I was born in Chile. Northern Ireland is not my country of birth, but my children are, and my wife is English! I lived there until I was 20 years old (I also lived in the USA for a year when I was fifteen). I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, but I am also a missionary. I celebrated my 21st year onboard the mission ship Logos 2, and I visited, preached, evangelised, translated in most South American countries, the Caribbean and Southern Europe.
I come from a family of Methodists Pentecostals! Yes, let that sink in you and from a Roman Catholic family. Dad was a protestant, and mum was catholic. But this division, which is so politicised here, is not the same as back in Chile. Yet, there is still a division known as Evangelicals and Catholics. However, I don’t think this division means much, as Chile is a very secular society.
I have always studied theology and missions, plus I have travelled and lived as a missionary in Spain. I have read many books on missions, and I did my MTh on the Contextualisation of Luke and Acts in a Spanish setting, meaning the wonderful country of Spain.
During the discovery and colonisation of Latin America, Spain had two main objectives: To colonise and bring the new continent under the Spanish rules (to take without asking the best of the land and get it to Europe!).
Second, the conquest and colonisation took place under the powerful influence of the Spanish Catholic Church. So, as it is well known in mission studies, the conquest happened with the sword and the Bible.
So, within the Latin Countries, the Conquistadores brought the teachings and doctrines of the Catholic Church. The film, the Mission, is an excellent example of this.
The Protestant Church came later. The first missionaries arrived at the end of the 18th Century, mainly from the USA and some from Europe.
This time, it was not the sword but the teachings and doctrines of the Reformation and the Bible. One of the earliest churches to arrive in Chile was the Presbyterian Church from the USA. So, missionaries came, and the work began slowly, with much pain and effort.
The Lord blessed the Evangelical Church in Latin America. After much labour, now it is a Church capable of sending missionaries worldwide. I am one of them.
In general terms, the Protestant Church brought the Gospel and the Bible. But also, with them came the way Christianity was understood culturally, with their traditions and practices of interpreting the Scriptures. They were all literate and intelligent, able to learn the local language, and most of them came with capital and resources, which unavoidable created a culture of dependency.
So, if you were a Presbyterian, you brought the Presbyterian governance and practices, possibly the Code of the Church! They taught Protestant values such as work ethics, which sometimes clashed with the “so-called laziness of the local community”. In terms of worship, the Organ was introduced, and English hymns were translated into Spanish.
Early in the 19th Century, a revival took place, which divided the Methodist Church in Chile. Those who remained and did not follow this move of God did not grow as fast as the newly formed Pentecostal Methodist Church, a church that grew in huge numbers within the working-class population and now it is the largest denomination in Chile. This meant a small but significant shift into becoming an indigenous expression of the Church. They understood the context better than other churches.
It is not a secret that the fastest growing churches are not in Europe but Latin America, Africa, and Asia. They have become the sending churches to the nations. I still remember being introduced to the first Korean Missionary Families that came to work with the Presbyterian Church back in the nineties.
It is also important to mention the work of Operation Mobilisation in Latin America, especially their Ship ministry. They brought a strong message of global missions. They became the foundation and the catalyst of a move of God in mobilising the local Church into missions. I lived through that movement. You will now find Latin American missionaries worldwide, and it is a huge blessing.
I know that OM has done great work in teaching local churches about the mission. I believe that many other organisations are serious about preparing their missionaries with a clear path that considers the mission field, context, and culture. However, I think much remains to be done. There has been little change in missionary practices inherited by those who came as missionaries to Latin America. Yet, because of my experiences living in Europe, some churches send their missionaries charged with the same missionary zeal and methods and missionary practices of the sending Church. This has meant a lack and very little recognition that in Europe, the Church of Jesus Christ goes back to the Apostle Paul.
I know that there are reasons for this; some view the Catholic Church in South America with suspicion, questioning their doctrine and practices. What is the challenge? If you applied a missionary vision based on what works in your local context, you are limited, and you will lack the skills of cross-cultural missions. If your mission is to reach only ex-pats, it will be at the cost of not engaging the Gospel with the local community and the national Church.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I visited my uncle and cousins in Toronto, Canada. It was only a weekend, and we reunited after many years. My uncle and his family are all followers of Jesus, and I was invited to preach at their Church. This Church was mainly for Chileans, and it was supported from Chile by one of the Chilean Methodist Pentecostal churches. However, this mission was at the heart of Donald McGavran’s (Donald McGavran. How Churches Grow and The Bridges of God)
Mission principles of church growth known as “Homogenous Units” that “he taught and practised in India. He believed that the best way to reach Hindus with the Gospel was within the same Indian caste social system. So one cast member will reach out effectively to members of their caste. If another caste tries to reach out, this will be difficult, if not impossible. However, this was McGravran wrestling and articulating with his missionary context and the message of the Gospel. However, the whole church movement took hold of this idea, and he became the father of the church growth movement and influenced the entire notion of People Groups back in the nineties.
When I visited the Chilean Methodist Pentecostal Church in Toronto, I stepped into a Chilean culture of Methodist Pentecostalism. The way I was greeted, how people talked, how people worshipped, and how people prayed. It was a surreal experience where I felt very uncomfortable, yet I was home! I could not wonder but think about the endless possibilities of this Church reaching out to the whole community and even more Latin Americans. It was a church for the Chileans, and people were being saved and taught the Bible. But the universality of believers was not there. Indeed, there was no thought of Paul’s message to the Corinthian Church: “For though I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may gain more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the Law, I became as one under the Law, though not being under the Law myself, so that I might gain those who are under the Law; to those who are without the Law, I became as one without the Law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might gain those who are without the Law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak; I have become all things to all people, so that I may, by all means, save some. I do all things for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23 NAS20)
In other words, they kept their religious traditions and cultures, and they planted a church that looked very much like the sending Church. Could this be called the Re-Colonisation of Mission?
I had another experience living in Madrid. Walking through El Prado Park, I heard the voice of someone shouting, and I recognised the tone, the accent, and the message. A group of ten men dressed in fine suits with their Bibles, and one of them shared the Gospel. The park was full of families, it was a Sunday afternoon, and if you know anything about Spanish culture, you will know that this is where the families go for a walk. Yet no one paid any attention to these missionaries, and they were ignored, looked upon, and even I felt uncomfortable with their methods. This way of evangelism or mission works in some parts of Latin America, and indeed it was how I understood it – something that frightened me … to go the streets!
Was that a Christian Mission? Yes, it was. I believe they took the rejection as a sign of suffering for Christ, and now they are part of the rejected missionary people of God. Was it effective? No, it was not.
Is this another way of re-colonisation in Missions? What about the local, national Church? What about learning their history? What about knowing where they came from and understanding their journey? I have seen this re: colonisation of mission with most established churches like the Baptist, Presbyterians and Pentecostals from Latin America to places like Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
They have come to Europe to reach out to their own, and if they are open to reaching out to the local community, they do it with ways and practices embedded in their identity, then, it is difficult for them to engage with locals and the national Church. This is a recipe for so much frustration and burnout.
What is the solution? I think a better question is: What is the way forward?
I believe that we are leaving behind the era of mission partnership. Most mission partnerships are seldom equalled. But we are entering a missionary era where networking is becoming essential and a network based on a Gospel Centre Mission Strategy.
A Gospel Centre Mission means to listen to what the Lord has been doing through the local Church. It means to open a door of dialogue, where what is on offer can be prayed, thought, and planned together for the Gospel and the local community. What unites us, missionaries and the local Church is the Gospel. Therefore, we are empowered for missions. Our identity is Christ Centre and not in our denominations. I am not saying that we need to move away from denominations, they are essential, but that is not our primary identity. We are in Christ first and foremost.
A Gospel Centre Mission understand that the Gospel is not just for salvation, but it is what sustains us for living in this world. It is the power of God unto salvation and the means of redemption not only for his people but also for a broken world.
We find Jesus Christ the centre of God’s redemptive action in the Gospel. In the Gospel, we find its power as God’s Holy Spirit executor of God’s Mission. In the Gospel, we see God’s heart for his creation, and in the Gospel, we find the Church as the agent of God’
As Orlando Costas said in his book, “The Church and its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the third world”,.
We are the people of God who understands that salvation is by grace alone, and therefore we are God’s new humanity, with the mind of Christ and empowered by His Spirit. A Gospel family or brothers and sisters of equal worth and value.