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.”
Costa Rican urban church team prepares to take compassion to New Orleans
Obstacle. The word is all too familiar to youth pastor Edgar Brenes and the members of his low-income Costa Rican church. Serving others around the world wouldn’t seem a high priority.
Edgar attends the Centro International de Avivamiento Church, which is just outside San Jose. It is filled with first-generation Christians from broken homes. Edgar and the rest of the 500-member congregation have not seen much outside of their own barrios (neighborhoods).
On June 30, all of that will change.
For the first time in the church’s ten-year history, seven youth members and two adults plan to take a trip to the United States. They’re going to New Orleans, where they will spend mornings attending Challenge, the bi-annual EFCA youth conference, and afternoons participating in outreach to a city continuing to recover from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.
Youth member Rebecca Gonzalez, 20, says the team is excited to serve in a different country. “We can learn a lot from you [North Americans] and you can learn a lot from us. We would like to serve… We are not going just to travel.”
Setting this journey into motion has not been easy. In order for the team to go, members have had to apply for their passports and receive approval for tourist visas to the United States. Although the team is being sponsored by a partnering EFCA church, Church at Charlotte, members still have had to raise about $500 each. For the youth living in this underprivileged area of San Diego de Tres Rios, $500 is a seemingly impossible task.
Team member Ronald Chavarria, 20, says many team members are still in school, so they knew that paying for the trip would not be easy. Nevertheless, the team has been diligently holding car washes, garage sales, and selling lunches after church. Other church members have donated clothing to be sold at a rummage sale, with the funds going into the common pool for the trip.
Not only has preparing for this trip to the States been a financial challenge, but for many team members it also has been a mental challenge. Ronald notes that numerous people from the community, and even some from his own church family, have discouraged the trip out of jealousy. He can recall countless times that someone has said the team would not make it—that it is too expensive; too far; too unrealistic. But Ronald’s smile is contagious when he confirms that all those who doubted have been proved wrong.
“Since it’s the first time the youth from this church are traveling, it is a gift that is not coming from the church or the church in Charlotte, but from God,” says Ronald. The team believes that because this trip is a gift from God, no amount of jealousy inside or outside of the church can stand in the way.
Edgar says the team is ready. The youth have gone through a long process of hard work and they have prepared for the trip through prayer, Bible study and meditation.
“A personal expectation is to be able to convey what God has given us here — to transmit it there,” says Edgar, 37. “A passion for God; a love for people that need Christ. And my heart’s desire is multiplication… and to put into practice here all the things that we learn over there. I have high hopes for this group to learn and share with youth from other churches and countries.”
This passion for God and love for others is evident in the team and its church. Each new individual is welcomed in as a family member; no matter what their circumstances, their background, or their previous beliefs. This love and compassion is now being exported to New Orleans—literally.
“I think as children of God, when someone goes through something worse than us, God puts His words in our mouth, mainly in our heart, and makes us able to make other people see,” says team member Ana Guillen, 19. “Maybe we’ll feel the pain that they feel. Although we’re not going through the same pain, we might still be able to help.”
How can you help?
“The most important thing that this team needs right now is prayer,” says Melissa, a ReachGlobal missionary in Costa Rica who will be traveling with the group. “We’re trusting God to do much more than we can ask or imagine – like it says in Ephesians 3:20. We pray for safe travel and team unity, but we are praying for bigger things, too. That God would change the lives of our team members, stretching them and their faith. That they would see just how big the God they serve is. That He would help us cross cultural barriers to minister to those in need of His love in New Orleans. That this would be the first of many opportunities for Latinos to cross borders as missionaries to the world.”
Los Olivos Church uses playground to reach community
Watching kids whirl around a tire swing at the new playground in Sumpango Sacatepequez, Guatemala, you’d think they had done this a thousand times.
Truth is, the brightly colored slides and tubes make up the first playground of its kind in this agricultural town of 35,000 people.
The playground was installed in August by a team of 26 people organized by Kids Around the World, a children’s ministry that builds playgrounds, and Lake Wisconsin Evangelical Free Church, Lodi, WI. It overlooks a hillside lot owned by Los Olivos Church, one of the largest churches in Sumpango and the first Evangelical Free church in Guatemala.
Giving kids a place to laugh and tumble around might seem like a low spiritual priority to some; but leaders at Los Olivos see it as a grand opportunity.
The big idea? Reach the kids with the good news of Jesus, and their families will follow.
“In order to reach the children and youth, our church needed to have something attractive to them,” says missionary Oscar Chiquitó, who is also project direct at Los Olivos. “That’s why we came up to the congregation and said, ‘OK, we need to build a playground for the children, because we know if we have the playground, children will come.’
“At first it was really hard, because they thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’ In their minds, they always think that the church needs to care only for the spiritual life of people. But at the end, God was able to convince the people that this project would really attract the children and youth.”
City on a hill
The playground is just the start. Reaching older kids also means hosting sports. And in Guatemala, that means building a soccer field.
So on the terrace above the playground, the church is constructing an artificial-turf-over-concrete field. Built to withstand weather and negate the cost of maintaining natural grass, the field is one of only two outdoor soccer facilities in all of Sumpango. The other one is only hard-packed dirt.
Los Olivos is hoping to raise $20,000 for the turf from American partners soon. The church plans to use the field without turf until then.
That the soccer field exists at all testifies to the collective vision of the church, which has about 800 attenders. While the playground and the retaining wall separating it from the soccer field were funded through donations from Kids Around the World and U.S. churches, Los Olivos funded the field entirely on its own — $8,000 for 800 bags of concrete. This, in a town where people typically live on about $300 a month.
All it took to raise the money was for the skeptics to see the joy in the mob of laughing kids at the playground’s opening ceremony in August.
“When they saw that the children were having fun, when they saw that the children were enjoying this place, they got really excited,” Chiquitó says. “So they really bought it. And we really praise God, because we don’t have rich people in our church – we have poor people. But they were giving sacrificial offerings.”
Playing with priorities
Los Olivos’ original plan was to build a new worship facility on the land first, then do other projects – the field, the playground, a proposed school and perhaps a health clinic – later. However, Los Olivos favored the playground over the worship center as an extension of its outward focus on Sumpango and the surrounding area.
“They really felt like that’s what the community needed versus what the church needed,” says Paul Haan, a youth pastor from Hope Free Church in Manitowoc, WI, who has led several youth teams on trips to Sumpango. Haan’s latest team helped build the facility’s retaining wall.
“That’s a real testament to sharing the gospel,” Haan says. “It’s much more of a gift, and a gift is a pretty good demonstration of the gospel message.”
Playgrounds can play a key role in boosting a church’s impact in a community, says Kids Around the World Regional Vice President Chris Marshall. The $10,000 playground erected in Sumpango is a good example.
“What they are saying to that city is, ‘We believe in children, we love children, and we’re committed to your children,’” Marshall says. “It’s a disarming tool to get into a community in an even more powerful way.”
Brian Erickson, senior pastor at Lake Wisconsin Evangelical Free Church, says he values the vision of Los Olivos because of the church’s heavy emphasis on evangelism.
“There is such a felt need down there,” says Erickson, whose church has sent six short-term teams to work in Sumpango. “They don’t have money. They don’t have clean water. There’s a lot of illness. When you go down there and you meet felt needs in the name of Christ, it just sets you up for being able to then build off that and share Christ with people who are very needy and in a good position to receive Christ.”
Chiquitó sees the playground/field project as a lesson in how vision trumps dire circumstance in God’s work.
“One of my goals as a leader of the church is to bring the vision to them,” he says. “The Bible says, ‘Without vision, the people perish [Proverbs 29:18].’ Even though we don’t have the means, if we have vision, we know for sure that God will provide the means so we can really reach the vision that, as a church, we have for this place.”
Per capita income in America is almost $40,000, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Per capita income in Sumpango is about $3,500. What can Los Olivos’ generosity toward the work of Christ teach us about giving?
Read Mark 10:13-16. Talk about or consider yourself the value Jesus placed on children and how the vision that Los Olivos has for ministry to children fits in with that.
How can ministry to children reach entire households with the gospel?
Oscar likes to quote Proverbs 29:18. Read that verse and talk about the vision your church has for ministry. What are the strong points of your church’s vision? What might be lacking right now?
Name some ways you and your church could impact your community with the gospel without having all the funds to do everything right away.
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.
While the short-term team from Susquehanna Valley EFC and El Faro EFC fixed the leaky roof on Maria’s home, she told them how depressed she had been. In the past year, Maria had attempted suicide three times.
Maria lives with her husband and two children in Dichato, Chile, in Sector 3 of El Molino (The Mill), the biggest camp of people displaced by the February 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Eighty percent of Dichato was destroyed as the tsunami surged in and out over 30 times. In Sector 3 alone of the six-sector camp, 500 people live in 115 makeshift shelters.
As Maria shared about her experience, she asked the team to pray for her depression. Afterwards Jhonna Bello, El Faro’s youth pastor, shared the gospel with her. Maria put her faith in Christ that day and immediately dove into the Spanish Bible the team had given to her.
“She started reading Psalm 141,” Susquehanna Valley Pastor Randy Hunt says. “Right away it seemed that the word of God was already speaking to her.”
In June, keeping their promise to return, the churches sent the first short-term mission team to work in Sector 3.
The trip objective? Restore hope one friendship at a time, while serving in practical ways as the hands and feet of Jesus –repairing and fortifying family homes as well as the Sector 3 Community Center.
Broken spirits crying out for something more
The June trip confirmed what they had discovered in the January vision trip: Many people feel hopeless and dejected. As the team saw with Maria, there is a desperate need for Christ and a supportive church.
“The ocean took a lot of materials with it, but it also took some of our spirit. Our spirit has been broken,” a woman in the camp shared with them. “You all helped us a lot with spiritual things. That was something we really needed. All the people in Dichato also need to be helped spiritually.”
“People are really hurting emotionally,” Randy says. “Many struggle with depression and don’t have any way of talking through their issues.”
Long-term commitment and dreams
Susquehanna Valley and El Faro intend to be involved for the long term. The next trip is already planned for mid-January 2012. And the two Pennsylvania churches — Susquehanna is in Harrisburg, El Faro in Lebanon — are dreaming beyond just Sector 3. They’ve formed a consortium — Mission of Hope in Chile — and are challenging other churches to adopt one of the remaining five sectors.
“Though the camp is temporary, it could last a decade, and even then its residents will very likely remain in the area,” Randy reported recently at a Mission of Hope meeting.
Currently there is no church in the camp, and Randy and the Mission of Hope team envision one day planting a healthy, reproducing church that will serve all sectors.
It’s hard for people at Susquehanna Valley and El Faro to be so far away from their new friends, especially those who are just beginning their Christian walk. However, they are exploring how they might improve communication and offer discipleship from a distance, possibly through Skype. And, while partners are not easy to find in that area of Chile, they are praying for strong partners to come alongside their work in Dichato.
[Meet Teresa, a university student in Concepción, Chile, who is serving in Dichato.]
EFCA ReachGlobal and TouchGlobal are working in partnership with Mission of Hope in Chile to provide contacts, consultation, guidance, and training.