By Steven Morales
I love my country. I was born in Guatemala and have lived here almost my entire life and there are a few things I've learned during my time here. In fact, every day I learn and relearn that a 20 minute car ride can sometimes take you 2 hours. Not fun, trust me. It’s during these sometimes long car rides that I play a game where I try to count as many churches as I can on my way to my destination. On the way to church Sunday mornings, I count over 15 churches on a 12 minute drive. That’s a lot of churches. In reality, it's estimated that there are at least 18,000 churches (although I’ve heard higher numbers) in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee.
In 2013, a study reported that Guatemala was the third highest country with the largest percentage of Christians represented in its population at 97%. That percentage includes Protestants and Catholics. This same study claims that about 35% of the population identifies itself as evangelical.
So if Guatemala already has so many churches, then why would it possibly need more? On the surface, church planting may seem like the last thing we should do. But the truth is, when I say that Guatemala needs more churches, I'm not claiming it needs more of what it has now. It comes down to how we define churches.
The term “church” comes from the Greek word, ekklesia. Ekklesia was a word often used to express “as assembly” or “a gathering of people.” However, it’s use in the New Testament is a bit different than this. For Paul, the church was not a building nor was it a gathering of people (or as we might call it today, a church service). The church was the called out ones, the people themselves. The church is a people living in community and on mission, who are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of God dwells.
Guatemala doesn’t really have 18,000 churches. It may have 18,000 services. It may have 18,000 congregations. But we can’t say decisively that they’re churches. At least not all of them.
Every week there are over 18,000 gatherings of people that do whatever is right in their own eyes under the flag of Christianity. There are millions of people who label themselves as evangelical Christians, and while there is no doubt that some of them are, others are fatally misguided.
Spend some time in Guatemala and it will become clear why you may be wrong to label Guatemala as “Christian.”
It’s estimated that over 70% of the population lives in poverty (20% in extreme poverty) and are unable to afford basic services like medical attention, schooling, and even food. These families usually make only a few hundred dollars a year.
In 2007, the National Police reported 46,574 homicides from 1995 to 2006, 5,885 of them having occurred in 2006 alone. It also reported that in 2006, Guatemala had a higher homicide rate than Detroit, Washington D.C., and New York City combined. And it has only gotten worse. In 2008, the homicide rate was at 46% (6,292 per 100,000 people) and even this year (2014), already 2,293 young men and women between the ages of 14 and 29 have been murdered.
In a 2006 Pew Forum research survey, it was reported that approximately 71% of pentecostals (who heavily make up the majority of evangelicals) believe that God grants good health and financial prosperity to those who have enough faith. That means that 71% of the 35% of Guatemala affirm the gospel of prosperity.
How can these things exist in a country that is 97% Christian? I have found the following words by my fellow church planter, Justin Burkholder, to be helpful and to the point:
Perhaps you are still skeptical of the need for churches in Guatemala. After all, 97% is a very high number. In 2013, a local newspaper discovered that most religious organizations were actually reporting inaccurate numbers regarding conversions and membership. AIN (Asociación Ayuda a la Iglesia Necesitada), an organization funded by the Vatican was reporting that 13.3 million people were Catholics, making Guatemala the number one Catholic nation in Central America. The Episcopal Church countered this report saying that these numbers were exaggerated and that we cannot be sure that more than 60% of the population is Catholic. Another organization, the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala, has reported that their numbers are cold—they haven’t been able to track them well and most people who do keep a record of numbers are usually motivated by triumphalism, rather than honesty.
This is probably most clearly revealed in an AIN study in 2012 (mentioned earlier) that claims that 97.4% of the Guatemalan population is Christian. 75% being Catholic, 16% Protestant, and the rest belonging to other creeds. It is worth mentioning that these numbers contradict other studies made by other organizations.
The point of all these numbers is to say that we can’t trust the numbers. They don’t accurately reflect true Christianity in Guatemala and they shouldn’t stop us from planting churches in Guatemala. A high number of congregations or services does not mean a high number of true disciples, obedient believers. Numbers don’t prove that the people in those churches are marked by the qualities of true believers: reliance upon Scripture, ongoing repentance and spiritual growth, a mission-minded responsibility to make disciples, or a lasting dependency on Christ.
Recently I was telling a friend about the spiritual state of Guatemala and told him, “These people need the gospel!” His reply couldn't have been more simple and true, “You have the gospel. Take it to them.” This is our calling as gospel-bearers: if we have the gospel, our immediate responsibility is to take the gospel to people who desperately need it.
The plan is simple: preach the gospel, make disciples, plant churches. By planting healthy churches that in turn plant other churches, we carry out the Great Commission to make, mature, and multiply disciples (Mat. 28:28-30). We hope to accomplish this by immersing ourself in the surrounding culture, making intentional relationships and friendships with people who have been hurt by the church, left the church, or have at the very least been very confused by the church. Through these relationships we will share the gospel, baptize those who believe, and incorporate them into missional communities and gatherings where we will worship together, practice the sacraments and grow through the preaching of the Word.
Why not just start or get involved with more parachurch organizations? I like the answer given by Red 1:8, a multiethnic church planting network in North America,
The most biblical and most effective strategy for evangelism is the planting of new churches. There are many strategies for evangelism but the most biblical—the one used by the apostles in obedience to the Great Commission—is church planting. As they went from town to town, they did not carry out evangelistic crusades, Christian camps, or found orphanages or hospitals. They pointed people to Christ and planted churches. We believe we should do the same.
Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.” We want to saturate every corner of this church plant in prayer. Every movement of the gospel in history that has seen the church prevail began in fervent prayer. Please consider becoming a prayer partner.
Although I will be serving bi-vocationally, I am hoping to raise some support to cover living costs so that any income from the church can go back to ministry efforts. Please consider serving and supporting in this capacity.
We need people, who for the right reasons, are willing to consider taking a risk and joining us on mission for Jesus. Please prayerfully consider how you could play your part in seeing the gospel transform Guatemala City.
At this moment I am part of a pastoral leadership team and we have planted (and are still planting!) a new church in Guatemala City. Iglesia Reforma will be two years old in July! We are also affiliated with the Acts 29 Network. We have already partnered with ministries that are serving in some of the poorest areas of the cities and are hoping to enter and learn in these communities for the sake of preaching the gospel. I am serving bi-vocationally but am hoping to raise some support to cover living costs, ministry expenses, and other funding for ministry projects.
If you'd like to get in touch, feel free to reach out below.