by Eduardo M. Ramirez
As a third year student at the Instituto Biblico Buenos Aires I had had the rare opportunity to investigate evangelical youth work at its source. But, somehow, those principles so rigidly adhered to in the United States and Canada seemed both foreign and awkward in my own situation upon my return to Argentina.
As a third year student at the Instituto Biblico Buenos Aires I had had the rare opportunity to investigate evangelical youth work at its source. But, somehow, those principles so rigidly adhered to in the United States and Canada seemed both foreign and awkward in my own situation upon my return to Argentina. Realizing the non-applicability of these principles for my particular context in Buenos Aires, I determined to develop principles relevant to my own.
During our years of study at the University of Moron, my wife and I were co-pastors of a small church in Guernica, a very poor suburb of Buenos Aires. Half of the adult members of our congregation were illiterate; few, if any, had an adequate working knowledge of the Scriptures.
We approached our assignment to Guernica with high expectations, following the principles laid down for us in our seminary training. Concurrently, our studies at the university introduced us to yet another world—a world of people and ideas quite foreign to our limited perspective.
Perhaps the most stimulating single experience during our university days was a dual segmented course in child psychology—a formal lecture series given by an assistant to the professor constituted the first segment, while, in the second we were assigned to a discussion group in which the professor herself participated, but only as a listener. In this way we, as a group, were forced to assimulate our own discussion and to arrive at our own conclusions concerning the data presented to us in the lecture series. This experience proved to be one of our main stimuli as we later approached the contextualization of our theology.
Our work with the church at Guernica was not, at first, the grand success we had anticipated. One Sunday afternoon, as I greeted my congregation at the church door, I spoke to 55-year old, unsophisticated Aureliana:
"And how are you today, Aureliana? " I asked.
" Sad, " was her reply.
"And why, may I ask, are you sad?"
"I didn’t understand what you said today."
"And why didn’t you understand?"
"Because you speak, such complicated things!"
Then and there I determined that the sermon form learned in seminary was not relevant to Guernica. Without realizing it, I had begun to contextualize my theology, although it was not until the month that we were required to leave the church at Guernica in anticipation of our studies in the United States that, for the first time, I learned the real meaning of the word, seeing it used in a manuscript. Nevertheless, in Guernica my wife and I contextualized our theology and in Guernica our theology became praxis (reflection plus action).
We developed seven basic principles from which our theology was to develop (principles which at present we consider to be neither exclusive nor fully developed). I will outline these principles, illustrating each one from personal experience.
1. God gave man a brain, he made man a thinking being, free to use his own rationality.
A. I must have a constructively critical attitude toward ideas and experiences that are new to me, as well as ideas that are well established in my mind. I must encourage others to approach life with similar critical-mindedness.
Example: The former pastor of the church at Guernica had warned us that the church people had taken so much freedom to come and go to his home that his family, as a result, had too little privacy. My wife and I were newly-weds when we first came to Guernica. Perhaps we were overly conscious of our need for privacy for this reason alone, but the former pastor’s warning had caused us to be even more sensitive.
We had been a part of our church less than a year when we were confronted with criticism concerning this matter. We decided to invite one or two of the families in our church community for dinner, or for an evening visit, each week, and during that time we did our best to entertain them.
We found that the whole church community was very happy with this arrangement, which was a novel experience for them. We learned a very good lesson in constructive criticism from this experience, as did our whole church.
B. I must approach that which is either new or unknown to me with open-mindedness, and I must encourage others to do the same.
Example: We found that, at Guernica, at least half of our congregation was deeply influenced by the charismatic movement.
Here was a phenomenon that was somewhat unknown to me and which gave me a feeling of uneasiness. But we were required to coexist with these people in that environment, and we, as they, learned from our coexistence.
C. I must accept criticism of any part of my existing program and I must be willing to radically change any part of that program which criticism renders ineffective. I must never be chained by self-defense.
Example: The encounter with Aureliana at our church door at Guernica determined that I should never again preach a homiletically structured sermon in that culture.
2. The Bible is the Word of God for now and for here.
If the Bible is to be relevant to the church community, it must be interpreted by God’s people themselves as they participate in a given situation.
Example: When I was challenged by the incoherence of my sermons, I was forced to reassess the whole structure of liturgy and to practice a free-flowing innovation in which every member of the congregation would be encouraged to participate equally. I developed a pattern of presenting ideas to my congregation at the outset of our discussion period, which was to replace my sermons. One day, after introducing several verses used repeatedly by Jehovah’s Witnesses (who are prominent in Argentina), I suggested that (as far as it was evident from what I had read) we were left with the shattering assumption that Christ is not God.
Four or five members of the congregation readily agreed that, in truth, the Bible had proven itself infallible in my recitation of these several verses— and that Christ, in fact, is not God . But other more perceptive members were quick to prove the assumption false and, together, my church family had met the challenge of finding ultimate truth through their own total participation. They were prepared to meet the challenges of a false sect with a clear understanding of that sect’s deception because, rather than attempt to be attentive to a lecture (no matter how ordained by the Holy Spirit that lecture was considered to be), they had dug out the very truth through their own struggle., a struggle truly guided by the Holy Spirit.
B. The role of the pastor is that of a resource person, one who assimilates knowledge from the world of thought and presents that knowledge to the members of his church community for mutual consideration, rather than as a predigested statement that might easily become an incoherent message. The pastor acts as guidance director as the church community considers the ideas he presents. As a member equal in authority to all other members, he allows his fellow members to seek out for themselves truths that are relevant to them in their own situation, rather than lead them into his own interpretation of, these truths. Thus the Holy Spirit is allowed to minister in fact.
The truths are identified intimately with each individual. Such guidance, which allows freedom for the Holy Spirit to minister to each person in the church-family— as an individual— leads the whole church family into a deep dimension of truth. Each participating member is led from understanding of a given situation into his own personal application. Thus, he is encouraged not only to know about the situation but, as well, to act upon it.
Example: During a time of great dissension among the members of the church at Guernica, I chose to present that issue as a prelude to the Lord’s Supper (which was, in fact, very often presented to the church family). I offered the malignant affair up to God and I suggested that each person who in thought, word, or deed had trespassed against his brother should confess his sin to that brother before participating in the Lord’s Supper. This was not an easy road, either for the pastor whose duty it is to introduce such an idea and to be the first to confess his own sin, or for his people, who must act upon that idea themselves. But that day in Guernica the Lord showed his family the healing power available to them through his body and his blood.
C. Ideas and materials that might challenge a given area (as do many of the concepts transported into Latin America from the United States) are not necessarily effective in a particular church community environment.
Example: Our Christian education program in Guernica ministered to ten children from three families. Our attempt to build Sunday school through conventional ways proved futile in the Guernica environment. Thus we took a more favorable course of action. Because our families were widespread, and many of our people and their neighbors were so poor that they had neither decent clothes nor shoes, and because most of our locality includes superstitious (though nominal) involvement with the Roman Catholic Church, we chose to abandon the church building as our Christian education center and to allow the homes of our church family to become extensions of the church.
Members from each of four families who lived in widespread areas of our locality met with my wife and me once each week, and together we planned our coming Christian education meetings that would take place concurrently in each of their homes. A unified program involving 60 to 70 children was developed— one that met the needs of each area and of the individuals within it.
3. Everybody is capable of apprehen ding any biblical concept.
A. The apprehension of a concept, according to psychologist jean Piaget, does not depend upon the formal education of a person, but rather upon his process of thought and upon the evolution which this thought process allows within that person. Thus, if we respect processes of thought, every person can understand given concepts – in his own way and in his own time.
Example: Rosa was a 60-year-old illiterate. As we introduced our discussion periods which were to replace my sermons, Rosa was always the first volunteer to make a statement concerning the particular idea introduced. Her statement usually proved what she seemed to be subconsciously saying, "I have no idea what you are talking about." But she was involved and she caused those who were better equipped mentally to challenge her statement, leading our church family closer and closer to truth— a well developed individualized solution. And before we left Guernica even dear old Rosa was beginning to make rational statements, as she continued to be our first volunteer.
B. The larger the group, the more difficult it becomes for the whole church community to comprehend a given message when that message is interpreted by group Participation. Inasmuch as each member of the group is endowed with his own individual thinking process, ideas are necessarily presented from many and varied dimensions if the group is large in number.
Example: As Our Program evolved in the church at Guernica we met as a total church family only once a week in our sanctuary.
However, every day, my wife and I met with small groups at a predetermined time in one of the homes of our church community. In these small worship services the truth was more readily revealed to the individual.
On Saturdays our older young people met together with us as a group and our younger children continued to meet together in homes in various areas of the locality. Even our weekly Sunday meetings of the whole church family were sometimes divided into smaller groups.
C. The pastor must condition himself not to become paternalistic, and both his input and his guidance must be governed by the Holy Spirit.
Example: Inasmuch as half of our Guernica church family was illiterate, it was necessary for the church community to spend considerable time in the development of an idea. I found that ten percent of our total discussion time was adequate for me to introduce an idea for our consideration. Perhaps forty percent of the remaining time was spent in allowing the whole church family to understand the concept, while the other fifty percent was spent in considering its application.
4. Every educational situation leads to personal liberation.
A. It is not our desire to create a church community full of uniform persons, veritable "marching robots." Rather, it is our desire to allow the richness and variety found in all mankind to be united into the perfect body of Christ and there to be developed by the Holy Spirit to its highest potential. it is our desire to become part of a church family of brothers and sisters who may express their individual freedom through their own particular God-given characteristics.
Example: Anselmo, a quiet, soft-spoken man of 65 years, with perhaps, a high school education, was one of the leaders of the church community at Guernica. He was one with whom I shared great mutual respect. His deep perception allowed lengthy and -rewarding dialogue. When we first were in the pastorate the thing that, frustrated our ministry the most, from our own point of view, was the active presence of the charismatic movement in the church community. Because we didn’t know how to deal adequately with the situation, we had placed restrictions upon our fellow members which now we would not allow ourselves to do.
Out of respect, perhaps, those of the charismatic persuasion accepted our restrictions. Anselmo was the leader of this charismatic movement. Throughout our relationship with the church community at Guernica Anselmo held meetings outside the church for those favorable to his total persuasion and that of the other charismatic members, though not without, my knowledge and blessing. This unusual, paradoxical relationship allowed a broader development both in Anselmo’s life and mine.
B. In each meeting everyone must have an equal opportunity to express himself; thus the pastor must continually restrain himself in his inherent desire to "lead."
Example: Erna, a rather refined German lady, was continually an encouragement to me in my work at Guernica. Erna, like Anselmo, was of the charismatic persuasion. It was her fervent desire to convert me into her conception of "the deeper life." In every way she knew how, she attempted to persuade me. Never did I loose awareness of her Christian love for me, yet many times I was very reluctant to continue to restrain myself from assuming my role as spiritual "leader. " However, as now I reflect on our relationship, I know I was able to show Erna much more of what I consider to be God’s true plan by remaining silent than I would have shown by assuming the role of "leader."
C. The role given to the pastor by an established church community is, in itself, detrimental to the personal liberation of that community.
Example: The very address "reverend" places the pastor in an unreachable position to many of his parishioners. In Argentina the pastor always lives in "God’s house." The established Protestant liturgy gives him the " star " role and allows his " performance " to become the pinnacle of the service. Even the dismissal of the little children to allow ultimate attention to his words causes parishioners subconsciously to detach themselves from him as I I mere mortals. " With all this "glory" at my disposal, I got my ultimate "come down" that day at the church door in Guernica when dear Aureliana told me, "I didn’t understand you; you speak such complicated things!" That day I realized that my availability as an "equal" was far more important in God’s sight than an assumed superiority as God’s chosen one.
D. In each church community everyone must be involved in both the learning and the teaching experience at the same time.
Such involvement insures a liberating situation.
Example: It has always been difficult for me to introduce the gospel message into a conversation with a stranger without a feeling of awkwardness. On the other hand, time after time I have seen dear Aureliana (who did not understand my sermon because I spoke "such complicated things") approach a perfect stranger and with a joyous outburst of love express God’s love and God’s ultimate message to that person in such a way that surely even the angels smiled . And how much I have learned from my friend Aureliana because she "spoke" such uncomplicated things.
E. Any experience that leads the members of a church community to a better performance in personal skills, Or to the development of their minds is, in fact, a liberating Situation.
Example: My wife, as a better than average seamstress, spent much time with the ladies in the Guernica church community, encouraging them in sewing projects and subtly influencing them in matters of fashion design and economic practicality.
5. The forms used to communicate a message add to or distract from the relevance of that message to the audience.
A. The sermon as the "highlight" of the liturgical "ceremony" plays up– out of proportion the supposed importance of a single member of the local body of Christ and thus distracts from the total message.
Example: I spent 18 to 25 hours every week preparing a sermon for my church family in my early months at Guernica, but found the total message became far more meaningful when the Holy Spirit was given freedom to speak through the whole church community rather than only one member (me).
B. The total architectural design of the conventional church serves to enhance the image of one person, the pastor, thus setting him apart in a distracting fashion.
Example: Again, throughout my early months at Guernica I subconsciously bowed down to the status quo of conventional church architecture, only to find later that when I ignored the platform and arranged the benches in a somewhat haphazard fashion with variations from week to week, and when I chose to come down "and sit among my people and to talk with them on the same level," immediately I had their attention, as I never could have through the designs of an architect.
C. The informality of children’s Participation enhances the relevance of the message.
Example: At one time in my more successful years at Guernica, we as a congregation spent five Sundays studying the book of Acts. On the five preceeding Sundays I gave simple outlines to the whole congregation, children and adults alike, concerning the chapters to be studied the following Sunday, and asked the congregation to study those chapters in advance. When questions were asked on a given Sunday, the children, ages 8 to 12, were the only real participants. They who were accustomed to such assignments in school easily and naturally took the lead from their adult fellow members (90 percent of whom, in fact, had only primary school, education themselves). Yet the children were the ones who, months before, had been dismissed from the sermon segment of the liturgy as inattentive distractors.
6. Lack of contact with the non-evangelical world robs the church of a well-rounded understanding of a given culture, and renders contextualization ineffective.
A. The church community should have a relationship with a non-evangelical situation within close proximity.
Example: My standing at the university allowed me to provide free services to the local school system in a Guernica elementary school only five blocks from our church. I was privileged to administer required examinations to entering students, to enter into the social activities of the school, and to teach classes in Hebrew history to the eleven-year-old children.
B. The church community should have a relationship with a politically connected situation within the locality.
Example: Through one of the ladies of our church, who was a county representative, I was introduced into the circle of county politics and was influential in the promotion of a day nursery for children of working mothers in Guernica. (Unfortunately, the instability of our national government carried this project, along with almost all others, to an unfortunate end.)
C. The evangelical church community in Latin America should be in touch with and in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church and her activities.
Example: My wife and I were personally invited to attend a family mass in one of the large Buenos Aires churches, involving creative changes within the highly formal structured liturgy of the Catholic Mass. Upon accepting the invitation, we both found ourselves totally immersed in the most meaningful "praise" service we had ever attended.
7. Reflection is most profitable when it is accomplished within the praxis, rather than before or after a given experience.
A. If reflection is assumed before praxis, an empty theoretical speculation results, inasmuch as the variables are unknown.
Example: Before my wife and I became a part of the church community at Guernica, we spent many, many hours planning every area of our ministry in detail, patterning our plans after what we had learned in seminary. All this we did before we really knew the people at Guernica, their actions, and their reactions to us. Needless to say, our well planned "exercises" did not stand up to the test of experience.
B. If reflection is assumed after praxis, only the known variables enter into consideration, allowing but a partial statement.
Example: This article dealing primarily with the history of our ministry in Guernica, where my wife and I experienced the contextualization of our theology, is ample proof of the limitation of reflection after praxis. I am sure that anyone attending a single service in our simple sanctuary would recognize many limitations exhibited within the confines of this article.
C. Only in praxis can reflection meet its highest aim.
Example: In praxis, our ministry to the church at Guernica will, we believe, prove to be the high point of our theological training, for it was in Guernica that we truly learned of Christ’s great love for his church, and, perhaps even more, for those beautiful, uncomplicated, critical, ever-loving members who truly compose the whole body of Christ.
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