When we talk about ecclesiology (our understanding of the church), there are two levels to consider. The first is the abstract, presumably universal level at which we think about what the church is. The second is the practical level at which which we think about how a local church must embody that essence. One problem that has affected many churches is the assumption that the second level, that of application, is just as universal as the first. This belief leads some to the conclusion that the forms, styles, practices, and traditions of the church universal should be pretty much uniform throughout the church local. The expectation that the New Testament will provide those forms bolsters the assumption.
In this series, I will work through some of the factors we take into account as the church in Arequipa seeks to embody Christ faithfully in our context. I hope to show how we go about translating the first level into the second level.
The New Testament employs a variety of metaphors to represent the church’s essence. One of the most significant is certainly family. It is probably the most powerful scriptural resource for reframing church where it is understood institutionally. More importantly, family is an expression of the real relational dynamic that exists among followers of Jesus. It is more than a spiritual legal status that we affirm to be true because God declared it so; it touches upon the nature of community life and identity. We articulated our vision over five years ago: God’s family celebrating and serving in Arequipa. Coming from church planters, this was nothing if not a core ecclesiological statement. It arose from our convictions about what God’s people should be.
Some understanding of Peruvian culture played a part in the visioning process, but subsequent study really solidified our view of church. Here is a relevant section of our strategy document (pardon the length):
Community and Family
As migrants to the city, many of the poor in Arequipa are displaced from the community life of rural Peru or from their extended family networks. In addition to this, they are socially marginalized by the wealthier members of society. Family units struggle against the destabilizing effects of urban existence. A lack of identity and a longing for authentic community are pervasive and well documented dynamics. This is particularly so among the Quechua people of the Peruvian Andes. An important part of the Quechua social structure is ayni, a word that means “mutual help” or “reciprocity.” It is a kind of barter-system worldview, in which members of a community assume reciprocity in order to survive. Karsten Paerregaard writes, “Ayni is present at all levels of social life, including agricultural work, house construction, participation in rituals and fiestas, etc. In the two cities [Lima and Arequipa], on the other hand, migrants rarely look for help among fellow villagers” (Paerregaard, 45).
“Popular grassroots movement” (PGM) is a term used to describe both secular and religious groups, but they all have common sociological characteristics. Discussing characteristics of charismatic PGMs among migrants in Bogota, Colombia, Steven Armet observes that incentives for personal well- being through community activism have played a role in the growth of these churches. But he adds:
However, the strongest impulse for community-building has been the local churches. Striving for community is an explicit value based upon a biblical theme of koinonia. Improved social relationships have resulted in mutual support networks of reciprocity between neighbors (Armet, 379).
Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar observes, “although in these popular churches there is emphasis on personal conversion, they also create community through networks of mutual help and a redemptive experience that brings moral change” (Escobar, 2007, 1998). This dynamic sounds uncannily like churches filling the void left by the absence of ayni in the lives of Andean migrants afloat in urban, capitalist environments. Richard Shaull describes it this way: “As the traditional patterns of the extended family and rural community disintegrate under the impact of modernization, those suffering most from such disintegration often find themselves included in and supported by a new family and community” (Shaull, 266).
For these reasons, a form of church life that fosters community and “family” is vital for a church planting strategy.
Armet notes that the growth of Christian PGMs was through innovation in evangelism. Rather than traditional mass evangelism, “it is the multiplication of churches that has been the primary means for expansion.”
Several barriers had to be overcome, such as leadership styles that deter emerging leaders, the pastors’ own insecurities, and a reluctance to release resources in terms of personnel and finances. Different methods of church planting were employed, such as the formation of cell groups or by hiving off parts of congregations to form new churches. The results have been very satisfying.
Many other church movements throughout Latin America offer precedent for overcoming the barriers of traditional church growth in favor or family and community oriented strategies. Jorge Maldonado writes, “The expansion of evangelical groups has spiralled specifically among the poor sectors and middle strata of society where the deterioration of living conditions and the disintegration of family structures have been most sharply felt” (193). Maldonado documents some critical aspects of conversion among Latin Amercians. One, he discusses family-based conversion patterns: “In contrast to the widespread idea that the new convert breaks with his or her family and community, the rule appears to be that family nuclei are converted.” “The process of conversion, which begins with a member of the family, quickly extends through the whole network of relatives and connections.” Two, he discusses the significance of church for those who convert individually:
Cases of the conversion of isolated individuals seem to occur mostly among young people apparently detached from their families whether through migration, a break with the home, or personal problems (drug addiction, alcoholism, long-term unemployment or the like). In these instances their conversion fulfils a dual purpose: it places them in a substitute family (the household of faith, where a new process of socialization begins) and connects them again to the family from which they came, now as a “new creation,” with the mission to bear witness to the gospel (Maldonado, 195).
Maldonado’s research reveals data very similar to Armet’s:
According to the converts themselves, most of the growth of protestantism, occurs as a result of the direct witness of spouses, members of the family and relatives (74.5%), and not through the mass media (1.2%) or any other means. “Family groups,” “family worship,” and “house churches” are some of the most effective ways of propagating the new faith. This not only represents in itself a protest against the centuries-old tradition regarding sacred places, but gives the family a significant role in extending the evangelical movement (emphasis added; Maldonado, 195-96).
For millions of Latin Americans who have lost their roots and their supportive networks in moving away from the country to the town, or who are leading a marginalized and anonymous existence in the large cities, or have been exploited for centuries in the country without any obvious way out, evangelicalism offers a base community, a substitute family which fulfils the functions of the extended family, which compensates for the institution of kinship and maintains . . . the relative security of the farm (Maldonado, 197-98).
Maldonado refers to “a base community” in his description. “Base ecclesial community” (BEC; alternately Christian Base Community, CBC) is another term used to describe the PGMs of Latin America. BECs are usually discussed in relation to the Roman Catholic groups that emerged after Vatican II under the influence of liberation theology. What is highly significant about Catholic BECs for any Protestant church planting strategy is the fact that these groups represent the only resurgence of the Catholic church, and they address the very same sociological dynamics we are considering here in much the same way. No few studies have compared BECs with charismatic grassroots movements. Moreover, even for the Catholic church, the only viable growth strategy in Latin America is to move the church out of the temple, and this has not been in tension with the parishioners’ religious expectations. Rather, BECs are fundamentally lay movements. Charles Self writes:
While many of the groups were middle-class and unthreatening to the hierarchy, they did promote lay participation and small group experience. In fact, many base communities which were later radicalized by liberation theology began as small, pietistic Bible studies (Self, 65).
The BECs have truly proliferated among the poor, however, as the emphases of liberation theology and the activist disposition of these communities would encourage. Another point of reference is the document produced from the Bishop’s Conference in Medellín, Colombia in 1968:
The Christian ought to find the living of the communion, to which he has been called, in his “base community,” that is to say, in a community, local or environmental, which corresponds to the reality of a homogeneous group and whose size allows for personal fraternal contact among its members. Consequently, the Church’s pastoral efforts much be oriented toward the transformation of these communities into a “family of God,” beginning by making itself present among them as leaven by means of a nucleus, although it be small, which creates a community of faith, hope and charity (quoted in Cavanaugh, 74).
Again, we are dealing with the sociological dynamics of marginalized people empowered to experience God outside of traditional confines and to live and work together as a community to realize a different kind of existence. René Padilla, a leading evangelical missiologist, has been challenging Protestant missiologists for decades to understand the emerging “new ecclesiology in Latin America.” He notes the significance of a document from the subsequent Bishop’s conference, in Puebla, Mexico:
In particular we have found that small communities, especially the CEBs, create more personal inter-relations, acceptance of God’s Word, re-examination of one’s life, and reflection on reality in the light of the Gospel. They accentuate committed involvement in the family, one’s work, the neighborhood, and the local community. We are happy to single out the multiplication of small communities as an important ecclesial event (quoted in Padilla, 157).
“It must be recognized,” says Padilla, “that the grassroots communities do not represent a unified experience but, rather, follow at least two different lines, one emphasizing the community life in small groups and another one stressing the theological and political importance of the fact that the communities are constituted by the poor.” Both of these experiences converge in the movements that understand the holistic impact of the inbreaking Kingdom. Suffice it to say that our strategy must address these two factors in a significant way.
What is at stake in all of this is the quality of relationships that we would refer to as authentic community or family life.
The quality of community life in the CBCs makes it possible to bring into existence a church in which poor and marginal people not only feel at home but also have full responsibility for all aspects of the church’s life and program. Such a church is one capable of expanding spontaneously in the poorest neighborhoods (Shaull, 266).
The data consistently demonstrates, however, that one critical variable is the size of the community. This is not to suggest simplistically that smaller it better, but we must admit that the phenomenal proliferation of these movements happens through the multiplication of small communities rather than large ones. Size is not the point, but quality by way of size “management” is.
After three years, the observations of researchers and scholars have proven true in our experience. We might add a nuance here or a caveat there, but by and large, we are only more compelled to live as family in very intentional and tangible ways with our Peruvian brothers and sisters. What this brings us to, however, is the move from the first level (essence) to the second level (application). How do our contextual ways of being together as family manifest? Answering this question appropriately transforms every aspect of what our home context understands and experiences as “church.” We will continue to explore those in subsequent articles.