'Something Better Than Revival'
Facing its final sunday as a church, a small Pentecostal congregation e-mailed Norberto Saracco on a Wednesday in 2007 asking for prayer. They would lose their Buenos Aires property unless the church paid an impossible US$25,000—nearly a year's worth of offerings—to resolve a long-standing property lawsuit.
Saracco, co-leader of the Council of Pastors in Argentina's capital, sent up a prayer—and sent out an e-mail saying, "We cannot afford for $25,000 to let a church close in Buenos Aires." Two days later, pastors from an array of denominations had donated the money.
"When we say there is only one church in Buenos Aires, these are the consequences," explains Saracco. "If we want a strong church in Buenos Aires, every local church has to be strong."
This is just one of the fruits of perhaps the most remarkable experiment in citywide church unity today.
A Simple Idea
Argentina's unity movement is based on a simple biblical concept.
"Each time the New Testament speaks of the church in a city such as Ephesus, it is always singular, never plural," says Carlos Mraida, pastor of Del Centro First Baptist Church. "Yet when the New Testament speaks of leadership in a city, it is always plural. The church is singular, but leadership is plural."
"When we go to the U.S., we cannot understand the division of the church," says Saracco, pastor of Good News Church. "You can have one pastor on one [street] corner and another on another corner, and they don't know each other. Here we are friends."
More than friendship is at stake. Mraida estimates that while 90 percent of Buenos Aires churches have grown during his 24 years as a pastor, the city outside the church walls is significantly worse off by almost every spiritual and secular measure.
"So it seems that the church grew, but the kingdom of God has not been established," says Mraida. "Jesus said the only requirement for us to see revival is that we be one, so that the world may believe [John 17:20-23]. The missionary paradigm of each one doing [his] own thing did not work. We have to go back to a biblical paradigm."
Porteños—as city residents are known—initially tried to start a unity movement after Billy Graham's 1962 crusade in the capital, and again after Luis Palau's 1977 crusade, but both attempts fizzled. Churches were never hostile or competitive, said Juan Pablo Bongarrá, Brethren pastor of Church of the Open Door; they just focused on individual projects.
A new spirit of unity arose in the early 1980s, when hundreds of Argentine cities formed pastors councils thanks to the crusades of Carlos Annacondia. The Pentecostal businessman-turned-preacher required the formation of a council before he would visit a city. The decade closed with two national retreats attended by 1,200 pastors.
The Buenos Aires council was founded in 1982 by five pastors: Bongarrá, Saracco, Mraida, charismatic pastor Jorge Himitián, and Baptist pastor Pablo Deiros. Their starting point was creating friendships between pastors, said Saracco, as it's easier to unite people than denominations.
Next came reconciliation over past wrongs. The political tumult during the nation's Dirty War of the 1970s and '80s created a deep divide between mainline churches, which defended human rights, and evangelical churches, which remained silent, says Saracco. At a downtown summit in 1999, the council asked the two sides to forgive one another in front of the 250,000 gathered.
Over time, pastors wanted a formalized structure and created rotating elected offices of president, vice president, and other traditional positions. But functioning as a typical institution did not work well, says Bongarrá, and the council lost momentum. So in 2006 the council invited the founders (minus Deiros, who had left for Fuller Theological Seminary) to come back and revitalize the council. The four agreed—on one condition.