Liliana is someone we came to know through Alfredo, a friend in the church. She is someone we have gotten to know over the past 10 months or so. As a lonely person, she has found a refuge in the church here. She has a complicated and difficult past. God has used some of my fellow missionary coworkers and me to reach out to her even though it has not always been very easy to do so.
Arequipa’s parks fill up on weekends. A busy work week gives way to a day or two of rest in which parents and grandparents take their kids to the park to enjoy Arequipa’s beautiful, springy climate. On Sundays in Arequipa, the park is one of the places where life happens. Naturally that’s where we want the church—God’s presence as reconciled family—to be.
Many of you who have been following this newsletter for the past several years may have heard of Paty before. She has been a servant within the house church groups here and also works with CUDA’s (the Christian Urban Development Association) microfinance projects and takes care of CUDA’s accounting. She has such a beautiful story to tell.
Coming in at just under 5ft. you wouldn’t know it by looking at her, but Etelvina is tough. And she has had to be. She raised her two kids on her own while searching for God. She had been a faithful Catholic for her whole life before she realized she was missing something. This began her journey to start a true relationship with Jesus.
“Jóven” translates to “young” or “young person” and this has been our latest project since about September last year: working with the young people of Arequipa. We had noticed that a lot of young people only had the option of drinking and going to clubs as a hangout but also found that a lot of young people do not have a space where they can explore their faith, ask questions, and be young. We were inspired to help some of the younger people in our church to connect in a way that was more real for them, to build future leaders, and encourage strong faith and community among these youth.
The kids’ Bible class in home churches on the Peruvian mission field looks very different from our homeland experiences. It is often much more chaotic and informal with a mixture of lighter and darker faces and the English and Spanish languages. However, the same principle remains: instilling in the children of our church the foundation of faith.
We’ve been talking for months about all the changes surrounding our team and our families. However, we shouldn't overlook the effect that it is having on our church members as they see the “founding members” moving away and find themselves in relationship with new missionaries, wondering what is going to be left when the dust settles. To help with the transition we have been trying to build bridges between the new missionaries and church members.
This is the standard response when our study of the New Testament deals with first-century church practices that we no longer observe. The usual contenders are direct commands such as “greet one another with a holy kiss” or, paraphrasing, “women must wear head coverings.” The observation is not wrong, per se. These certainly are cultural practices. But putting it that way reveals a key assumption about both the Bible and church practices: that some things are in the category of “not cultural.” We fancy many of our practices are universal and immune to the dangers of “cultural relativism.” This assumption, I suggest, is wrong. “That’s cultural” doesn’t get us very far, because everything is cultural.
If that opinion sets you on edge, well and good. You might explore those emotions in order to empathize with the cross-cultural missionary. To come humbly into a foreign culture seeking to bring the kingdom of God to expression in contextually meaningful ways means experiencing the loss of the pat solutions “That’s cultural” provides. The experience blesses us with the realization of how much of our taken-for-granted way of life as a church community is actually meaningless or confusing in a new context—maybe even meaningless or confusing in our home context, but I digress. And the experience blesses us with the discovery of new ways of representing the good news about Jesus, ways that would not have occurred to us because they are cultural and are, for that reason, the right ways for a particular community in a particular place to say and do the gospel.
Obviously, sorting out the relationship between culture and gospel is a big conversation. Oceans of ink have been spilled to that end. I merely mention these concerns by way of introduction to the analysis of culture under way here in Arequipa. Without indulging in too much self-deprecation, I confess that one of our shortcomings over the last six years has been a failure to engage in significant cultural analysis. I think we knew better but gave other concerns priority. Anyway, I’m glad that the arrival of fresh missionaries affords the opportunity to address that failure. The Arequipeño churches we have planted stand to become significantly more indigenous as we foreigners learn to be more culturally appropriate and help lead the church into the freedom to express itself more naturally. It’s an exciting thought!
This December, with the help of Bill and Holly Richardson, the church will gather for a time of reflection and re-visioning. The foreign missionaries who set many of the church’s current practices in motion will seek critical feedback from our Peruvian brothers and sisters in order to place many of our own assumptions prayerfully under scrutiny. The recent arrivals will bring the fruit of their cultural analysis to bear as questions about the meaning of various cultural practices—religious and otherwise—and about the possibility of adopting new practices that might express the gospel more clearly from and to the Peruvian worldview. We are all so thankful that at this juncture, we share the conversation with godly Peruvian disciples. Please pray for the insightfulness of our research from now to then and for the Spirit-led discernment we will need as a community when it comes time to make new decisions. We ask God for the faithfulness and the innovativeness that service to God’s kingdom requires.