This article intends to present some of the conditioning factors that might have contributed to the current and meaningful membership growth over the last thirty years in one of the evangelical Christian churches in Peru. The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) in Lima has grown from one congregation in 1973, with a membership of 150, to about thirty-five thousand members in close to one hundred new congregations today.
Knowing the important role of religion in Peru and its obvious impacts on individuals and society, the study of a rather new, non-Catholic church movement is highly relevant in an attempt to understand the role of Christian forms of spirituality in contemporary Latin American societies. The work of the C&MA in Peru was established by Western missionaries in 1925, and became one of the most significant evangelical Christian denominations.
The work in Lima started in the 1960s. This movement, which has resulted in this substantial growth, is unusual within Christian missions. Missiologist Stephen Neill has observed that Latin American church growth “is something potentially different from anything that has been produced by the Christian churches in other parts of the world.”1 It may also prove to represent a paradigmatic Christian movement, marking the relevance of spirituality issues in Christian church growth.2
Dr. Arnold Cook has asked, What do you call the Lima story? Was it just successful evangelism in a responsive culture? Was it revival? Was it an awakening impacting society? Answer: It was a wonderful, inscrutable, divine complexity of all the above.3
The first pilot congregation in Lima, located in the district of Lince, experienced a growth from about 150 members in 1973 to more than five thousand today. They have seven worship services each Sunday in their current building, and are in the process of building a new church building for three thousand persons. This congregation initiated an innovative program of evangelism in 1973 called Lima al Encuentro con Dios (Lima Encounters God—LED).
LED has since become the administrative structure of evangelism supported by all the C&MA churches in Lima. Partly as a result of this substantial growth, all Western missionaries of the C&MA have now left Peru. The Peruvian C&MA Church is both economically and structurally self-supporting. Thus, in the Peruvian churches of the C&MA, all 213 ministers are now local, making this group of pastors the largest in the C&MA-related Latin American churches.
Hypothesis of Conditioning Factors
In order to identify and understand the church’s contextual and internal factors that might have conditioned the growth, it is necessary to work with some hypothesis. The working hypothesis with regard to the external conditioning factors is that the movement has indeed been negotiating actively with the socio-religious aspects of the Peruvian culture.
Further, this church movement in some respects represents culture-affirmative social patterns and values, and in other respects represents culture-critical and new social patterns and values after being part of the Christian spiritual events in their lives in this movement. The working hypothesis with regard to internal conditioning factors is that the triune God has erupted suddenly through LED and C&MA churches in Lima, making himself and his attributes visible through his acts in the lives of established congregations on an extended family model, where the fellowship with the triune God is the cornerstone in their life patterns and ethos. The new life patterns and ethos have bearings on their relationships to families, friends, and local communities.
Areas Where Internal and External Conditioning Factors Are Interwoven
Andrew Walls writes, “Theology springs out of practical situations; it is therefore occasional and local in character.”4 This means that theological investigations need adequate interaction with other sciences such as sociology, anthropology, or history in order to study the local contexts.5
Context is a dynamic manifestation of what is going on with people in relationship with God and his divine work among them directly and through the Church. In this way, it becomes possible to see how the backgrounds of people without Christ (the external factors), and Christ through his direct events of love and within his Church (the internal factors) meet together.
Samuel Escobar writes that “the discernment of the breath of the Spirit requires an open attitude and the sensitivity to acknowledge that behind facts something as new and unusual as the strength and vigour of the Spirit may be at work.”6 I will now point out at some of those facts, as Escobar puts it, in the context of these churches in Lima.
Salvation of People and Christology
Salvation and the new life in Christ are topics which are very much in focus in the C&MA congregations in Lima. The ethos of the message is Christ centred. The C&MA congregations have as their motto the phrase, “Cristo Salva, Sana, Santifica y Viene otra vez” (‘Christ saves, heals, sanctifies, and is coming again’).
The Christological emphasis, according to Lesslie Newbigin, is vital in Christian missions:
Mission is also sharing the life of the Son; for it is in Jesus that God’s kingdom is present in the life of the world, and this presence is continued—under the sign of the cross—in the community that confesses Jesus as Lord and belongs to him as his body.7
Christ is presented as the servant in the Gospels, not in terms of an aggressive Christendom. But how can this message, after all, change people from within? Is it simply a social response in a theistic culture, a fruit of the Catholic inheritance, and of the spiritual awareness of pre-Hispanic societies?8
Or is the gospel, the Christ-centred message, a vital and dynamic agent of truth and life for their lives? It seems that when people in these churches met the gospel of salvation of the crucified Christ,9 they saw the need of salvation as eternal life and salvation from a lost life. They received the Christ who died for them and rose up from the death in victory over sin.
The Heterogeneous Fellowship—The Spirit’s Bonds
Writing about Latin America, Escobar says that “thousands have come to know Jesus as Saviour and Lord because they first experienced the gift of acceptance in a local church and belonging to a new family.”10 This seems to be the experience also in the C&MA congregations in Lima.
Several of these churches have their own cafés or restaurants in which they sell food, thus giving an opportunity for fellowship. In Peruvian society, love is generally expressed through friendly attitudes and gestures. In the expressive Latin culture it is difficult to understand love without warm gestures of friendship.
The inclusive fellowships found in the C&MA congregations seem to have transposed the love expressions of family and friendship to the congregational life. Here seems to be a translation of Christian fellowship ideas into cultural terms which are familiar to Peruvians.11 The Peruvian society in Lima is a multicultural society,12 marked by the waves of migration from the highlands of Peru to Lima since the late 1950s and 1960s.13 This diversity seems not to create divisions among the church members. Instead, the church is one and for everyone.
Active Involvement of Members—Christ’s Body in Movement
Strategically, it seems that among C&MA congregations in Lima, Christian service as a practical outreach to others depends upon the whole faith community. Christian service seems not to be considered the task of only the educated members or of the employed church workers. It is also carried out by ordinary members.
Likewise, participation in Christian missions is not limited to economically strong congregations, but also includes churches in the rural and poorer areas of Lima, where a high percentage of the population has migrated from the Andean areas and is economically poor. Orlando Costas describes these congregations as churches of the periphery, where we find the perspective of the poor.14 Here, the poor are seen assisting the other poor with concrete expressions of love and care, thus showing an attitude which also characterised the early Christians in the Roman Empire.
The Holy Spirit and the Role of Care and Intercession
Another expression of care in the congregations is prayer. An extensive prayer life is a common characteristic for growing churches in South America,15 so also in Lima. When there is a person in need, this is usually shared as an item for prayer and care. Members devote themselves to praying for one another and for non-members.
Consequently, prayer items are not confined to internal matters alone, but to contextual matters as well, that is, with the world. Prayers are conducted in homes, as well as in congregational prayer meetings. Prayer, more than a religious routine, is a means to come to God with all that we are. Paul writes in Romans 8:27: “And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to will of God.” In Paul’s view, prayer is neither a human activity alone, nor a spiritual activity alone. There is a unity between the human heart, the will of God, and the interceding role of the Spirit.
Impact of Faith on Life Patterns
Christianity, as experienced in the C&MA congregations, has taken the shape of a faith with concrete consequences for the ways people think and live. There is little room for the modern dichotomy of faith and secularity, which pushed the Western world into essentialist and reductionist conceptions.16
Instead, a relationship between faith and ethos is seen as the outcome of a religious conversion. This brings about obvious changes in the micro-world of people that affect them individually and as families. This can be exemplified by men who no longer mistreat women and children, thus making family life rehabilitation possible.
David Martin describes this local meaning of conversion as a transformation or turning point.17 Yet, what is it—in the opinion of the informants—that leads to this transformation? For almost all of those I have interviewed, it was their meeting with God that created the conversion of their lives.
Generosity and Sacrifice—God’s Giving Nature
The generous giving of money to the work of the church seems, for many members of the C&MA in Lima and Peru, to be a consequence of a sacrificial attitude, followed by action. In terms of time, members find their way to church after work, where they take part in evangelistic efforts. Among the pastors of the C&MA churches in Lima, there are also people who have exchanged their profitable secular careers for the ordained ministry or other church employment.
Among these one finds engineers, businesspeople, and sportsmen. It seems that sacrifice is linked with an alternative value system, resulting from their Christian faith. There seems to be a relationship between the cost they are prepared to make and their value system.18 Willingness to sacrifice, as a consequence of personal commitment to Christian faith, is well known throughout church history and in contemporary Christianity.
Tormod Engelsviken states with regard to Christians in Malaysia, “The fact that to be a Christian costs…makes passive and nominal Christianity little attractive.”19 There is a sense of commitment in sacrificial terms both individually and as a life in community through and in Jesus Christ.20 This is the argument Paul gives in order to explain the attitude of the church in Macedonia, who even in the midst of poverty, gave meaningful offerings.
The experiences related to the growth of theses churches seem to be the result of the actions of God in a particular context in a particular time of grace—Kairos. The diversity of the background of people in Lima can also be seen in the C&MA churches in a fellowship of love. The tiredness of a life living in sin and away from God, in a country with a high percentage of economic and political corruption, might have provoked the longing of a new beginning among many. This new beginning was found in the new life which Christ gives.
The friendly character among these churches as a godly community has not only been attractive to people living in Lima, but they actually became their new spiritual family with patterns of life announced in the gospel and lived in the power of God.
In the 1970s and 1980s Peru became one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with deep social disappointments and struggles. It was in the middle of these disappointments that the evangelical Church in general started to grow in Lima and Peru.
It is possible to say that the social situation created an atmosphere of spiritual emptiness, which made people more open. The openness of Limeneans toward spiritual issues was met in these churches with the good news preached within a frame of authenticity and deepness. Since the 1970s, these churches have changed some of their methods, but the ethos is the same—that human beings need the salvation that only Christ can give, because he gained it through his propitiatory death; that he is alive today; and that he will return to the world one day. To proclaim this message is, among them, an unavoidable mission.
1. 1982. A History of Christian Missions. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 508
2. Bosch, David. 2002. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. Bosch used the scientific theory of Tomas Kuhn called paradigm, and applied it in his analyses describing Christian missions as historical paradigm shifts.
3. Cook, Arnold L. 2000. Historical Drift. Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, 278.
4. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 10.
5. Tippet, Alan. 1987. Introduction to Missiology. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 144, 244.
6. Escobar, Samuel. 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Carol Stream, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 137.
7. 1995. An Introduction to the Theology of Missions. London: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 21.
8. Marzal, Manuel. 1988. The Indian Face of God. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 23. The former Peruvian theologian stated that atheism is not common in Peru.
9. Stott, John. 1996. Authentic Christianity. Nottingham, U.K.: InterVarsity Press, 50-51.
10. Escobar, 103.
11. Bevans, Stephen B. 1994. Models of Contextual Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 30. Translation can be identified as a model of contextual theology.
12. Belaunde Terry, Fernando. 1965. Peru’s Own Conquest. Lima: American Studies Press, 107.
13. Rosas Moscoso, Fernando. 1989. Storia, antropologia e scienze del linguaggio: Encuentro de Civilizaciones: Civilización Andina y Conquista Española. Roma: Bulzoni editore, 55-56.
14. 1982. Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 8. In recent years the C&MA congregations, which are situated in the periphery of Lima, have gained a large membership, influencing both the denomination and the communities surrounding these congregations. For example, the pastor of the C&MA congregation in the district of San Juan de Lurigancho, Mr. Gino Benvenutto, is part of the LED coordinating team. The Lurigancho congregation itself has several programmes assisting people with social needs in its surrounding community.
15. Jenssen, Jan Inge. 1995. Kirkevekst. Oslo: Rex, 48.
16. Hiebert, Paul G. 1998. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 29.
17. 1993. Tongues of Fire. Oxford: Blackwell, 105.
18. Nida, Eugen A. 1971. “New Religions for Old. A Study of Culture Change in Religion.” In Church and Culture Change in Africa. Ed. David J. Bosch. Pretoria: N.G. Kerk-Boekhandel, 15.
19. Engelsviken, Tormod and Kjell Olav Sannes. 2004. Hva vil det si å være kirke? Trondheim: Tapir Akademisk Forlag, 84.
20. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life Together. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 29.