Commonly referred to as “the land of eternal spring,” Guatemala is a country filled with lush forests and imposing, volcanic mountains. It has a rich history and culture as the cradle of Mayan civilization and for centuries has preserved the architectural memory from its Spanish colonial past.
While Spanish is Guatemala’s official language, there are about 23 Mayan languages still in use among indigenous groups. As a teenager I visited Guatemala for a missions trip. One treasured memory from that visit was sitting around a campfire singing “Shout to the Lord” in three languages (English, Spanish, and a local Quichean dialect), a tangible reminder that our Lord has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9b).
Guatemala has enjoyed relative peace the last 20 years after a tumultuous 20th century of civil war, ethnic genocide, and various coups d’état. Statistically, Guatemala is one of the most evangelical nations in Latin America, boasting 35 percent of the population; and yet these figures can be misleading for those of us who oppose health-and-wealth teaching and view it as nothing less than a false gospel.
As we continue our series on the gospel in Latin America, I corresponded with Steven Morales, who in addition to serving as associate editor for the Spanish version of TGC’s site, is also part of a pastoral leadership team hoping to church plant in the Guatemalan capital, Guatemala City. In this interview we learn about the common view of Guatemala as the “Promised Land,” how the power of Christ makes us more alike than different despite our cultural differences, and more.
How would you describe the state of the church in Guatemala?
Guatemala is considered by many to be a “Christian” nation, and while I hear people use Jesus’s name all the time, it’s usually as a means to other things. Prosperity theology, pastoral abuse, biblical illiteracy, and corrupted ministry practices are all too common. The truth is that Guatemala is not so much “Christian” as it is confused. People know Jesus as a symbol of Christianity but not who he is as the Bible expounds him. Generally speaking, Christianity in Guatemala is dominated by Roman Catholic restrictions, syncretistic paganism, immature leadership, and a tragic misunderstanding of the gospel. There is still much work to be done here.
What most encourages you about the evangelical church in your country?
God is here. While in many places the gospel has been watered down or altogether forgotten, God has been creating a hunger for his Word in pastors and small churches. Every day the weaknesses of nominal Christianity are being exposed and more and more people are asking, “So what is it really all about?” As this grows, my prayer is that more and more believers abandon their empty traditions and unbiblical practices and embrace the centrality of the gospel in their lives and plant their feet on the foundation of the Scriptures. I am encouraged to already see the first glimpses of this and am hopeful for the church in Guatemala.
What is the biggest challenge facing the evangelical church in Guatemala?
The biggest challenge is deconstructing the idea that “we have it all figured out.” I’ve heard several people from other Latin American countries refer to Guatemala as the “Promised Land.” This is no surprise considering that Guatemala statistically scores high on all accounts of “religious activity.” We must be cautious, however, to not mistake religious activity for genuine faith. In order for the church in Guatemala to grow into maturity, we need to learn to be teachable. We don’t have it all figured out, and there is still much to be learned about God, the Bible, and the gospel.
A recent report indicates that both Roman Catholics and Protestants in Guatemala share their faith more than any other country in Latin America. What’s behind that cultural push?
It’s important to have a clear definition of what “share their faith” means. In Guatemala, Christian lingo is deeply embedded in the culture. People talk about Roman Catholic or evangelical matters, but that doesn’t mean they’re evangelizing, know sound doctrine, or actually understand the Bible. I hope that Guatemala continues to be known as the country where people most share their faith, but my greater hope is that the faith we share is true and faithful to the Scriptures.
What do you think distinguishes the church in Latin America from the church in the United States? How can Latin American believers be an encouragement to those in the states?
I’ve noticed that the church in Latin America seems to be facing a lot of issues the church in the United States has generally already dealt with, and for that matter, is still dealing with those effects. The worship wars, the emergent movement, the rise of expository ministry and Reformed doctrine, cultural engagement, the renewed missional focus on church planting, even the use of the term “gospel-centered” are no longer relatively new matters—but they are for the church in Latin America. ”Where did all these Calvinists come from?” may have been Mark Dever’s question in 2007, but many Latin Americans are asking that same question today.
The greatest encouragement between believers in the United States and Latin America is that we worship the same God. There is hardly anything more beautiful than seeing people all over the world exalt the same God, preach the same truths, and carry out the same gospel. Latin Americans don’t need to emulate the ministry practices of their northern brothers and sisters, but they do need the same gospel. Despite all the cultural differences, we’re not all that different when it comes to the sin in our hearts and our need for a Savior. And that should be encouraging.
You are part of a pastoral leadership team that is prayerfully strategizing and hoping to plant a new church in Guatemala City by spring of 2015. Would you tell us more? And perhaps share how others can pray and help?
Over the last year I’ve been part of a team planning, preparing, and praying for a church plant in Guatemala City. It is our desire to develop a community where the gospel is really the center, the Bible is honestly communicated, and the mission of making disciples is passionately pursued. We have already partnered with ministries 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.
It is our prayer that we would be a church that makes, matures, and multiplies gospel-centered disciples who grow in holiness, transform their city, and take the gospel to every corner for the glory of God. As we take these first steps, please pray for (1) clarity on how to share the gospel in a world steeped in the prosperity gospel and (2) unity among a team of leaders practicing counter-cultural leadership in a culture where many have suffered from pastoral abuse.
How can we pray for the church in Guatemala?
One of the pastors from our church plant recently sent me a prayer list for Guatemala. I’ll mention three in particular: (1) Please pray that God would bring to ruin all gospels contrary to the true message of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:8-9). (2) Please pray for clarity in proclaiming the “excellencies” of Jesus Christ in all that we do (Col. 1:15-20, 1 Pet. 2:9-10). (3) Please pray that God would raise up other church-planters and other churches in Guatemala City and the rest of Latin America (Matt. 9:38).