TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Juan Jose Flores could’ve picked a more upbeat topic for a devotional.
Addressing nearly 200 church members at the Baxter Institute, the minister from Ibarra, Ecuador, might have focused on the providence of God in Latin America, where Churches of Christ have flourished in the past half-century.
Instead, Flores flipped the pages of his Bible to Judges 19 — the story of Gibeah, an Israelite city that adopted the ways of the world and committed sexual atrocities.
Flores urged his brethren to learn from the story and live out the faith they proclaim.
“We have excellent theology, but we don’t show the true church to the world,” he said.
Again and again, speakers stressed the need for spirituality and transformed lives during the “seminario,” an annual gathering of graduates, students and supporters of Baxter, a ministry training school in this Central American capital.
For 48 years, the institute has equipped Christians, including Flores, to evangelize their homelands. Now Churches of Christ exist in every Latin American country — from Mexico to Argentina.
But only a handful has the kind of leadership described in the New Testament.
In Honduras, fewer than five of the country’s 200-plus congregations have elders, said Miguel Aguilar, a longtime teacher at Baxter and the institute’s director of spiritual life.
For biblical leaders to emerge in Latin America, Christians need more than Bible knowledge, Aguilar said.
“You have to be an example,” he said. “I know sometimes we forget who we are, and we don’t want to change, but we can’t preach what we don’t live.”
FASTING, TRAINING, WORKING
Bibles open and pens fluttering, church members poured over the Scriptures during a seminar class, seeking examples of fasting in the Old Testament, the life of Christ and Paul’s letters to first-century churches.
Rene Rosa rushed between the tables of students, almost frantically, handing out sheets of butcher paper and shouting instructions.
“Tiempo, hermanos, tiempo!” (“Time, brothers, time!”) he yelled, calling the groups back together. They circled the room and discussed posters produced by each group on fasting.
Churches of Christ in Latin America don’t spend a lot of time discussing spiritual disciplines, including fasting, said Rosa, a Baxter graduate and minister in Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras. One participant in the class argued that Latin Americans shouldn’t fast at all, claiming the practice is better suited for wealthy “gringos” in the U.S.
Knowing how to engage in such discussions is important for future church leaders, Rosa said.
In the past half-century, Baxter and other training programs have prepared preachers to plant new congregations across Central and South America. Baxter partners with church-supported missions, including Continent of Great Cities, and sends teams of Latin Americans to Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
“We know the people, know the culture, know the places, talk the same language,” said David Colorado Campos, a 1997 Baxter graduate from El Salvador who preaches for the Tocumen Church of Christ near Panama City, Panama. The 100-member church has appointed elders, Campos said.
But that doesn’t always happen, Rosa said. Some churches come to rely on their ministers to shepherd the flock solo and do most of the evangelistic work. Membership reaches a plateau, and the church’s spiritual life stagnates.
“If the church has no trained leadership, the church is not going to develop by itself,” Rosa said.
In the Honduran city of Catacamas, it took the death of a longtime minister to ignite a spark of life in the church, said Samuel Diaz, a former member of the congregation and a Baxter graduate who served on a mission team in Colombia.
Since the Catacamas minister’s death about a year ago, the church has more than doubled in size to about 120 members, Diaz said.
Why? Because “now everybody in the church does evangelism,” said church member Sebastian Ordonez. When he’s not working as a mechanic, Ordonez studies the Bible with his neighbors and teaches Sunday school.
Losing their minister helped church members realize that reaching the lost was their responsibility, Ordonez said, so “the church started to work.”
FATHERS AND DOLLARS
Over steaming plates of fried eggs and refried beans in Baxter’s cafeteria, Phil Waldron and Lowell White discussed another challenge to indigenous leadership in Latin America — broken families.
The two men, both from the U.S., work with Mission Upreach in Honduras, a team composed of five nationalities, mostly Latin American. Encouraging fathers to be faithful is one focus of the ministry.
Waldron quoted statistics from the United Nations and survey groups that show more than a quarter of families in many Latin American countries are headed by females.
“I would bet it’s closer to 50 percent,” Waldron said. Many Latin American homes have adult males present — but not long-term. During the course of their lives, Honduran children often have four or five adult males drift in and out of their homes. Legal marriage is the exception, not the rule, Waldron said. Some children become mothers at age 14 or younger, Lowell added.
“Just like in the States, we need to teach kids to abstain until they’re married,” Lowell said, “and there’s very little material in Spanish on that.”
While strong fathers are needed in Latin American churches, paternalistic relationships with U.S. churches are not, Waldron said. He’s seen financial dependency cripple congregations, preventing them from developing leaders.
“We’re not willing to let go,” Waldron said of U.S. churches. As a result, “we rob the local church of the blessing of supporting their local community.”
As the U.S. economy falters, Latin Americans realize that they can’t depend on U.S. dollars, said Santos Espinoza, a Baxter graduate and minister in Nacaome, Honduras.
The church in Nacaome uses Baxter’s correspondence courses to teach potential leaders. The goal is to develop elders and deacons who can shepherd congregations without U.S. money, Espinoza said.
Nonetheless, U.S. churches can play a vital role in Latin America, said Jason Tenison, a U.S. Christian who works with Nicaraguan minister Jairo Quiroz in a church-planting effort in Talanga, about an hour north of Baxter.
The idea for the church plant came not from the U.S. but from the Guanacaste Church of Christ in Tegucigalpa, a congregation with elders.
“A lot of times, churches from the U.S. don’t know the situation down here,” Tenison said. But Guanacaste’s leaders could oversee the work.
The Park Plaza Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla., supplied funds — and Tenison — and Guanacaste recruited Quiroz.
“Praise God, we’ve had 18 baptisms,” Tenison said. The Talanga church, less than a year old, has about 25 adults attending each Sunday.
“When you first meet them, you can see that they don’t have much hope” Tenison said of the people he has encountered. After they obey the Gospel, “you can actually see the change.”
TAKE THE MESSAGE TO THE PEWS
Indigenous leadership is taking root in some Latin American churches. In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the Cabanas Church of Christ recently appointed elders and, in the past three months, it has experienced 15 baptisms, said church member Lucia Leyva.
The church is winning souls “because of the love they show people,” Leyva said. “They see the unity.”
The church’s leaders have challenged members to reach 50 lost souls in the next five months, said Marlon Aguilar, the church’s youth minister. Members are taking the Gospel door-to-door in what he described as “an evangelistic explosion.”
More Churches of Christ need to lay the foundations for biblical leadership, said Bruno Valle, a Baxter graduate, preacher and author from Nicaragua. In the final speech of the recent seminar, Valle summarized what participants had learned about spirituality and accountability.
Valle urged the attendees to take that message to members in their churches’ pews — members who may one day lead the church.
“Teach this to others,” he said. “This seminar was excellent, but we need to spread the Word.”