Nicaragua: Pastors Find Hope Amid Struggles

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Before Iglesia Resurreción y Vida had an actual church building, its original 25 members would carry wooden benches back and forth between various meeting places for worship.

All were young and without jobs. Romero struggled to shepherd his flock as well as maintain a job to earn income to support the church.

Twenty-nine years later, those benches still are used by this church as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Twice a year now in Chinandega, Nicaragua, Pastor Evaristo Romero opens the church to more than 80 pastors and leaders to be taught sound doctrine. For four days in June and again in November, people sit on the benches, plus a few white plastic chairs, in the one-room building with open windows.

The Bible Institute in Chinandega goes beyond simply teaching rural pastors and leaders fundamental doctrine. People take the doctrine that they learn and apply it to their lives. The truth of the Gospel impacts their lives in ways that make them grateful.

Seated on one of those benches is Pastor Martha Bonilla. As worship concludes, Bonilla steps forward from the front row of benches to lead her family of faith in a prayer filled with passionate thanksgiving.

Pastoring a church in El Viejo, a small city near Chinandega, Bonilla faces her own difficulties. For 13 years, she has cried out to God for her own husband. After 10 years, some of her anguish was swept away as her husband became a member of the church. Bonilla says that although her husband has been going to church now for three years, he does not want to commit himself to serving in the church.

“He helps a lot but he doesn’t want to sacrifice for the church,” Bonilla says.

She keeps wait for the day when her and her husband will work together in pastoring this church. She says that she knows the woman was made to be man’s helper and hopes someday for this to describe her relationship with her husband regarding the church.

Bonilla is not a stranger to heartache. Even as she attends the Bible Institute with seven other members from her church, she longs for more people from her church to come and study in Chinandega for the four days Iglesia Resurreción y Vida hosts this institute.

There are two explanations for why people from her church do not want to come, she said. Leaving for four days would mean they would not work for four days.

“Not all people want to come because they have work, families and can’t just take these days off. They don’t want to,” explains Bonilla.

And, as much as she tries to motivate them, many of those in her congregation do not like studying, she says.

One regular attendee at the Bible Institute who loves to study God’s word Pastor Reynaldo Acuña, who has been attending the Bible Institute since it first began in 1998. Despite already attending and receiving his degree from seminary, Acuña continues to return to Chinandega for the Bible Institute.

“In seminary I learned how to meditate,” Acuña says. “At the Bible Institute I learned biblical application.”

Looking back at other ways they Bible Institute has impacted their lives, both Acuña and his wife, Brenda Barahona, speak of the relationships they have today that have come from the fellowship here. During one of the most difficult times in their lives, Barahona quickly recalls how ReachGlobal missionary Melanie Wilson came alongside her in prayer in her time of need.

For 12 long years, Acuña and Barahona waited and prayed for a child. After two years of treatments and plenty of visits to the doctor, they were told that they would not be able to have children. Nevertheless, Acuña and Barahona continued to pray for a child.

Acuña recounts when his wife told him how when she read the Bible story of Hannah’s barren womb, Brenda cried because she knew how Hannah felt when she desperately cried out to God for a child. Smiling, Acuña says God heard their cries and two years ago blessed them with a son. They named him Samuel.

“He is only 2 years old but has the energy of a 12-year-old,” says Barahona with a laugh as she watches Samuel chase a ball around the dirt courtyard outside of the Bible Institute.

Though the lives of Romero, Bonilla, Acuña, and Barahona bring different difficulties, the strongest thing they have in common is their faith. And, thanks to this ministry of sound doctrine teaching, the Bible Institute has helped shaped their faith so that they are able to face difficulties with hope.

“It has been a great blessing and a great impact because we have taken a lot of what we have learned and we are teaching it and applying it in our own churches,” Pastor Romero says.

In Nicaragua, Bible Training Strengthens Churches

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Inside a sweltering, one-room church, fans blow, children wander, and English and Spanish blend together. At the front of the room, Chris Moore, a pastor from Fort Smith, Ark.,  passionately teaches on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. By his side, Nicaraguan Chico Avendaño translates the words into Spanish.

This gathering in Chinandega, a city of 120,000, is one of eight Bible Institutes happening throughout Nicaragua twice a year. Most of the attending 80 pastors and leaders from rural churches don’t have the resources to attend a formal institution for biblical education. These four-day gatherings address that need, and the accompanying problem of incorrect doctrine being taught to congregations.

“So, what are people teaching?” asks Bible Institute professor Stefan Feliz-Kent. “Basically what they hear on the radio or TV, which is a lot of prosperity gospel and garbage doctrine.”

Jim Wilson, missionary with ReachGlobal and the general overseer of the Bible Institutes, seeks to fulfill the need for formal theological education in rural Nicaragua.

“Our primary objective is to provide Latin American pastors with biblical, theological, and pastoral training that they otherwise don’t have access to,” Wilson says. “We have 15 courses; it takes about seven years to complete the program.”

In 1998, when he was pastoring a church in Huntsville, Ala., Wilson got a call from a friend asking if his church would be interested in doing long-term ministry in Nicaragua. After his first trip there, Wilson saw the need for pastoral training and his church decided to begin meeting that need.

“We began in 2000 with our first institute in Chinandega and God has blessed that,” Wilson says. “Now, we have eight different Bible Institutes in eight different cities in Nicaragua. We also have three in Costa Rica and we have one in Panama.”

As a result of the growth, Wilson says, more U.S. churches have begun partnering with the Bible Institutes and adopting specific locations. Churches who adopt an institute are responsible for bringing a team to teach, providing lunch for the pastors who attend and paying their daily transportation costs.

On day one, Moore and his team hand out copies of “For Your Joy” (“Para Tu Gozo” in Spanish) by John Piper. Many pastors ask for multiple copies to take back to their congregations. Giving out resources like Piper’s book is another role that churches like Moore’s — Fellowship Bible Church of Fort Smith — take on when adopting an institute.

“I believe that there is a lack of resources that are available to the pastors,” Moore says. “What we are able to provide in the Bible Institute is resources for the pastors and the church leaders so that they can get equipped and trained so that they can turn around and equip and train their people.”

Avendaño, a former Bible Institute student, followed this model.  After attending the Bible Institute, he changed his approach toward reading the Bible.

“When I am reading the scriptures, I apply the message that they’ve given us: how to read the Bible and how to interpret it,”  Avendaño says.  “I used to go to the Bible like any other book and I didn’t know how to do it in the right way. Now, I read it, meditate on it and then I interpret it and apply it.”

One of the key beliefs in the Bible Institute ministry is that training locals like Avendaño will give their ministries a lasting impact.

“[In missions] we don’t have a good history of transferring the authority to the local leaders,” Feliz-Kent says. “This ministry is doing that pretty well. Our idea is teach the local pastors and church leaders these fundamentals so that they in turn, continue teaching them to others.”

Feliz-Kent believes that equipping local church leaders with correct doctrine and principles for interpreting the Bible will help the church in Central America as a whole prosper.

“The church is not what it’s supposed to be because of bad teaching. That’s what motivates me and that’s what moves me. That’s why I do this. There is great need for theological education,” Feliz-Kent says.

Leaders of the institute agree that they are seeing God move in their ministry.

“They’re hungry, they want to learn, they’re picking up what you’re saying and are able to respond and ask good questions and explain it in their own words,” Feliz-Kent says.

Wilson also finds the growth of the institute and the testimonies of the pastors to be an encouragement.

“So many of them have come back and told me the blessing they have seen in their church,” Wilson says. “As they have turned around and reproduced and multiplied what we have brought them, they’ve taught it to their people.”

After the final session, despite the humid heat that fills the room and the six hours of intensive teaching and worship they’ve just experienced, the local pastors form a line behind Wilson and the team of teachers from Fort Smith. Some come up with their Bibles and ask probing questions about what they’ve learned. Many kiss the teachers on the cheek and bless them for their work.

“Thanks a lot for this kind of job that you are all doing here because you are a great instrument from the Lord,” Avendaño tells some of the leaders. “Just by coming here from a long distance to train pastors, I can see you have a love for the Lord.”

Hungering for Sound Bible Teaching

After years of anticipation and earnest prayers, the Christian community of Potosí, Nicaragua, launched its very first Bible Institute with the help of ReachGlobal missionary Jim Wilson and his friend, John Boles.

Potosí, a rural village of about 1,600 people, has no banks and no grocery stores. Simply exchanging American dollars for local currency is a chore. But Christians there still wanted a Bible school all the same.

“They prayed for eight years that [we] would come and begin an institute in Potosí,” Wilson says. “That prayer has been answered. They faithfully prayed, and God faithfully answered.”

Wilson established his Bible Institute ministry in 1999. The institute has two sites in Costa Rica, two in Panama and eight in Nicaragua. The seven-year program focuses on equipping pastors and church leaders in biblical and theological education for pastoral ministry.

The first institute was launched in the state capital, Chinandega, a one-and-a-half hour drive south of Potosí. Pastors and church leaders from Potosí and surrounding villages, some up to three hours away up mountain roads, would leave their homes at 3 a.m. just to participate.

That distance was cut much shorter when the Potosí Bible Institute held its first session in June.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the kingdom of God advanced in that area of Nicaragua — healthy churches preaching and teaching sound doctrine and unity in the body of Christ,” says Melvin Loza, a translator and former Bible Institutes student who now serves on the ministry’s teaching team.

Welcoming visitors of all kinds

Boles, a middle school math teacher in Arkansas, was eager to join Wilson in his mission to teach the Potosí church pastors and leaders. After five years of Wilson urging him to pack his bags, Boles’ schedule finally allowed him the opportunity to come.

“I have wanted John to come for years,” Wilson says. “The fact that that actually happened was neat.”

Boles had no idea what he was getting himself into when they arrived in Potosí.

After their first day of lectures, Boles and Wilson spent the night at a local pastor’s two-room cinderblock house. While the family of six slept together in the only bedroom, Boles and Wilson slept in the main living area, surrounded by huge bags of rice, flour and beans.

The uneasiness set in when cats, dogs, roosters, lizards and bullfrogs started roaming the house – a parade of animals officiated by a roosting hen that nestled on Boles’ portable cot in the morning.

Despite the discomfort – animals, humidity and endless swarms of gnats – Boles says he was very grateful for the accommodations and is excited for the future of ministry in Potosí.

“They are a very passionate people,” Boles says. “During worship, they are engaged and passionate about God’s Word. They will drive several hours in the back of a pick-up truck, standing, to hear the Word.”

Lessons learned

About 130 pastors and church leaders from the surrounding 15 communities crammed into pickup trucks and piled onto bikes to attend the inaugural lessons. The two-day session, held at a local church, focused on failure and how we, as humans, react when we fail. Using Bible stories of Adam, David, Peter and others, instructors urged students to turn to God’s forgiveness when — not if — failure occurs.

“We encouraged the folks in Potosi to seek God’s forgiveness and deal with others who fail in a biblically balanced manner – not to ignore sin, but not to condemn and reject others when they fail,” Wilson says.

The lessons could not have been timelier for people in Potosí. One local pastor desired to forgive his adulterous wife and restore their marriage; however, his denomination demands that he either leave his position as pastor or reject his wife.

“Failure is a huge problem in Latin America,” Wilson says. “It typically is swept under the rug [with] no process of biblical restoration.”

Boles and Wilson seem confident that the people’s passion will serve as catalysts in Potosí for the institute’s mission to flourish in the years to come.

“Now that God has answered [their] prayer, my hope and prayer is that God will use the pastors, who are trained at the Bible Institute, to fulfill their vision of reaching the entire [Potosí] peninsula with the Gospel and pastoral training,” Wilson says.

Connect

Jim.wilson@efca.org

Learn More

See article on Melvin Loza.

Serve

Contact Jim Wilson if you have interest in one of the following:

  • Teaching in one of the Bible Institutes
  • Serving in Compassion Ministries alongside one of the Bible Institutes
  • Providing financial assistance to feed and transport pastors, who attend the Bible Institutes
  • If your church might have an interest in adopting a Bible Institute in Central America

Pray

  • Pray for safety in travel.
  • Pray for Wilson as he balances all of the competing time demands.
  • Pray for the work of updating and improving the teaching curriculum.

 

Meet Melvin: Translating The Bible To Everyday Life

It wasn’t easy for Melvin Loza to reconcile what he learned in the Bible Institute in Corinto, Nicaragua, with what he had learned in church as a boy. At the Institute, he heard things he had never heard before.

What types of things?

“Things such as… we cannot manipulate God to give us what we want by giving money to a church or any other place,” Melvin says. “He is sovereign and He is in control of everything, even though it does not look like it to us.” He quickly lists at least six other concepts and acknowledges that the list could be even longer.

“The Lord used the Bible Institute to put a rock in my shoe,” Melvin says, referring to the discomfort he felt — and couldn’t ignore — after he first attended an Institute in 2002. “What I had learned all along was being challenged. I had to continue to digest the things I heard after the week was over.”

The Bible Institute was meeting twice a year in his hometown of Corinto, offering pastors and lay leaders a chance to receive solid biblical and theological training. [Read more about the Bible Institutes in Nicaragua in an article about the Rivas Bible Institute.]

Melvin’s pastor advised him (and others in the church) to stop going to the Institute.

“He wanted to tell us what to believe,” Melvin says. “Some people stopped going, but I was a rebel. I didn’t listen. I kept going.”

He’s thankful that he did.

As Melvin continued to go to the Institute and ask the hard questions of his faith, he eventually experienced what he describes as the most liberating moment of his life.

“I had always struggled with the idea that we could lose our salvation,” Melvin says. “Learning about eternal security changed my life. I had always thought grace was just something we received at the point of salvation. I didn’t know that grace was part of daily living. Now I live out of love and gratefulness for what God has done — not out of fear.”

But that wasn’t the only life-change Melvin experienced as a result of his time in the Bible Institute.

Opening doors with English

When Melvin first started attending, part of what piqued his interest in the Institute was the fact that a group of North Americans were teaching the lessons in English. Although the lessons were then translated to Spanish, Melvin wanted to understand the teaching in both languages.

Melvin also recognized that knowing English could lead to better work and ministry opportunities.

“Melvin was a teenager in the very early days of our Bible Institute ministry,” says Jim (then pastor of Hope Evangelical Free Church in Huntsville, AL, and now a ReachGlobal Latin America missionary). “I remember him as an especially eager learner.  He was eager to practice his English — which was limited at the time. He very often took the initiative and sought out the ‘gringos’ in order to start conversations and improve.”

In between the semi-annual visits from the North American teams, Melvin dedicated himself to intensive English study. He and his family couldn’t afford formal English studies, so Melvin taught himself.

“There were days when I would study from morning to night,” Melvin says. Even today, he continues to study, keeping his English fresh. “I’m always studying. I just have to read, looking up words I don’t know and rereading until I completely understand it. I watch movies in English and listen to podcasts from churches in the U.S.”

He had his first opportunity to translate for a Bible Institute in April 2005 — three years after attending his first Institute as a student.

“It was the first Bible Institute in Juigalpa, Nicaragua,” Melvin remembers. “Jim had invited me to translate and I wanted to just translate for him. He had the easiest accent to understand. But then the night before the Institute began, I found out that I would be translating for everyone. I was really nervous. The first five to ten minutes were intimidating, but it went well after that.”

Now, six years later, Melvin speaks impeccable English and is an integral part of the Bible Institute translation team.

“Melvin is a truly outstanding translator. He takes his job seriously and understands the importance of communicating clearly and with passion,” Jim says. “He has become absolutely essential to our ongoing work.”

And his ministry opportunities have also expanded. Each year, he spends an average of 2-3 weeks per month translating for several other ministries in addition to the Bible Institutes (which are now offered in five Nicaraguan cities).

In the future, Melvin hopes to study Christian ministry and the Bible in the United States.

“I want to pursue higher education there and bring it down here (to Nicaragua) and teach others,” Melvin says, unsure of when that might happen. “But right now, I’m living on faith. I trust that God will align things to follow His will.”

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CONNECT

latinamerica@efca.org

PRAY
  • For Melvin’s ministry as a translator — that God would continue to use him to reach the Nicaraguan people with biblical truth.
  • For Melvin’s dreams for his future and that he would continue to trust the Lord for His best plan for his life.
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The Time Is Right Now: Biblical Training in Rivas

When Jim mentioned he was preparing for his next trip to Nicaragua, Chris asked him a simple question: “Do you need anything?”

“I was thinking he might need a backpack or a Nalgene bottle or something,” Chris says, laughing.

He was not expecting Jim (then teaching pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Conway, Arkansas) to invite him to join the team — especially with that team heading to the airport in about 36 hours. Yet, despite the short notice, Chris willingly jumped in, ready to get his first taste of a Bible Institute in Juigalpa, Nicaragua. That was the fall of 2005.

Jim (now serving with EFCA ReachGlobal in Costa Rica) started his first Bible Institute in Nicaragua in 1999 with two things in mind: (1) provide an opportunity for his local church to serve internationally and (2) train and equip pastors and leaders in Nicaragua with sound basic theology.

“Our vision was very simple: Influence the influencers and involve our people,” Jim says. “We wanted to be strategic and concentrate our energies and efforts on developing local pastors who would then be better equipped to lead and feed their people. We also wanted to provide our church with a corporate sense of long-term focus while also providing individual members with opportunities to deploy their gifts and passions for service.”

After Chris’s first experience in Nicaragua — observing a week of teaching and helping to scout out other missions opportunities in Juigalpa — he thought he’d give teaching a try the following year.

“It was hard not to fall in love with the people and the country,” he says. “Plus, I was blessed with a theological education, and I could turn around and bless someone else with that.”

Tragedy and a second chance

Powerful as that first trip was, it was during the funerals of two fellow short-term missionaries that Chris truly felt convicted to do more for God with his Biblical Studies degree from college.

After all, God had kept him from the fateful outing that had claimed his friends’ lives.

In April 2006, Jack Logan and Bert Alexander drowned in Lake Nicaragua, sacrificing their lives to save two Nicaraguan boys after their boat capsized. The boys’ parents, a Nicaraguan pastor and his wife, also died in the accident. Chris, Jim and Jim’s daughter, Hope, had flown back to the U.S. a day early, not participating in the tragic event.

“Jim said something to me that day about how God had saved us,” Chris says. “I went home and I said to myself, ‘I keep thinking I’m going to go do ministry someday. I keep preparing for it and preparing for it. But really it’s time to get busy doing kingdom work now. I don’t know how much time I’ve got.’”

Rivas Bible Institute is born

So Chris decided to start a Bible Institute in Rivas, Nicaragua. He had just begun attending Fellowship Church Arkadelphia (Arkansas) and working at Oauchita Baptist University, and he saw it as a great way for the church and university students to get involved in missions — they could take ownership of a new Bible school.

“I saw the Bible Institutes as short-term missions done well,” Chris says. “There is long-term impact. It’s more strategic.”

Since the spring of 2007, Chris (now executive pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Conway) and his teaching team have held seven week-long Institutes in Rivas, and they plan to return for at least four additional sessions. They’ve taught courses on The Authority of Scripture, Biblical Doctrine (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Man, Sin, and Salvation), Bible Study Methods, and other topics relevant to pastors and leaders.

It hasn’t all been easy, but it’s been worth it.

“The first couple of years it was hard. We weren’t seeing dramatic fruit,” Chris says. “But God had called us to it and I had given the pastors in Rivas my word that we would go through the full curriculum. So we kept with it. Two years in, we turned a corner. The nature of the questions they were asking shifted — they trusted us. They weren’t just feeling us out anymore. They were ready to go deeper.”

Filemón, president of the Pastors’ Council in Rivas, is pleased with the results of the semi-annual Bible Institute, too.

“The pastors and leaders leave [after the week of teaching] and they have the ability to preach better,” Filemón says. “The majority do not have formal studies, and they don’t have the money to pay for them.”

They make a sacrifice, though, to take part in the Bible Institute — often taking a week off from work to receive the theological training the Institute provides.

“One of the greatest miracles we see happening here in Rivas is that we’ve been able to unite all of the different denominations in the city through this activity,” Roger, a local pastor, says. “God says that what is from Him will prosper. It’s obvious that this ministry is from God. It’s a blessing for the people of Rivas.”

The Bible Institutes in Rivas, Juigalpa, and three other Nicaraguan cities could not happen without the work of the Nicaraguan translation team. Find out more about one of these translators — Melvin Loza.

 * * * * *

CONNECT
latinamerica@efca.org
PRAY
  • For the pastors and leaders who attend the semi-annual Bible Institute in Rivas — that God would continue to use the Institutes to improve their preaching and teaching.
  • That God would continue to open doors for new Bible Institutes in other cities in Nicaragua as well as in other Latin American countries such as Costa Rica and Panama.
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