by Ed Sywulke
This remarkable story has many valuable lessons.
Among the rapidly growing churches of Latin America is the National Evangelical Mam Church of Central America, where I worked for 38 years. As an outsider, I could make many observations about the reasons for this remarkable people movement, but I decided to ask the leaders of the Mam church themselves. What they told me has broad applications to mission everywhere. These are the reasons they gave me: (1) prayer; (2) evangelism; (3) the good testimonies of believers; (4) the communication and teaching aids available to them; (5) the New Testament in their language; (6) communion and understanding among the brothers; (7) giving everyone opportunities to serve; (8) maintaining friendships with those who are not yet believers; (9) unity in the work; (10) effective direction of the work; (11) music; (12) patience; (13) persecution; (14) home services. To these I would add (15) the chronological Bible training program, with lessons taught by the Mam in their own language.
1. Prayer. In 1952, as the Central American Mission intensified its focus on Guatemala’s tribal groups, Mrs. William Walker, wife of the then general secretary of the mission, enlisted praying women with the following requests, printed on 3×5 cards: “Pray daily for the Indian tribes of Guatemala.” The focus on the Mam was “for the 260,000 Mam Indians who are still sitting in pagan darkness, and worshiping their pagan stone idols, and sacrificing to demons and evil spirits. Pray that hearts will be prepared by the Holy Spirit, and that there will be searching after the God whom they know not. Pray that they will be moved to accept the gospel when they hear it, and that many may be saved. . . .”
God answered. The Indians who believed immediately understood the part that prayer has had in preparing men and women to receive the gospel. Two towns, Todos Santos Cuchumatan in the department of Huehuetenango, and Tajumulco, in the San Marcos department, were opened to the gospel by the concerted prayer of the Mam churches, and periodic visits to their market places. There are now two organized churches and several congregations in Todos Santos. Tajumulco, also targeted for prayers and visits, has congregations in close to half of its 33 aldeas (outlying villages).
2. Evangelism. This was both caught and taught. It was caught by exposure to the missionaries who pioneered the field, and by their Spanish-speaking counterparts, who shared the gospel with them. It was taught clearly by those pioneers as well. Through the years leaders have continually taught the content of the gospel. They don’t want people to change their religion without first understanding the cross of Christ and its implications. Evangelism was also taught, using True Evangelism: Winning Souls by Prayer, by Lewis Sperry Chafer. This book, with its emphasis on specific prayer for conversion for those who are not yet believers, was translated into Spanish by Evis Carballosa in 1971. Salient features of the book, especially the emphasis on prayer in evangelism, were later translated into Mam, and form a part of the Mam Bible school curriculum. Mam Christians recognize that apart from God’s working in hearts, their witness is in vain.
3. The good testimonies of the believers. They practice “lifestyle evangelism.” The gospel addresses their deepest needs. It frees them from fear of evil spirits. It releases them from the bondage of strong drink. It transforms their family life. It improves their economic situation. Family, and neighbors see the effects of the gospel. And they begin to ask the believers for “the reason for the hope that is in them.’’
Of the many who could be mentioned, one brother stands out. Early in his Christian life he was approached by five political parties to run for mayor. He graciously declined, saying he felt he could do more good for his town and community by dedicating all his time to gospel ministry. He has since led the gospel advance in the whole area, where there are now 10 organized Mam churches, compared to only one before.
4. Thecommunication and teaching aids available to them. First among these was a Sunday school paper, with Bible text and its explanation in their language. These simple lessons, prepared by the translators, gave the believers contact with their language in printed form, even before the New Testament in Northern Mam became available in 1969.
Literacy materials were prepared almost as soon as any texts of Scriptures were available, and reading classes were a part of the short-term institutes from the very beginning.
Teaching was done using cassette players, which were distributed with messages in Mam. More than 175 of them are still in use.
By the summer of 1974, Mam believers had already had one and a half hours of daily radio programming in Mam on a mission-operated station in the province of Huehuetenango. Since 1988 they have owned and operated their own station, which has helped launch more than one new congregation.
Filmstrips and other visual aids were used in brief training institutes. The Jesus film became available in the Mam language in early 1992, and is having an effective outreach.
5. The New Testament in their language. This newer, clear translation became available in August, 1969, and has contributed to the phenomenal growth ever since. It has also strongly encouraged church leaders to minister in their own language. The Bible has been available in Mam since late 1993. Half of the 10,000 copies printed in 1993 have already been sold.
6. Communion and understanding among the brothers. This was stimulated by the short-term Bible program in which national teachers and missionaries moved among the fledgling congregations. As the number of satellite groups and churches grew, the leaders of the central Mam organization periodically visited each church to teach and counsel. They shared ideas during retreats. One leader succinctly put it: “We learn from each other.”
The radio serves all the churches, by providing a place to announce special meetings, and anything else related to the outreach. Overall, there seems to be real endeavor on part of the people to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
7. Giving everyone opportunities to serve. The ministry opportunities are much broader than the platform ministries of preaching and teaching, and special music. Early on, the churches and congregations had their promoters. Some promoted literacy; others became rural health promoters. When cassette outreach started, each church had its own cassette promoter.
Women’s ministries have developed over the years, with annual conventions for women. Likewise, young people’s societies developed in all the churches. Vacation Bible schools provide others teaching opportunities. Acknowledging the role of deaconesses gave women an official position in which to serve.
8. Maintaining friendships with those who are not yet believers. The Mam use a very significant expression for the “lost.” It is ke namx cyoslan — “those who have not yet believed.” They see their friends and acquaintances not as enemies of the Lord, but as potential believers.
One brother related how his family gratefully received a portion of meat from his witch-doctor uncle, and thus maintained his friendship. They continue to pray for his conversion.
Another group evangelizing happened upon men making bootleg liquor. They gave a positive witness and went their way. Today, many of the stills in that area are shut down, with the redeemed bootleggers now active members in the churches, and making their living in other ways.
9. Unity in the work. This was fostered by the conscious efforts of the early missionaries who saw the Mam field and its Christian community as one. The Spanish-speaking churches in the area, through whose ministry the early Mam congregations came into being, finally recognized that the Mam believers were a special entity, distinct from them because of the language barrier. Thus, they encouraged the Mam churches to form their own church council in the late 1950s. This enabled the brothersto conduct their ministries in their own language, and plan their outreaches in line with their culture.
The early believers who became leaders and remained active until their deaths had a stabilizing and unifying effect on the churches. I was in a meeting where five such leaders were honored for each having given 35 years to the ministry. They were all men who by example and precept promoted unity.
The Bible institute program also helps to promote this unity. Older men, already in active ministry, were the first focus of the training program. As time went on, older and younger men studied together. This avoided a problem we observed in other fields, where students who returned from formal training centers were often in conflict with the elders, many of whom were the keys to establishing the congregations.
10. Effective direction of the work. It is difficult to say exactly what the brothers meant by this. However, one observable phenomenon through the years has been the willingness of the leaders to teach others, usually as apprentices. This is no doubt a reflection of their culture, where leadership in the community is attained by following steps established by the community as a whole. Thus, it is more leading by example than by assuming leadership as a prerogative because of one’s superior academic training.
11. Music. The Mam Indians were without a song. Pioneer missionary Dorothy Peck immediately saw the need for a hymnal. The first Mam hymnal was published in the 1940s. It consisted mostly of a translation into Mam of familiar English and Spanish hymns. These were in contrast to the minor key music that accompanied the religious processions, or the repetitive son (sound) of the marimba, which accompanied the religious dances.
As time went on the Indians translated newer hymns. Now many are also writing new ones, aware of the drawing power of music. All of the churches have their musical groups, choirs, and ensembles, allowing for a wide range of participation in the churches’ outreach locally, and also on the radio.
12. Patience. This word, borrowed from the Spanish paciencia, is spelled and pronounced paséns in Mam. It seems to be in every Mam Indian’s vocabulary, and no doubt reflects a mind set of waiting, and of putting up with situations without “making waves.” Without question it is also derived from their experience in the fields—of sowing, weeding, and watering while expecting a harvest. The Mam do not often expect an immediate response to the gospel when they first present it. They plant the good seed and pray and wait.
13. Persecution. Evidently the brothers did not see this as a major factor. It was not high on their list. In the early days persecution meant being put in prison for a time for preaching the gospel in the markets or public squares, or it meant economic threats. Threats from followers of the major religious group were limited, and the meancings of the witch doctors proved empty once people understood the freedom from fear that Christ brought them.
At times the brothers were threatened with the loss of rights to communal lands. Religious reforms instituted by Roman Catholic missionaries to correct the Christo-paganism in their churches, often proved counter-productive to their cause. Indians began asking, Do we stay with the witch doctor? Or do we stay with the mass? Or shall we pay attention to the message of the evangelicals? There was an openness to a new message that did not exist before.
Also, the Roman Catholics reached out to the evangelicals as “separated brothers” during the time of Pope John XIII and distributed the Scriptures. These things promoted discussion rather than confrontation and furthered the gospel.
14. Home services. Many of the Mam churches began this way. A family is converted to Christ. Their house becomes the first meeting place or chapel for that village. Visiting workers come and meet with them—to teach, and to give the gospel to neighbors whom they have invited.
When a church grows and erects a building, theSunday school meeting will often be the principal service there. Yet there may be as many as four or five services during the week in believers’ homes, led by the pastor or one of the elders.
When new believers first profess their faith in a Sunday service, they often request a special service in their homes, when they can testify publicly of their faith to the neighbors whom they have invited. This declaration keeps them from being “secret believers,” and their neighbors are alerted to observe their lives.
These home services may also mark birthdays, the dedication of a house, or a prayer meeting for a special need. Often they serve as functional substitutes for their old get-togethers.
15. Chronological Bible teaching. Several factors led to the founding of the Ezra Bible Institute in 1976. Church growth demanded a more formal training program than the short-term institutes could provide.
Julian Lloret, CAM’s Guatemala field director at the time, taught Genesis at one of the Mam retreats. As he related it to their context, the group came alive. His lectures were translated, and formed the beginning courses of the Ezra Institute. Those courses answered their questions as to origins—about the world, the human race, the entrance of sin into the world, the reality of the spirit world, the confusion of languages, the beginning of the Hebrew nation.
The coming of the Lord Jesus, his ministry and his death in fulfillment of ancient prophecies, took on real meaning for them, as did the study of the church’s beginnings at Pentecost. After a slow start, because of the laborious work of providing original notes in the Mam language, a simple curriculum was developed that could be taught in four two-week sessions yearly.
The courses could thus be completed in four years. The training program fits the circumstances of the believers. It grew with the church, and the courses are given at four centers, with the Mam themselves as teachers. Pastors were able to leave their churches for a two weeks to teach in another area.
The schedule also allowed men who were already leaders to receive training. It was most significant to see men with years of service in the churches come to the studies and eventually receive their diplomas. The institute now seeks to provide “post-graduate” courses for the 193 alumni of the program, and who are active in the churches.
When Ed Sywulka, pioneer missionary and Bible translator, was asked in 1990 what were the factors in the growth of the Mam church, his response closely paralleled what the brothers had told me: (1) a clear gospel message; (2) an appropriate channel for the message, that is, the Mam language, used by Mam Indians to reach their own people in the context of their own culture; (3) faithful, dedicated men of God, called and anointed by him for ministry among their own people; (4) an adequate organizational structure suited to the needs and aspirations of Mam congregations—to provide fellowship and encouragement and to maintain unity of purpose with freedom to develop along their own lines; (5) the Scriptures in their own language, along with a continual effort to promote literacy; (6) the faithful intercessory ministry of God’s people over the years.
EMQ, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 188-195. Copyright © 1996 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.