles; sometimes churches, especially neighborhood churches. Experience with Puerto Rican groups in New York City has shown that small units, such as neighborhood churches, can be effective in integrating people into city life and preventing anomie. Very little attention has so far been given to agencies of this type in Latin America.2
Our experience in Mexico City has borne out what Germani has said from the viewpoint of the sociologist. It is up to Christians, both foreign and national, to seize the opportunity and plant thousands of neighborhood churches in the sprawling urban areas of Latin America.
1. The Urban Explosion in Latin America, Glenn H. Beyer ed., p. 205.
2. Ibid., p. 206 (italics mine).
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