In a country that had been torn apart by a recent war, how is it possible that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been growing so fast? A little more than ten years ago, Guatemala ended more than 36 years of armed conflict; in the time since then, Adventism has grown there phenomenally.
From my time in the country, I could see three reasons in particular: (1) the centrality of cell groups, (2) the building of interpersonal relationships, and (3) the indispensable nature of community development.
These three produced a winning combination for evangelism. We would do well to learn from their success.
I started my mission in the West Guatemalan Mission in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.1 Ten years ago in Quetzaltenango (Xela), there were only two churches; today, this second largest city in Guatemala has 17. In 2000, there were about 2,500 baptisms at the West Guatemala Mission; in 2007, there were about 4,000.
The goals of the mission include the following: ten new churches each year and 10 percent growth in church membership. When Ramiro Hernandez, the mission president, shared the strategy, I discovered that this is based on cell groups. The goal is to have each person in a small group share a meal and study the Bible with others in their homes. The home provides a neutral, nonthreatening environment for people to experience the gospel. Public evangelistic events are also utilized, but their primary purpose is not to teach doctrine but to bring people to make a decision to follow Christ.
The focus does not center on creating megachurches but rather on establishing cell groups in communities where no Seventh-day Adventist churches exist.2 These cell groups then become churches that give birth to new cell groups. Presently, in the Quetzaltenango Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, eight cell groups operate, which helps explain why the city has gone from two churches to seventeen in just ten years.
Another reason for starting new churches from cell groups is that newcomers often have a hard time integrating into an established church.3 Common human aversion to change often makes this difficult. Hernandez suggested that the West Guatemalan Mission wants to start new churches so that new believers will not be discouraged by the attitude of some older members.
When I asked Pastor Hernandez what challenges the churches there face, his first response was lack of participation. Only 40 percent of the members are active in ministry. He wished that more members would work casa a casa (“from house to house”) establishing relationships. As one worker said to me, “If you don’t evangelize, you can’t convert.” The key to so much evangelism centers around the personal contact between members and those to whom they are witnessing. Developing friendships, ministering to their needs, sharing in their triumphs and sorrows, and taking the time to listen to their hopes, their fears, and their joys—all these play a major role in establishing the kind of relationships that will bear fruit. This was Jesus’ method, and this also works in Guatemala today.
While Guatemalans have traditionally been very religious, young adults are questioning the value of religious commitment. After hearing of my hope in the Second Coming, one of my Spanish teachers said that “it sounds beautiful but it is not my point of view.” He feels that churches distract people from working together to solve the real problems in their present lives by, instead, focusing on God’s help in a future world. In his view, the people need four things right now: food, work, education, and health.
He complains that instead of improving people’s lives, the churches compete for their loyalties. They have no amor al prójimo (“no love towards their neighbor”). After the last hurricane, one church built an expensive new sanctuary while thousands went homeless.
Thus, community development has become an essential part of sharing the gospel. The Guatemalans I met, who knew about the Seventh-day Adventist Church, appeared to have a positive impression citing healthy lifestyle or education programs such as the Seventh-day Adventist Asociación de Medicos (“Medical Association”). This group of doctors and dentists provide their services for free in underprivileged rural communities. I also visited with Vicente Navas, a self-supporting minister who left conference employment in order to focus on health ministry and open a natural remedy clinic.
Another area needing involvement is reconciliation between various groups within the Guatemalan society. The majority of members in Guatemala are middle class in the cities and poor in the rural areas. The mission sensed the need for more work among the wealthier classes. When asked about the relationships between indigenous and Ladino, the president cited Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NKJV). However, the churches are about 95 percent indigenous in some places.
Guatemalan churches also get involved by developing their youth in leadership. Seventeen teenagers meet each Sunday at the mission office to plan activities for the Youth Federation. Out of 55,000 church members, 10,000 are in their mid-teens through mid-20s. Although the youth are encouraged to serve as leaders in the church, still about 30 percent of the youth leave the church when they become adults.
Though many factors are involved, I’m convinced that these three—forming cell groups, focusing on interpersonal relationships, and facilitating community development—have been the active ingredients in creating such growth. I have no doubt, too, that whatever the vast difference between the situation in Guatemala and my own home church, the principles that have worked in that country would make a difference in my own.
1 I was studying here at CELAS Maya (www.
celasmaya.edu.gt), which I highly recommend for
full Spanish immersion. Quetzaltenango (known
as Xela), in the highlands of Guatemala, has a
large indigenous population and draws mainly
Spanish students and aid workers.
2 Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches
for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
Books, 2004), 26. Malphurs argues in favor of
megachurches and planning for massive growth.
He writes, “Quality churches with rare exceptions
will become quantity churches because quality
churches are actively involved in fulfilling Christ’s
Great Commission, which involves reaching and
discipling lost people.” While I agree that quality
churches will grow, I disagree that a megachurch
is the goal in every case. I believe that splitting
into a greater number of churches is at least an
equally effective method of reaching people.
3 Malhurs, 45. Malphurs writes that one advantage
of planted churches is that “those involved in
church planting are more open to change than
those in established, traditional churches.”