Thoughts on Strategy I

Well, let’s talk shop a bit. I’ve got lots of things puzzling me about people’s perceptions of our mission team’s strategy. I figure I can break it up into more than one discussion, so let’s start with the basics.

Team Arequipa is going to begin with a “house church” model of church planting. Now, there is lot’s of terminology floating around out there in the ether of church planting jargon, and too often no one is sure what anyone else means. So let me clarify a bit. We intend to “do church” in homes. We will begin in our own, and after bringing people to faith, move to their homes. The size of a church will be determined to a large extent by the size of a house or its meeting facilities. Interestingly, Arequipa is sunny about 340 day of the year, and there is lot of outside space available to poor people with tiny houses. So don’t bust my chops over practicalities! We’ll make do, and we certainly weren’t choosing this strategy because our converts will have big abodes. Churches that grow too large will multiply (it’s not PC to say “split”) and so grows the Kingdom.

So why have we chosen this model? Well, there are lots of reasons, and I suppose each of those might make a post. Every post will have to do with Latin American and, more specifically, Peruvian culture, and every one will be missiologically oriented. For this first one, I want to talk about the general issue often raised–at least to this point–concerning the Latin American perception of “church.”

Let me say that I am not an expert on Latin American culture, and although I can boast a missions degree form my glorious alma mater, I am neither over-qualified in missiology. I have actively endeavored to understand both, though, and that’s where I’m coming from.

It might be fair to say that the vast majority of difficult questions in the mission field are a matter of navigating the fine line between enculturation and accommodation. In any given situation, some will argue for what is “contextually appropriate.” Sensitivity to cultural context is the basis for sound missiology as we know it. In that same situation, others will argue for a seemingly less culturally appropriate option on the basis of some other governing principle. The former claims to be incarnational and the latter claims to be prophetic. The prophetic missionary accuses the incarnational missionary of accommodating people instead of teaching them truth, and the incarnational missionary accuses the prophetic missionary of being boorish and ethnocentric. Thank God Jesus was both incarnational and prophetic. (That was intended to be a massive understatement, in case you didn’t catch it.) We know a good mix is possible, if we can avoid the polarization.

So, here’s the scenario. Those of you who have been clenching in hope of a practical example, feel free to relax. Latin America (LA) as a whole is a Roman Catholic culture, if one may be so audacious as to lump that many nations culturally. There is an amazing homogeneity, though, and it is in fact due to the Catholic church more than anything. Ninety percent of LA would claim adhesion to the Roman Catholic church, though it is a commonplace among Protestants to follow this up with a sentence using the world “nominal” at least once. But that is neither here nor there. The point is that we are going to a place in which everyone has firmly fixed notions about what “church” looks like. The particular point of interest for this post is that church happens in a temple. As big a temple as possible, in the middle of everything if possible. Separated from temple, the Christian religion is unidentifiable for many and repulsive to no few.

The questions begin, then. We have become well accustomed to large, prominent buildings in the U.S. CofC, so there is no incompatibility there. We also have the resources as sending churches to acquire property and build largely, prominently, and centrally. It makes sense to us, and we can do it. So why wouldn’t we? Particularly if it removes a barrier that might impede a cultural Catholic’s journey to faith. We should meet people where they are when possible, right?

I will spend a lot of keystrokes in future posts explaining why I think such a procedure is erroneous, but here I will mention just one. It is bad strategy because it is a default methodology. We do not know how to plant any other kind of church in LA. Bizarrely, our house church strategy has actually been accused of failure to enculturate. I contend the opposite–which is yet to be demonstrated–but I also contend that the methodology nearly always employed in LA by CofC missionaries is in fact the failure on that count.

All this depends of how one measures success of course. I do not deny that we are able to build a building downtown in nearly any LA city and fill it. But most any minister would admit that the markers of success will manifest in the long run and often in intangible ways. Moreover, we have yet to witness a real movement of churches in LA using the building model. There have been greater and lesser successes numerically, and Brazil is often held up as proof that the model works. Yet, I can testify that churches throughout a number of countries in South America eventually disappear or plateau at an average of 30 members. Of course, this is a very complex phenomenon, but I already said there will be a lot more posts. In any event, this is not even numerical success (sending churches’ favorite kind), much less the other kinds of success that I value more highly.

My most essential point, though, is that in this case, we have not only carried an American church model with big buildings and big bucks to developing countries. We have also managed to call it “contextually appropriate,” which means we have failed to see that enculturation must also entail challenging aspects of culture.

Understanding them, but challenging them. This is certainly so when the culture is bound up with a particular understanding of the Christian faith. We do no Latin American a favor by accommodating the templo mentality. We do the Kingdom no favor either. Rather, this is an instance in which preconceptions must be deconstructed. In order to understand the theologically and experientially profound meaning of “church” as God intended it, the best policy is to disassociate it from the temple. A sermon on “being the church” preached in a shiny Protestant temple isn’t going to cut it.

One particularly baffling aspect of this discussion is where we are coming from as the CofC. Let me give a shout out here to AVB, “U Can’t Go 2 Church,” What’s Your Tag Say?. You formed my young theology and my cracking adolescent vocals. Anyway, there are two things that make a house church model particularly Restorationist in the CofC sense of the word. Most obviously, that was the way it all began. That’s tongue-in-cheek of course, but strange nonetheless. It happens to be one of those forms that has both sociological and theological impulses driving it. Under the rug it goes, though. Secondly, as AVB would remind us, we are churches that value saying what we mean and meaning what we say. Why allow misperceptions to govern our Latin American churches’ view of church (Because it governs our own?). And let me add that it does in those churches where we have merely taught that the people of God are the church rather than demonstrating it. I consistently hear CofC Latinos refer to and see them treat the building as sacred space. To whatever extent U.S. missionaries are responsible, we have not done church in a way that allows cultural Catholics to have a fundamental paradigm shift–a change in worldview–regarding church. My belief is that a house church model might facilitate such a shift.

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Thoughts on Strategy I