by Laura Eller with Roger Grossmann
Some mission boards and sending agencies have questioned the need to continue sending missionaries and/or finances to Guatemala.
Some mission boards and sending agencies have questioned the need to continue sending missionaries and/or finances to Guatemala. With such a high percentage of evangelicals, certainly there is little need for continued foreign work. If in reality it is a “reached country,” why not send people and resources to other countries that have little or no Christian influence?
International Mission Board missionary Roger Grossmann was faced with financial cuts for his own ministry because of this stigma. Working out in the northwestern mountainous region of Guatemala, what he experienced and what numbers were saying did not mesh. He knew that it was impossible that forty percent of the people with whom he was working were evangelical Christians. So as his doctoral thesis, he embarked on a study to find out how many Guatemalans really are evangelical believers, and if they say they are, what they actually believe. In cooperation with Equipo SEPAL (OC International in Latin America), Grossmann has invested more than two years in the study of the evangelical church in Guatemala.
Called the “Joshua Project,” the in-depth research study was initiated to spy out the land, like Joshua did, to better prepare the army for battle. While evangelical missionaries have been in Guatemala for more than one hundred years, it was time once again to survey the land, to discover what new tactics were needed to effectively reach and disciple Guatemala.
The survey was conducted door-to-door, with one representative between the ages of twenty and fifty-five in each household. The surveyed areas were chosen from a random sampling of villages and cities throughout the country, representing eight different regions. Surveyors were sent out in the fall of 2000, and by April of 2001 a total of more than nineteen thousand surveys had been completed across the country. The survey contained basic demographic questions as well as forty-nine other questions related to doctrines, beliefs and Christian living.
With so many numbers floating around about the possible number of evangelicals, those present at a June 2001 meeting of Guatemalan evangelical leaders were surprised to hear that only 25.4 percent of the population claimed to be evangelical.
Merely looking at the numbers of evangelicals in Guatemala might lead one to conclude that there is no further need for missionary activity in Guatemala. True, the percentage of evangelicals is high—the highest in Latin America. But the level of understanding and depth of the church, as well as its ability to multiply, must seriously be studied by mission groups and evangelical leaders within Guatemala.
The gospel arrived in Guatemala in the 1800s, and saw slow, but continual growth through the first half of the twentieth century. During the civil war that plagued the country for thirty-six years, there was a marked increase in the percentage of evan-gelicals, with the total evangelical population nearly tripling in size. Many believe that this may have been partially due to the high profile evangelical leaders in the government, as well as the safety some found in the evangelical church during these turbulent times.
A SEPAL study in 1991, confirmed by Gallup, indicated that nineteen percent of the total population of Guatemala was evangelical. These numbers continued to grow: twenty-two percent in 1995 and twenty-five percent in 1996. Many denominational leaders were projecting that by the year 2000 fifty percent of the population would be evangelical.
In reality, according to Gallup, the church had begun to level off in its growth. Many factors may contribute to the lack of continued growth in the evangelical church, among them rising secularism, globalization, new efforts by the Catholic church to regain ground and the new promotion of the traditional Mayan religion.
The news shouldn’t be all that startling. A warning cry was sent out to the church in Guatemala in 1992 by SEPAL missionary Ross Rohde. Research had shown that a number of rural churches were closing their doors and others were losing members. Rohde said that while new people were entering evangelical churches, just as many were leaving out the back door because of lack of discipleship and training. He wrote:
The evangelical church of Guatemala has learned to believe that the answer to their problems is to do more evangelism and church planting. They are so painfully lacking in Bible knowledge and doctrine that they don’t even know what they are missing. Consequently, they have become masters at church planting, but babes in keeping a church together and healthy. (1991)
Roger Grossmann, writing ten years later, agrees. When the gospel first arrived in Guatemala, it found a rich religious history, from centuries-old Mayan religious rites to Catholic practices brought during the Conquest. In some areas, evangelicalism has been combined with both those Mayan practices and Catholic beliefs leading to a watered-down Christianity that sometimes hardly even looks like the Christian faith as we know it. Studying the levels of syncretism was a major part of the study done by Grossmann and SEPAL.
The city of Almolonga has become famous in the past decade, as reports of evangelicals were as high as ninety percent. A city that was known for problems with alcohol, poor family relationships and other societal issues, suddenly became a “Christian” city, with many of those societal ills disappearing. In addition, an amazing “blessing” upon the city was witnessed by photos and television reports of the extraordinary produce coming out of that region as a result of their conversion.
Too good to be true? The Joshua survey revealed that 59.5 percent of Almolongans say that they are evangelicals. But their answers to the survey in relationship to understanding about basic Christian beliefs reveal that their faith may not be quite so deep. In fact, one of the surveyors for the Joshua Project was quoted as saying, ”Of all of the places we went to, the people of Almolonga were the most superstitious and hostile. We have surveyed many primitive Indian villages, but this one has the most syncretism.”
Studying these syncretistic practices, one wonders how many have had a true conversion to Christ and have a real understanding of evangelical doctrine.
The cultural richness of Guatemala is evident. The indigenous Mayan people are still considered “people of the corn” because of the importance of corn in their society—their food, traditions, means of earning a living. In addition, centuries old Mayan traditions continue as part of some experiences. Witch doctors are still found in the country, and superstitions related to luck are common practice in certain areas.
More than one in ten Guatemalan evangelicals still believe it is bad luck to uproot a corn plant. While this may or may not have a direct influence on the growth of the evangelical church, it does indicate that tradition and superstition have infiltrated the church. It is not surprising that the vast majority of Guatemalans believe in superstitions like “the evil eye.”
While there has been infiltration of Mayan beliefs into the evangelical church, the study found it to have a fairly minimal influence, whereas the Catholic church has made a much deeper impact.
In responses to Catholic doctrinal questions, the study showed that many evangelicals still assimilate Catholic beliefs into their own evangelical faith. For example, seventy-five percent of the evangelical population answered affirmatively to the question, “If a person treats his neighbor well and obeys the Ten Commandments, will he go to heaven?” Another sixty-nine percent agreed that a person must faithfully attend church in order to be saved.
Such answers reveal a shockingly high works mentality. At least twelve percent of Guatemalan evangelicals are solidly Catholic in their doctrine. This has a direct effect on the evangelical church.
Guatemala is a complex country geographically, linguistically and culturally. Within a land mass the size of the state of Ohio are distinct regions from arid deserts to rain forests to mountainous regions not accessible by vehicle. Add to that twenty-one distinct Mayan language groups (according to the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala) and a wide range of cultural practices, and one finds an extremely diverse population. Just less than half of the total population in Guatemala is indigenous—that is of Mayan heritage.
Parts of Guatemala have seen a great deal of change in recent years, as some indigenous groups are seeing a diminishing use of the native language and are seeing many of their young people leaving behind the traditional clothing and customs. In exchange, they are seeing their cultural heritage become a more Ladino (Latin heritage) culture and, with it, changes in their churches and belief systems. Some areas are more bilingual, some of them almost exclusively using Spanish in their churches.
One of the interesting challenges for the evangelical church of today is determining the most effective means of discipling its indigenous population.
Another one of the significant issues affecting the church in Guatemala is literacy. According to the SEPAL study, thirteen percent of pastors do not read their Bible, not because they do not want to, but because they cannot. According to the Pan American Health Organization, thirty-six percent of the adult population in Guatemala is illiterate.
Literacy is an issue on its own, but added to that is the complication of the multiple dialects within the country. For certain indigenous groups who continue to use exclusively their dialect, literacy in their dialect is an issue. At least portions of the Bible have been translated into most of the dialects, but the number of people who are able to read the word of God in their own language is limited. An equal problem is for Spanish-as-a-second-language speakers, in their ability to read in Spanish. The result is pastors who may have low levels of literacy and a great many pastors who have low levels of education.
Surveyors discovered that indigenous groups as a whole are less evangelized than Ladinos, and that the indigenous population is half as literate as their Ladino counterparts.
Missionaries first moved to Tectitán in the 1970s, living with the Tektitekos and learning their language (Tektitek). A young man came to one of their Bible clubs, sent by his mother hoping it would help modify his behavior. There Vidal Perez heard the gospel for the first time and became the first Tektitek believer. After several more years of cultivation of the gospel, several others became believers.
The Bible translators investing their lives in the Tektitekos continued their work, later moving to the capital city to be able to better work with computer technology in their translation. Vidal accompanied them and has worked in translation and checking of the translation for the last twelve years.
Now, more than twenty years after beginning the process, they are finally completing the Tektitek New Testament. With less than ten other believers in his people, Vidal has the vision of living among his people, sharing the word of God with them. Because so few Tektitekos are literate, Vidal has been reading the translation for a radio program. His people are able to hear the message in their own dialect, even if they are unable to read it. It is estimated that between ten and twenty percent of Tektitekos are literate.
Examples like this show the importance of adapting methods to the culture in which one works to missionaries and Guatemalan evangelical leaders alike. In a monolingual, non-literature culture, to reach the people, one must come up with non-written forms of communication in the mother tongue. For the moment, until Tektitekos learn how to read, they are able to listen to the word of God. Illiteracy must be acknowledged and appropriate steps taken in any ministry.
On a leadership level, Baptist missionaries have emphasized a new type of training for leaders using oral traditions of the Bible. This method, known as “Chronological Bible Storying,” allows pastors to go beyond their ability to read and employs a custom used for centuries in the Mayan culture. Bible Storying has been a success in the indigenous groups where it has been presented.
The Joshua Project also studied educational levels of evangelicals and their affect on doctrinal understanding. While it may seem like an obvious conclusion, the study confirms that with higher secular education level, as well as greater literacy, comes a greater understanding of doctrine.
In terms of pastors, educational level differs between indigenous leaders and ladino church leaders. The average level of secular education for Baptist pastors in one Mayan dialect, Kekchí, is fourth grade. Of Spanish-speaking Baptist pastors, the average is eleventh grade.
According to Grossmann, some denominations, like the Assemblies of God, are now considering requiring pastors to have a minimal secular education before they can pastor a church.
Beyond the secular education level, which affects the ability to read and understand the word of God, is also the need for contextualized theological or Bible training. In the Peten, the largest region of the country in the study, one-third of the population claimed to be evangelical—but the survey revealed that the pastors of churches outside of the traditional denominations were largely untrained. Some of the larger Pentecostal denominations have recognized this need and are investing in leadership training in that region. This problem is evident throughout the country. Missionaries and Guatemalan evangelical leaders must face the crisis in terms of both secular and theological education.
In the western highlands of the country, Bible students were stunned to learn that Jesus was the Son of God. They had heard the Bible stories, but never understood the concept of Christ’s deity before this. They were all pastors or elders in their local churches; they were all students in a Bible education program. These leaders had low levels of literacy and low levels of secular education. Guate-mala’s issues with literacy and education, both secular and theological, must be addressed at least at a leadership level, if Guatemalans are to understand evangelical doctrine.
So what does the average evangelical believer in Guatemala believe? More than nine out of ten evan-gelicals believe that Christ is God and man who became flesh and lived on earth, and also believe in the Trinity. Only 82.8 percent believe that if someone dies without receiving Christ that they will go to hell. But nearly one hundred percent of Guatemalan evangelicals said that they agree that Christ died on the cross to give us eternal life.
On the negative side, more than fifteen percent of evangelicals believe that a person who dies without Christ will not go to hell. This is a problem in understanding of basic evangelical doctrine.
Alarmingly, forty-five percent of evangelicals say that salvation can be found in other religions as long as their adherents are sincere. This causes concern because of the inroads being made by Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormon church and other cult groups whose members are seen frequently on the streets of even the smallest, most remote villages of Guatemala.
Grossmann asserts that, “using loose criteria, more than half of the evangelical population is not Christian; with more formal criteria, three-fourths of the evangelicals in Guatemala are not Christian.” While it is impossible to judge a person’s heart in terms of knowing whether or not that person is a believer, Grossmann’s point is that based on the answers to the various questions, it is doubtful that more than half of that twenty-five percent of evangelical believers really understand the basics of the Christian faith. This is cause for concern.
All of the major denominations of evangelical churches in Guatemala scored low in understanding orthodox Christian doctrine, showed a high level of syncretism and a low level of Christian living.
Questions like, “Does your church teach you how to apply the Bible in your life? Do you go to your pastor with personal problems? If your pastor were to give you advice, would you follow it?” evangelicals scored high. This indicated a high level of confidence in local evangelical congregations.
There is a high level of confidence in the church and leadership, but sadly a low level of Christian lifestyle.
It appears that if the confidence in the church and leadership exists, then the preparation and training of those leaders, especially in the area of modeling and teaching Christian living, is critical. Healthy models of discipleship need to be introduced in order to see a maturing, growing church in Guatemala.
A small group of leaders from one of Guatemala’s large denominations met in the summer of 2002 with SEPAL leadership to talk about what could be done with their youth. After seeing the discouraging statistics specifically about the understanding of doctrine and application to Christian life, they clearly stated, “We don’t want this to happen to the next generation.” They were seeking help, admitting that perhaps former methods were not the most effective in discipling the nation.
While the Joshua Project findings indicate some glaring needs in the evangelical church, it must be mentioned that there are some vibrant and growing denominations and churches in the country and a plethora of quality leaders. Guatemala is a mix of big and small, mega- churches and rural churches of less than twenty people. It is a mix of churches that are just beginning to study the word of God and churches who have sent out a number of missionaries into the harvest field. Some of Guatemala’s denominational leaders demonstrate good leadership skills, discipling and multiplying their people. Obviously, to reach twenty-five percent of the population, God has blessed Guatemala as a nation.
As the results continue to be shared with the various denominations in Guatemala, revealing to them the areas of strength and weakness in doctrinal understanding, Christian living and syncretism within their churches, it is SEPAL and Gross-mann’s hope that denominations will be challenged to revise their current strategies to be more effective. A new emphasis in discipleship and leadership training must be made.
As to the future of evangelical missions in Guatemala, it could be good—if mission boards and sending organizations will look at the data and wisely determine what yet needs to be done. There remain “unreached” groups in Guatemala. But beyond that are many more groups that have the gospel and need solid foundations, Bible teaching, discipleship and motivation to reproduce, both in Guatemala and beyond. Some denominational leaders, interviewed as part of the survey, indicated that some Guatemalan leaders prefer foreign missionaries to serve as specialists, assessors and teachers, while leaving the role of evangelism to the Guatemalan church.
Grossmann asserts that we must consider the maturing role of the Guatemalan church; part of their process is in reaching people groups within their own borders. Says Grossmann in an initial report, North American missionaries must realize that to strategize and engage in any area of this country with pioneer tactics apart from existing Guatemalan leadership is inappropriate as it can eclipse the Guatemalan church’s responsibility as well as signal that there is no need for development in internal missions by the national churches as long as the North American experts are here to do that kind of job.
Where the emphases in ministry should be placed is something that missions would do well to consider. Church planting may not be the greatest need of the Guatemalan church; leadership training is a necessity. By analyzing the data and looking at it realistically, not with what we hope to see, missionaries and mission agencies alike may have a better idea of the target they are trying to hit. In that, it is hoped that the supply of funding and/or personnel will not be diminished to Guatemala, but instead redirected to areas of greatest need.
Laura Eller and her husband, Kory Eller have been missionaries with OC International serving in Guatemala since 1996. Laura is the mother of three small children. Kory helped administratively on the Joshua Project research study.
Roger Grossman in addition to directing the Joshua research Project, is a missionary and the strategy coordinator for IMB work among the Quiche’people group in Guatemala. He and his wife, Vicki, have three children, Joshua, Melanie, and Nathanael, and have served in Guatemala for fifteen years.
SOME WORDS FOR EXPATS SERVING IN LATIN AMERICA
aving lived in Latin America for thirty years, seventeen as a cross-cultural servant, and now after eighteen years of reflection post-LA, here are some observations and lessons: They come with respect and love for my expat colleagues-whether from the West, Asia or wherever.
1. Agencies serving in Latin America that have historically emerged in the “West” (Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand) face a huge challenge. They are in transition, seeking their new role. Some are in a profound crisis of identity and task. Some, unfortunately, are adversaries of the national church leadership that emerged from the foreign mission efforts.
For agencies grappling with what their future role might be, why not call a prayer assembly of the major players in their future? Call upon the triune God and cry out for wisdom, humility, boldness. Listen to the voices of the Spirit of God, of the national church, of history of church and missions in Latin America and of the meaning of authentic partnership, understand the broadness of the Body of Christ and the new call of God upon Latin evangelicals. Listen to the cry of the poor and homeless; listen to the grass-roots.
Some agencies might need to merge with another body, or even conclude their institutional history. This requires boldness and the honest transfer of responsibility, authority and total ownership to Latins.
2. It’s critical that these agencies be aware of the danger of a truncated gospel. This historic charge of an incomplete gospel has generally been lobbed at non-Pentecostal bodies. But there is a parallel danger within Pentecostals and Charismatics. Unfortunately, in the Two-third’s world church we must face the crisis of evangelical nominalism, a “cultural evangelicalism,” and consider how to address it.
3. It’s important that we attune ourselves to the heartbeat of the Latin cross cultural mission force that has emerged from Latin America.We must affirm it, support it and serve it. But we must not attempt to control or dominate, whether by northern mission structures, financial categories or English-speaking requirements. Let Latins be Latins in cross cultural mission. They, as well as all people in mission, will make their own mistakes and learn from them. Listen to the voices providing leadership to the COMIBAM mission movements.
4. Listen to the cry of the disenfranchised, the poor, the street children and determine how to partner with Latin ministries to impact this ever-growing sector of pain and hopelessness. The poor are a huge “growth industry” that must be addressed in fresh ways.
5. We must study and enter into two new models of leadership training and of being/doing church. What is our responsibility to the estimated eighty percent of all pastoral leadership in Latin America who are not willing to study in formal institutions? What kinds of new churches need to be planted, under the Spirit of God and Latin leadership?
6. We must seriously think about the next generations of expat cross-cultural workers for Latin America and how they are to be recruited, equipped, sent and supported. Whether Finishers, Xers or Millennials, it’s important to understand their culture, worldview, understanding of teams, priorities, length of term of service, goals and dreams as they consider serving in Latin America.
William D. Taylor is executive director of Missions Commission World Evangelical Alliance.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 300-310. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.