In 1882, a Presbyterian missionary began the first permanent evangelical work in Guatemala. A century later, evangelical churches in that country are growing faster than their counterparts in neighboring Central American republics.

Evangelicals comprise nearly 25 percent of Guatemala’s population. Evangelical churches there are growing at an annual rate of 14 percent. Two Guatemalan denominations, Elim and Prince of Peace, have expanded into Honduras and war-torn El Salvador. But the growth is not limited to Central America. Latin American church leaders and missions strategists are planning to increase their foreign missionary force.

A major obstacle involves currency exchange laws that make it difficult to send money out of many Central American countries. In addition, few structures exist for sending Latin American Christians overseas. Latin America is a base for only 50 mission agencies, most of them in Brazil. That figure compares with 208 in Asia and 104 in Africa.

To try to overcome the problems, church leaders and missions strategists met at major meetings this year. In July, some 600 Christians from 17 countries met at the Central American Theological Seminary (SETECA) in Guatemala City. They laid the groundwork for the creation of mission sending agencies, and discussed ways to motivate churches to get involved in missions.

“We’ve seen how important it is that the local churches in Central America begin to take seriously the needs in other parts of the world, and not just wait for missionaries to come to us,” said Antonio Vasquez, a pastor from El Salvador.

“There’s a strong ground swell of interest and commitment on the part of local churches, both in terms of prayer and finances,” said Bill Taylor, coordinator of the event and director of SETECA’s new World Missions Center.

At an earlier missions conference in May, some 950 Christians from more than 30 denominations in Central America and Mexico met in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The meeting was sponsored by San Salvador’s 1,200-member Nazareth Church. Five years ago, Nazareth Church sent its first missionary couple to Spain.

“The evangelical church in Latin America has a responsibility to be involved in world missions,” said Luis Bush, pastor of Nazareth Church and an Argentinian graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. “But at this point there are very few structures available to those who feel called to foreign service.”

In addition to cross-cultural work, Central American evangelicals are making plans for evangelism within their own countries. A national church-growth conference was held in May in Antigua, Guatemala. Leaders from 41 parachurch and service organizations and from 33 denominations worked on strategies for reaching Guatemala with the gospel. They followed the Discipling a Whole Nation pattern developed in the Philippines. The program is based on each church drawing up its own plans and setting its own goals.

The common objective is for evangelicals to make up half of Guatemala’s population by 1990. That goal is attainable if the annual church growth rate can be increased from 14 percent to 17 percent and maintained at that level.

The Central American Evangelical Churches, the largest denomination in Guatemala, set goals for each of its congregations to double in size in addition to planting new churches. The denomination also made plans for each church to develop a literacy program for its members and others in the community, and for each regional association to promote schools, clinics, and homes for orphans.

Guatemala’s neighboring countries report average growth rates of 12 to more than 13 percent per year—four to five times greater than the rate of population growth. Each country manifests its own patterns and problems.

• In El Savador, hundreds of believers have been killed in violence related to the four-year-old civil war. Thousands have fled their homes, joining the tide of half a million displaced persons who have sought refuge in less affected areas or outside the country. In the midst of the conflict and suffering, the church is advancing. Evangelicals in El Salvador have tripled since 1974 to 750,000.

• In Honduras, evangelical church growth has been strong over the past 15 years, with an average annual growth rate of more than 13 percent. The Protestant community is estimated at half a million, around 11 percent of the population.

• In Nicaragua, the number of evangelical churches has doubled in the last five years to 3,002. Since the Sandinistas took power in 1979, Nicaragua has maintained a measure of religious freedom.

Many evangelicals supported the revolution and some continue to be committed Sandinistas. However, the government imposes some limitations on church activities. Special permission is needed for open-air meetings. Pastors say these permits are often refused. At other times they are issued and then canceled at the last minute. Churches are required to make minutes of business meetings available to the government.

Church-and-state tensions are evident as well in the Roman Catholic church, whose hierarchy at first supported the Sandinistas but is now at odds with the regime. The recent expulsion of ten foreign priests has exacerbated an already tense relationship. The priests apparently were expelled for participating in a march to support a Nicaraguan priest accused of passing CIA-supplied arms to rebels fighting against the Sandinistas.

STEPHEN R. SYWULKAin Guatemala City

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