by Sharon E, Mumper
Reports from around the world.
Latin America: Called to missions
Gentle snores wafted from the back of the auditorium where exhausted delegates crumpled on the carpeted floor tried to snatch a few moments of rest before the next meeting began. Most of the 3,100 delegates to the first Iberoamerican Missions Congress (COMIBAM ’87) last November arrived at the conference center each day by 8 a.m. Some 14 hours of nearly nonstop meetings later, weary conferees climbed aboard buses for the return trip to accommodations in and around Sao Paulo. Some commuted each day from as far away as two hours’ drive. But why worry about a little inconvenience? One group of delegates traveled eight days by bus just to get to the conference.
From the beginning, a nearly tangible sense of joyful expectation clothed the assembly. This was an historic conference, delegates and observers told one another. For the first time, pastors, missions leaders, and young people from all of Latin America and from the "motherlands" of Spain and Portugal had gathered to discuss the missions responsibility of Iberoamerica and to accept the challenge of world evangelization.
The announcement came early. "In 1918, Latin America was declared a mission field," COMIBAM General Coordinator Luis Bush stated in the keynote address. "In 1987, Latin America declares itself a missions force!"
How does a mission field become a missions force? Through plenary speeches, scores of seminars, special interest meetings, and discussion with some 55 missions-related exhibitors, delegates explored the problems, challenges, and opportunities before them.
It seemed the conference could not have come at a better time. Although thousands of Latin Americans have responded to the call to cross-cultural missions, mostly within the continent, the potential of Latin America’s rapidly-growing Christian community far outweighs its present commitment. In 1985, the continent boasted some 34.3 million evangelical Christians. If the present rate of growth continues, by the year 2000, Latin America will have 80 million evangelicals, according to church statistician Patrick Johnstone.
At COMIBAM ’87, Latin American Christians served notice they were ready to make the necessary commitment. "We of Honduras dedicate ourselves to the unreached peoples of the world," declared the Honduran delegation.
"There is nothing sadder than a people who do not know Jesus," two Brazilian young women told the assembly. As missionaries to Angola, they had been captured by guerrillas in a bloody battle in which they were both wounded. Nevertheless, they told delegates, "There is not a better life than to be a missionary and work for the Lord Jesus."
Latin Americans would not have all the material resources of the Western world, delegates were warned. "Missions from Latin America will be sacrificial," Guatemalan pastor Rudy Giron said. "We don’t have computers; we don’t have dollars; but ‘By my Spirit, says the Lord.’"
"The availability or nonavailability of funds does not determine our obedience to the missionary mandate," Indian missionary statesman Theodore Williams told delegates. "Don’t say you have no money or education. When the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, there will be a harvest."
The overwhelming response to the missionary challenge gratified organizers. "There was little visible enthusiasm for missions in Brazil when we began work in 1985," said Alex Araujo, executive secretary, COMIBAM Brazil. "Missions never moved the church in Latin America before. Some asked if it were realistic to aim for 3,000 participants. We had to proceed on faith."
Nevertheless, he wondered whether delegates would translate enthusiasm into concrete action. "Missions is sacrifice; it is costly," he said. "We are concerned whether all those who are opening their mouths on behalf of missions will pay the price. We need to be careful we don’t do the war dance and then go home."
A Brazilian mission executive echoed that fear. What if an enthusiastic, but inexperienced Latin church hastily recruits and sends ill-prepared missionaries? he asked. If those missionaries do not succeed, or if the church’s expectations are found to be unrealistic, is the Latin church sufficiently committed to the cause of missions to carry on when the gloss wears off? Or, he asked, will the Latin American missions movement die in childbirth?
The concerns are valid. A slumbering giant is wakening to its missions responsibility. COMIBAM ’87 was like an enthusiastic cheerleading squad assembled to shout the church into consciousness. How the Latin American church will respond remains to be seen.
Italy: "Send us missionaries"
As an evangelist to Italy’s 57.4 million people, young, energetic Gaetano Sottile has his hands full. He figures he could use some help. Italy needs you, he told Latin American delegates to COMIBAM. Only .6 percent of Italians are evangelicals. Ten percent of Latin America’s massive population are evangelical Christians. Shouldn’t some be helping the church in Italy?
In Roman Catholic Italy, Protestant church growth has been slow and painful. In the last decade, however, some have noted fresh stirrings in the evangelical church.
"In my opinion, God is starting something new in Italy," asserts Giovanni Traettino, pastor of Christian Fellowship, Caserta, Italy. "For the first time, we are seeing churches of 1,000 people, especially in the south of Italy." The average Italian Protestant church boasts only 30 to 50 members. "But, in Palermo, there are three or four churches of about 1,000 people," says Traettino. "In fact, Sicily is full of growing churches. Young pastors with vision and commitment are leading thriving churches throughout southern Italy."
Industrialized northern and central Italy largely remains mired in secularism, Traettino says. "The new churches in the north are mainly being formed by people from the south."
Some 80 percent of evangelicals are Pentecostals, Traettino believes. Nearly half of all Protestants are members of the Assemblies of God. Although the denomination is growing, much of the vital new growth is occurring among independent groups, especially independent Pentecostal and charismatic churches, Traettino says.
In the face of new growth, trained leaders are in short supply. Most Italian pastors have not attended Bible school or seminary, says evangelist Gaetano Sottile, founder and president of Italy for Christ. Italy’s few Bible colleges graduate far fewer pastors than are needed.
This is one reason trained missionaries from Latin America would be welcome. "But, they should be spiritually qualified as elders and should have proven themselves in their own country," Traettino says.
Missionaries should come with an attitude of servanthood, prepared to move with the Italian church. "There should be a bridge between Latin America and Italy," Traettino asserts, "with churches on both continents working together. And, we in Italy need to pioneer taking responsibility for financial assistance, especially if a missionary is coming from the Third World."
Latin America boasts a substantial Italian population. In Argentina, where the church is growing rapidly, the single largest ethnic group is Italian. Some Italian church leaders believe such missionaries would be well-accepted. "They already know the language and they share much the same culture," Sottile says. "They even look like Italians."
Is it time for some Latin Americans to come "home" to Italy and other European countries from which many of their ancestors came? "In Italy, we have 57 million people who are not evangelical Christians," says Sottile. "We need missionaries."
India: Militant Hinduism on the march
"Be a Hindu, or get out of India!" Hindu fundamentalists intent on ridding the country of all "foreign" religions have issued a warning. Non-Hindus are less than Indian, and will not be tolerated.
In the last year, the "evangelistic" efforts of some militant groups has taken a nasty turn as mobs in eastern and southern regions burned churches and attacked Christians. In the eastern state of Orissa, where some 95 percent are Hindus, a law penalizes anyone convicted of inducing another to convert from Hinduism.
The law does not work both ways. Hindus in Orissa claim 8,000 Christians reconverted to Hinduism last year. The Indian Express newspaper reports reconversion is "more often by arm twisting than by sweet preachings."
Despite the violence directed against Christians, Protestant Christians are not being reconverted in large numbers, says Francis Sunderaraj, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship of India. "People are remaining faithful," he said, "even when their churches are burned and psychological pressure is applied."
Although Every Home for Christ evangelists have been beaten, the organization reports three or four new Bible study groups are formed in Orissa each month.
Even in places where persecution is not violent, more subtle forms are on the increase, says John DeVries, president of Bibles for India. "If you are a Christian, you no longer can get positions in the schools and you have difficulty getting any kind of government position," he said.
"Our church planters in North India report many new converts are not being baptized simply because they would automatically lose their jobs," he said. "That’s been an historic condition, but it’s getting worse." Nevertheless, DeVries believes the "secret Christian" population has grown dramatically in recent years. "If somehow persecution were removed, Indians would flood into the church. India would become basically a Christian nation in a very short time," he said.
The official government census puts Christians at 2.6 percent of the population. DeVries believes the figure is closer to 10 percent. Others list the unofficial count at 4 percent, with ranks evenly divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Two-thirds of all Christians live in South India. About 11 percent live in Northeast India, and the remainder are thinly scattered throughout the nation.
The country’s explosive population growth is a major challenge to Christianity, says Sunderaraj. The present population is some 800 million, and is expected to reach 1 billion by the end of the century. "By 2000 A.D., 20 Indian cities will have more than 10 million people," he said. "Today, 80 percent of people live in the villages, but by 2000 A.D., only 60 percent will live in rural areas."
Unreached people groups are another challenge. "You find them everywhere," said Sunderaraj. "In Hyderabad, for example, there are 5,000 rickshaw pullers, most of whom live together. So, they are a distinct group. According to one report, there are 3,000 socio-economic and ethno-linguistic groups in India. Christians are drawn from only 250."
Indian Christians will meet this challenge largely without the help of foreign missionaries, who have found it nearly impossible to obtain new visas and difficult even to renew old ones.
Increasingly, the church is becoming aware of its responsibility to reach beyond its ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Today, some 3,000 Indians serve in cross-cultural ministries. About 100 indigenous Christian service agencies have joined several hundreds founded by missionaries and now staffed predominantly by Indians.
When outsiders think of India, they often think of poverty. "India has poor people, but India is not a poor country," said Sunderaraj. "We have a lot of resources. In technical know-how, India stands sixth in the world. Our food production is sufficient, but buying capacity is not there."
Poverty in India is due to injustice, Sunderaraj says. "The ‘haves’ exploit the ‘have-nots’." Sunderaraj says many churches are involved in social action, and parachurch organizations provide rehabilitation and training programs. But if poverty is to be eradicated, attitudes must change.
"We must communicate Christian values to people in India," said Sundereraj. "We must teach the family and the church, and through the church those outside the Christian faith. Selfish attitudes must change. People must see the dignity of labor and be willing to help one another. If these attitudes change, India will be a different country."
Zambia: The faces of hunger
Hunger in Zambia has two faces. "The hunger for God is great in Zambia; the harvest is ready." Joseph Imakando, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, is encouraged by reports of hundreds turning to the Lord.
But another, perhaps more insistent, hunger gnaws at the edge of spiritual appetite. Drought has struck Zambia with devastating impact. "Today, the primary concern of the average man is his physical needs, which if they are not met will overshadow awareness of his spiritual needs," Imakando said.
Although Zambia has not experienced the internal warfare that has plagued neighboring nations, their conflict occasionally spills across its borders. Moreover, warfare makes it difficultâ€”and frequently impossibleâ€”to move the metals it mines for export through neighboring countries to ports. Heavy foreign debt and poor management of the economy have exacerbated the impact of the drought that now afflicts much of the region.
Because of the great physical needs of the country, President Kenneth Kaunda has appealed to the churches to help. The Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) responded by establishing an Ethics, Society, and Development division to serve as a think tank on social and ethical matters. The group has met with churches and donor agencies and now plans to develop a training center to conduct research, identify projects, and teach those who will serve as trainers. "Our aim is to minister to the total person," said Imakando.
Nevertheless, spiritual concerns dominate EFZ’s agenda. Although some 77 percent of Zambians consider themselves Christian, only 7.3 percent are evangelical Christians, according to Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World. Twice as many Zambians are members of aberrant groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which claims 5.8 percent of the population.
Zambians have complete freedom of religion, and churches are permitted to provide religious education in the schools and Christian programming for radio and television. Missionaries are free to enter and work in the country.
Muslims are also free to operate in Zambia. Although Muslims comprise less than 1 percent of the population, they are evangelizing vigorously. "Muslims offer free education, including uniforms and food," said Imakando. "In return, children are expected to bring parents to the mosque and to be actively involved in Muslim activities."
EFZ churches are growing, despite competition from cults, other religions, and the turmoil of economic chaos. In the last three years, member groups have planted more than 50 churches. Increased growth, however, has aggravated an existing need for new trained leadership. Bible schools and colleges need more qualified teachers. "My greatest concern now is training disciples so that we can establish strong churches with proper teaching," said Imakando.
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