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Why do so many churches in Guatemala have elders?

In the country's Quiché region, almost all of the Churches of Christ appoint leaders within two years — a break from the norm in Central America.

PATZITÉ, Guatemala — Nearly 50 Iglesias de Cristo, or Churches of Christ, meet in Guatemala’s Quiché department, the heartland of the ancient Mayan empire. 

They worship in simple adobe buildings, assembled by hand on high mountaintops, at the end of winding dirt roads and on bustling city street corners, awash in diesel fumes.

How many are led by elders and deacons?

“Todas!” says Francisco Aguarré with a quick wave of his hand. All of them. 

Franciso Aguarré and his wife, Ana Lux Uz, stand outside the kitchen of their family’s homestead in Patzité, Guatemala. A 150-member Church of Christ meets in a building on the property. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

In truth, says Kemmel Dunham, a medical missionary translating for Aguarré, there may be one or two Churches of Christ in Quiché (pronounced “Kee-CHAY”) that don’t yet have the leaders described in the New Testament books of 1 Timothy and Titus — godly, humble husbands and fathers who shepherd autonomous congregations. 

But the percentage with elders is strikingly high for Central America, where mission work among Churches of Christ began in earnest a mere half-century ago. 
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In many Latin American churches, a sole minister — sometimes supported by U.S. dollars — leads the flock. In these churches, missions researchers warn, dependency can cause growth to stagnate. Developing indigenous leaders can take 20 years or more, ministry trainers tell The Christian Chronicle.

U.S. Christians who have worked in Quiché credit the Mayans’ adherence to Scripture, their cultural disposition toward consensus and even a lack of U.S. influence as factors in the growth of elderships across the brotherhood. 

Luke Fletcher, a student at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, takes the blood pressure of a patient during the Patzité clinic. Fletcher and fellow biology students, led by professor Eric Phelps, are part of a Health Talents International medical mission team. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

Dunham and his wife, Dr. Lisa Dunham, live in the Quiché city of Chichicastenango and work with Health Talents International, a medical evangelism mission supported by Churches of Christ. They oversee a clinic outside the city and organize mobile medical trips among the churches spread across central Guatemala. 

The detail-driven, indigenous leadership of the Mayan Christians is a blessing, Kemmel Dunham says. 

“Lisa and I … the work that we’re able to do is so easy,” he says, “because the churches are so great.”

Aguarré is one of three elders of the 150-member Patzité Iglesia de Cristo. The church meets on his family’s property — a steep hillside that can be seen from most of the town. When they built the auditorium 37 years ago, it was the biggest church building for miles, he says.

Smartly dressed in a sweater vest, sunglasses and a fedora, the 70-year-old sits in a small room of a sunlit courtyard. His wife and four of his seven daughters live here as well. In the courtyard, family members wash dishes after feeding a lunch of soup and corn-cake tamalitos to the Health Talents volunteers. 

Kemmel Dunham talks to Francisco Aguarré about his life before Christ, his conversion and his efforts to help establish and strengthen elderships across Guatemala. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

As the U.S. and Guatemalan medical workers see the last patients of the afternoon in the church building, Aguarré talks about his life before Jesus.

Like most Guatemalans, he grew up Catholic. He also drank a lot, and it left him penniless. He visited various churches looking for help, but no one would invite him in.

His diet at the time was wine and river water, he says. One day a Christian man saw him at the river and confronted him. He needed Jesus.

“I said, ‘No, I’m still strong,’” he recalls, “but in my heart, (I said) yes.”

He started attending a Church of Christ and was baptized. But his conversion, nearly 42 years ago, upset his staunchly Catholic community — especially when he started preaching a gospel different from what they taught. Neighbors accused him of stirring up trouble and ran him out of town. He took shelter among the Churches of Christ on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. 

He began working with Pat Hile, a missionary from the U.S., and became a circuit preacher, planting and encouraging new congregations. 

After a checkup, a mother and daughter   walk downhill from the church building. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD) PLANTING CHURCHES, SETTLING DISPUTES
Four decades later, Aguarré serves the Patzité church and assists two other, newly planted congregations in Quiché. He and a small group of fellow elders coordinate evangelistic efforts across the region. They recruit other Christians from cities including Chichicastenango to help new churches grow. They help settle disputes within congregations.

“When you hear about conflicts happening, he’s one of the first guys there,” Kemmel Dunham says of Aguarré. The church elder also conducts workshops to encourage new congregations to appoint elders and deacons of their own, usually within two years of launching.

“They want to have some time to build a church up and evangelize,” Aguarré says. But when it comes to appointing elders, “you can’t put that off for too long. You’re trying to find the guys that are going to take responsibility.”

Kemmel Dunham describes Aguarré as “one of the drivers” behind the Quiché churches’ organization — and the region’s high percentage of elder-led congregations.

“In some ways, some would say that he’s heavy handed,” the medical missionary says, “but that’s good.”

“It’s our honor to pray” — Read Sheri Kretzschmar’s “In the Word” devotional about praying with the patients she treats in rural Guatemala.
Looking back, Aguarré sees the persecution he endured early in his Christian life as positive. It forced him to move outside his comfort zone, interact with multiple congregations and become more evangelistic.

In the same way, missionaries from the U.S. see the trials endured by Guatemala’s impoverished souls as contributing to church growth.

Most U.S. Christians who worked in Quiché were forced home during a guerrilla conflict here in the 1980s. 

In retrospect, “this was actually a blessing for the Quiché churches,” says Roger McCown, a former missionary to the region who now serves as missions minister for the Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. 

Without U.S. support, Guatemalan churches took up the challenge to lead their own congregations, McCown says. Many built large houses of worship entirely with local money. Some congregations write on their walls the number of quetzales, Guatemala’s currency, pledged by each member — and how much they’ve contributed toward their pledges.

“For traditional Mayans, that which is given away is considered to be of little or no value,” McCown says. “I would challenge the leaders of U.S. churches to avoid creating the dependencies that plague congregations in other Latin American countries.”

Though elders may be plentiful in Quiché, churches still face struggles, adds Pancho Hobbes, another former missionary to the region, now minister for the Capitol Hill Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.

“The Mayan brethren’s adhering to such a scriptural title is one thing,” Hobbes says, “but actually implementing Christ-like shepherding is another matter, as we in U.S. churches know all too well.

“In the wider Hispanic world, by contrast, it’s their cultural heritage to be ruled by a cacique (chieftain), a traditional father figure, through his personal force of will. One observes this in Hispanic churches and politics.”

Kemmel Dunham collects a small fee for prescription medicines during a mobile medical clinic at the Patzité Church of Christ. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD) WHAT IS the true value of MEDICAL MISSIONS?
In Patzité, the Iglesia de Cristo at the top of the hill is no longer the biggest church building in town, Aguarré says. Charismatic denominations are sprouting across the region, and a massive church compound stands on a mountaintop across the valley. 

But Churches of Christ are well-known here, thanks in part to Health Talents, the church elder adds. The ministry provides the underserved Mayan people with low-cost health care. (Patients pay a small fee for the medicines they receive.)

Perhaps more important, Aguarré says, is the interaction that Christians here witness between Health Talents’ workers and the people they serve. 

Seeing U.S. and Guatemalan Christians work hand-in-hand, turning houses of worship into houses of healing, inspires the believers here to do likewise — to reach out to meet their neighbors’ needs as they share Jesus.

“That,” Aguarré says, “is real help.”

Filed under: International

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