As I have begun the process of seeking financial and prayer support for my being a long-term missionary to Buenos Aires, there are certain questions that continually seem to pop up. Some are human interest questions, like “What’s the food like?” “Are the girls pretty?” or “Is it safe for Americans?” But one of the questions that I often get from thoughtful people all over the place is, “Why do we need to send missionaries to Argentina?” I’ve gotten this question from pastors and laymen, from college professors and from middle scholars (not to mention from former girlfriends), and it is a question that really needs answering. In the last few editions of the Resurrection Times, we have answered the questions of the “What?” (May), “Why?” (June), and “How?” (July) of cross-cultural missions; now, in this article, I want to address why sending missionaries to Argentina is a productive ministry.
Common Objections to Missions in Argentina
There are usually several objections to other countries sending missionaries to Argentina. The first objection is that Argentina, many say, is a “Christian nation.” The assumption here is that since the majority of the country identifies itself as Roman Catholic, and because Protestant churches have been recognized and tolerated for over a century, that the Gospel has come to Argentina already and we don’t need to send missionaries there. The second objection is that Argentina is a “modern society.” The assumption here is that since the country as a whole has been industrialized, modernized, and secularized, that the goal of missions (societal progress) has been accomplished, and so missionary activity should be directed more toward “underdeveloped” cultures or countries. But both of these objections to cross-cultural missions in Argentina indicate a critical misunderstanding of missionary work in general and of the situation on the ground in Argentina.
First, although the Gospel may have in the past come to a people, culture or nation, this fact alone does not mean that God will not call a missionary to preach the Gospel afresh to them. For example, we are currently seeing God calling missionaries from Africa, Asia, and South America to come to the United States as missionaries!! The reason for this is that cross-cultural evangelism and ministry demonstrate the very character of God’s own passion to cross boundaries to share his love, just as he did in his Son Jesus Christ. The call of God to a missionary is to preach the Gospel to whomever he puts in the missionary’s path, whether it is the first time that people in that culture have heard the Gospel or whether it is the hundredth time, and to build up the Church of God in that place, whether the Church has been there for six months or for six hundred years.
We see this approach in the life of missionary extraordinaire and life-long letter writer, St. Paul of Tarsus: Paul went and ministered to wherever the Holy Spirit called him. The Apostle Paul and his motley crew did indeed prefer to preach the Gospel to cities where they were the first to share the Gospel, such as Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth. He writes as much to the Romans “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation,” (Romans 15:20). However, Paul also often spent many years ministering as a missionary in cities where the Gospel had already come. He spent years ministering in Ephesus even though the Gospel had come already through Apollos, Priscilla, and Aquila (Acts 19). In the same way, Paul made it his goal to come to the church in Rome and minister among them, and did so for over two years, even if it came about through his imprisonment (Acts 28). Paul’s ministry in those cities was no less important than in the cities to which he was the first to arrive with the Gospel, and that ministry bore enormous fruit.
Second, although missionary activity often brings technological, societal, and economic development (this is often called “redemption lift”), it is not the primary goal of missions or of missionaries. The “Scottish model” of missions, for instance, tends to plant every church with an accompanying grade school and clinic on the same block, beautifully illustrating that the same missionaries, ministers, and laymen who care for the spiritual needs of their community also care for the community’s physical needs. However, it would be a mistake to say that when the mouths have been fed, when the bodies have been clothed, when the sick have been healed, when the democratic elections have been implemented, and when the broadband internet connections have been installed, that the work of missions is completed. On the contrary, a culture may inherit all the comforts of modernization and still not have received the love and salvation of God through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. They may have gained this world, but they can still lose the world to come.
Oddly enough, given our usual expectations for missionaries, the Apostle Paul’s ministry as we see it in the New Testament did not target the poorest or “least developed” areas in the ancient Mediterranean world. Paul didn’t go to the interior of Turkey or Greece (horrendously impoverished areas), and he didn’t go to Scythia (where their barbarian customs brought shivers to polite Greco-Roman types). Instead, Paul went where the Holy Spirit called and led him, and the Holy Spirit took him and his posse to the posh cultural centres of the Aegean Sea. Paul spent most of his time preaching the Gospel to military retirement communities, to philosophical societies, to silversmiths and purple cloth tradesmen, and even to the hedonistic Las Vegas of his day (“what happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth”). In fact, the primary region that was sending missionaries to the rest of the world was Palestine, an area so poor that Paul actually raised funds for the missionary senders rather than the other way around!
So, despite our common stereotypes of missionaries, when we see the Holy Spirit calling people to be cross-cultural missionaries in areas like Argentina, Canada, Europe, or even the United States, we shouldn’t even blink an eye: God has been doing these sorts of things for a long time now! However, it is still important to ask how best missionaries can be of service in bringing the Gospel to the people of Argentina and in building up the Church of Jesus Christ in that area.
The Need on the Ground for Missions in Argentina
Argentina, despite appearances, is far from being a “Christian nation.” Though most (over 90%) would call themselves Roman Catholic, less than 20% of them are actually practicing, and even fewer would say their faith plays any part of their normal lives. Part of the reason for this is that the Roman Catholicism institutionalized in Argentina presents a gospel which mixes grace with works, which exchanges faith in the Church for faith in Christ, and which takes a casual attitude toward the sin both of individuals and of institutions. In the process, the Roman Catholic Church has faded into the background of Argentine culture as a traditional but largely irrelevant component of the needless religious part of modern life.
Indeed, Argentine society has borrowed much of the secularism that has plagued Europe over the last two centuries. Argentina as a whole truly bought into the promise of the Enlightenment: that if everyone will put their hope and trust in the progress of science, democracy, and economic liberty, that glorious prosperity and happiness would follow in the wake of this progress. But after a century of political dictators, failed military endeavors, and economic collapse (most recently in 2003), this promise has rung hollow, and the general feeling among the people of Argentina is a sense of bitterness and betrayal. The only answer to the despair and frustration that the people of Argentina have come to feel is the Good News of Jesus Christ, the only message that can offer lasting and ultimate hope.
Yet the Protestant and evangelical churches which should have been most ready to present this Good News to Argentina have suffered from two obstacles. The first obstacle is insulation: Protestant churches were only allowed to minister to certain ethnic groups (British, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, etc.), and until this past century were forbidden from evangelizing the native Roman Catholic population. Yet, after the ban was lifted, these churches were largely unable to break out of being mere cultural heritage centers for certain ethnic groups.
Recently, however, Anglican churches and others like them have begun to reach out with the Gospel to the culture around them, and to do so passionately. However, the second obstacle in their presenting the Gospel is now a lack of workers. Because these churches waited so long to bring the Gospel to the society around them, they tend to be small and few, and there are few ordained ministers or lay leaders who can proclaim this Gospel with the effectiveness that it deserves. There are approximately two Anglican congregations in Argentina for every ordained Anglican minister. What’s more, there is no Anglican seminary that can prepare and train up new ministers (candidates are currently attending the Baptist seminary), and there are few funds that can pay for their studies or pay their salaries as ministers upon graduation.
It is perhaps here that missionaries in Argentina can be most effective. By serving as ministers, pastors, evangelists, church planters, and seminary professors in Buenos Aires and other areas in Argentina where there are so few leaders, missionaries can not only labor in the vineyard of the Lord by proclaiming the Gospel themselves but also by building up and mobilizing the whole Church there to testify to the grace of God offered to them in Jesus Christ. In this way, the Gospel can be declared, the Church can be strengthened, and the God who calls us know him and to have a relationship with him can give his Son the prize for which he died: a Bride made up of those who worship his Father in Spirit and in Truth.
Does Argentina need missionaries? At the end of the day, we can give plenty of reasons why Argentina is worthy of the attention and efforts of American men and women dedicated to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who desire to minister there, but I believe it is God who truly needs to answer the question. If the Lord is calling people to serve as missionaries in Argentina, he has his reasons, he has his plan, and he has his means: and the result is going to be incredible!
This is the fourth in a series of six articles by Fr. David on cross-cultural missions and the Christian life, initially published in the August 2010 edition of The Resurrection Times.