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.
"We changed the mindset and said, 'Let's not work like an institution; let's work like a church and focus on spiritual gifts,' " says Bongarrá. "Which pastors are evangelists? Teachers? Prophets? Apostles?" Today more than 180 pastors representing almost 150 of the city's 350 churches participate in the council.
The unity movement soon shifted from fellowship between pastors to churches helping churches. When an Anglican church was forced to end its Sunday school program in 2008 for lack of teachers, prompting an exodus of families, Saracco's Pentecostal church sent four volunteers to run the program during 2009. When a suburban pastor faced losing his Christian school in a property lawsuit in 2008, the council paid his tax debt and teachers' salaries until the school got back on its feet.
For the past four years, Mraida has invited pastors from different denominations to serve Communion at his Baptist congregation's monthly Communion service. When Mraida's church was building a new sanctuary, pastor Omar Cabrera's nondenominational Vision of the Future Church 10 blocks away put up the 70,000 pesos for the cement for the building's second story.
"A lot of pastors told me, 'Hey, he's only 10 blocks away,' " says Cabrera. " 'Why are you helping to build his church?' And I said, 'Come on, we are all on the same team.' "
In June 2008, the council organized 40 days of prayer, culminating in a three-night outdoor vigil in front of the nation's Congress. A second 40 days of prayer was observed in 2009, leading to this year's 50-day campaign from Easter to Pentecost.
Evangelizing the City
Then, in November 2009, the unity movement made the significant shift from churches helping churches to churches evangelizing the city together. "Over the years we established relationships," says Mraida, "but we were not able to reach the level of mission."
Pastors incarnated the priesthood of all believers by seeking people to assume "spiritual responsibility" for each of the 12,000 blocks in the city center of 3 million residents. Volunteers pray for their block and pass out Bibles and fliers. Today the council has 7,000 blocks covered by volunteers from 100 local churches. Pastors are confident they will find volunteers for the remaining 5,000 blocks by year's end.
The council also launched a five-year ad campaign based on the Didache, an ancient treatise on Christian living, condensed into 40 propositions in contemporary language. Every two weeks, the city is saturated with a new message promoting Christian values. The message is distributed by newspapers, television, radio, billboards, taxis, and fliers, all with the catchphrase: "The Argentina that God wants … with Jesus Christ it is possible."
Many churches reinforce the ads by pegging their sermons to each week's theme. Congregations have been so enthusiastic that offerings to the council—normally less than 2,000 pesos per month—to cover publicity costs have totaled an astounding 750,000 pesos (US$196,000) in five months.
The latest example of citywide evangelism was the February 2010 sending of missionaries to North Africa as representatives of the entire church in Buenos Aires. Argentine churches have been actively sending missionaries overseas since the 1987 COMIBAM (Ibero-American Mission Cooperation) conference in São Paulo sparked the Latin American missions movement. But this joint sending (the Baptist family is supported by 20 churches) breaks new ground. "This idea has tremendous potential for mission, a model to make it possible for the economical realities in Latin America," says David Ruiz, former international president of COMIBAM.
The success in Buenos Aires comes at a time when traditional unity groups in Latin America—such as the conservative CONELA (Latin American Evangelical Fellowship) and the mainline CLAI (Latin American Council of Churches)—are dying out or losing relevance, says Ruiz, now associate director of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission. "Most of the evangelical alliances are facing an identity crisis," he says. "The council in Buenos Aires is a very unique body that is bringing an alternative for unity for the church in Latin America."
"The kind of unity structure that Saracco and Bongarrá represent is new. They actually do things together," said René Padilla, a leading Latin American theologian and president emeritus of the Buenos Aires-based Kairos Foundation. He noted that the council is very active but has limited influence outside the heart of the city, and big divides remain between mainline and conservative groups. "There are encouraging signs of people relating across denominations," says Padilla. "But there is still a long way to go."
Beyond Buenos Aires
Examples of unity are not confined to Buenos Aires. Pastors in Neuquén established a Christian HMO that provides medical services at low fees; other city councils have jointly purchased property in order to establish Christian radio stations. Yet Buenos Aires has been so successful that ACIERA, Argentina's evangelical alliance, summoned all the other councils in April to the city's Baptist seminary so pastors could learn from their Porteño colleagues.
Churches do not have to abandon their distinctives in order to participate. Pastors agree on core theological elements—"the Trinity, Jesus' death on the cross, his second coming—basically the gospel of Billy Graham and the Lausanne Convention," says Bongarrá—and agree to disagree on the rest. They continue to diverge on divorce, eternal salvation security, second baptism of the Holy Spirit, and worship, for example.
"These debates may be important in my congregation, but they are not important to work together and preach the gospel to the city," says Bongarrá. "We accept the differences as a richness. It would be very boring if all the churches were the same. Imagine if God made just one flower; that would be boring."
Instead, churches are trading strengths. "Today the mainline churches are helping the evangelical churches do social work, and the evangelical churches are helping the mainline churches do evangelism work," says Bongarrá. Christians now enjoy greater leverage in the public square because they can present a united front when confronting the government, most recently in November over the issue of gay marriage.
Bongarrá and Saracco say the process for choosing initiatives is simple: The council meets for a monthly meal, one in the morning and one in the evening to accommodate bi-vocational pastors. After eating and socializing, they present and discuss ideas, all of which receive a final group vote. Then they search for pastors who have the spiritual gifts to implement the projects.
The loose structure is deemed key to success. Another is having something to do. "For many years we'd meet as a council but didn't have a common project," says Bongarrá. "Now more and more pastors are joining us because it's good to pray together and have a good time, but people are happier to have something to do."
"Most important is the mindset to have unity be a continuous process, not an event," says Mraida. "Unity of the city is a process."
Visitors to Argentina have long talked about the evangelical revival they observe. Bongarrá counters: "We have had growth in the church, but not revival. Revival changes the structure of society. Now we have something better than revival: unity. Unity has opened the opportunity for true revival."
How far can Buenos Aires pastors go with their effort to become one? "Our vision is that one day we will have no separation between denominations, and we work in this direction," says Saracco, citing John 17. "But we are aware of our differences today, and we know we will not see this during our lifetime.
"Yet our vision and our task is one of faith. Maybe it will take 100 years, 200 years, 300 years—we don't know. But Abraham was the father of the faith because he believed, not because he saw."
Jeremy Weber is CT's news editor.
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Previous Christianity Today articles related to South America & Argentina include:
Ministry at the Center of Violence | Russ Stendal, held hostage for months by narco-terrorists, now ministers in their midst. (April 16, 2010)
Entire Diocese Jumps Out of Episcopal Church | Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin will affiliate with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, headquartered in Buenos Aires. (December 8, 2007)
Argentina: Prison Ward Becomes Model Church | "What's happened in Olmos cannot be humanly explained." (September 16, 1996)
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