Unleashing the Gospel (or, Strategic Investing for Kingdom Returns)
by Craig Smith
Samuel looked across the table at us, his eyes brimming with tears. “I love my country,” he said, “and I love God’s people in my country. Sometimes, when I think about the church in Bolivia, I cry.”
I don’t know what you think of when you read those words. Chances are, if you’re like me, you assume that the Christians in Bolivia are persecuted for their faith. Or maybe you think that they’re so poor they don’t have the basic stuff of life: food, clean water and shelter. But if those are what you think Samuel was talking about, then like me, you’d be wrong.
“In Bolivia, we have almost no teachers of good theology. There are only 2 doctors of theology in all of my country and one of those is stopping to work, so soon there will only be one teacher of theology to help all of the pastors in my country. Our theology is weak, like little babies. It cannot stand up when things are against it. It has no…ah, deepness?…like with a tree?”
“Roots?” I asked.
“Si, roots,” he said, nodding. He sighed and looked troubled, but then brightened. “That is why I come here, to study and learn how to help my people by helping them have deep theology.”
As I write these words, I’m sitting in my room at SETECA in Guatemala City, Guatemala. SETECA stands for Seminario Teologico Centroamericano (Central American Theological Seminary), where I’m very privileged to be able to teach for two weeks this month. SETECA is responsible for giving thousands of Spanish-speaking pastors the training they need to be able to shepherd their people effectively in the midst of a world that continually presents new challenges not only to effective ministry but also to faithful Christian living. This kind of training is both desperately needed and desperately lacking for a tremendous number of pastors down here.
Samuel was describing a problem that few people in the United States understand. In the U.S., our pastors are typically well-educated with extensive theological education as well as practical instruction in issues like church administration and leadership development. Even those who haven’t had the opportunity to study at one of the many, many good seminaries in the U.S. can take advantage of seminars, conferences, workshops and other special events designed to equip and strengthen them for effective ministry. Worst-case scenario, they can simply read a book. With so many resources available, pastoral ignorance in the U.S. is an intentional choice. But in much of the world, Christian pastors live out their calling to ministry with virtually no training whatsoever – and with virtually no access to helpful resources – simply because the resources are absent or inaccessible.
I’m not talking here about familiarity with the latest trendy techniques for church growth or strategies for church marketing. I’m talking about something much more foundational.
To the church in Corinth Paul wrote, “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet ready to receive it” (1Co. 3:2). Paul lamented the fact that the church in Corinth wasn’t ready to move beyond the basic things of Christianity and really sink their roots deep into an understanding that could withstand all the challenges that might be brought against it. But Paul was ready to help them go deep as soon as they were ready. For much of the world, though, there is no one who can help them go deeper, no one who has anything other than milk to offer.
Here’s the root of the problem: equipping pastors takes money, and it’s hard to raise money for this kind of ministry. People who have money, like Christians in the United States, want to donate to causes with immediate, tangible results. So, it’s often relatively easy to raise money to feed orphans or to collect clothing for the poor. Even non-Christians are frequently willing to donate to such causes. Somewhat more difficult, but still relatively easy, is the task of raising funds to support missionaries who are directly engaged in proclaiming the gospel to unreached people. Far more difficult, however, is raising funds to support the kind of long-term equipping work that I’m talking about here. The irony is that there’s an inverse relationship between how easy it is to raise the funds and the return-on-investment of those funds:
The reason for this is simple. If you give a child a piece of bread, that child eats for a day. If you share the Gospel with someone who accepts it, then that person enters the Kingdom. But if you equip a local pastor so that he can have a long-term ministry among a people whose language and culture he knows, then he can be instrumental in seeing hundreds or thousands of people come to Christ over his ministry and he can equip them to see and meet the needs of people around them in tremendously effective ways.
Equipping local Christian leaders doesn’t replace the other kinds of efforts, it merely enhances them. For instance, local pastors and their churches can make sure that donations of food and clothing are used in the best possible ways. This past Saturday we met with the leaders of an orphanage in Antigua, Guatemala and made arrangements to return this coming Thursday to distribute some food and other items to impoverished families in the town. The leaders told us that they had chosen several families for us to visit who do not often receive aid but that were in serious need. They had also visited the families already to make sure they were truly in need. Apparently here, as I’ve seen in other parts of the world, it’s not uncommon for well-off families to send their kids to get donated items which they don’t really need and may even sell to make extra money. This is the kind of thing that only local people can find out, so you can see how helpful it is to have local believers in charge of distributing such donations.
But the long-term impact of supporting local ministries comes from more than just knowing how to distribute donations wisely. For example, during our afternoons off, we’ve had the chance to do some work with one of the local Compassion International projects down here in Guatemala. This church has a tremendous ministry in the local “Dump”. This is a huge landfill where all of the garbage from Guatemala City gets…well, “dumped.” There are thousands of people who live in the garbage here and the church has raised up a large group of volunteers to go into this place regularly and distribute food and clothing to them. But this is not a one-shot ministry. It’s an ongoing program that happens each and every week. They also have programs to provide education for kids in the Dump and programs to provide day-care for parents who live in the Dump so that they can find work and break the cycle of poverty. They’re also raising up small-group leaders to teach Bible studies to families living in the Dump who are excited to learn about this Jesus. This kind of long-term ministry will ultimately lead to an impact for the Kingdom that will far exceed that of just sending an occasional truck-load of food into the Dump.
And yet, the pastor of this church confided to me that he is at a loss as to how to help his people understand who God is and what He wants to do in and through them. At their request we led a short two-hour leadership seminar and were humbled at how thirsty they were for what seemed like such basic principles to us. And so I was reminded: what seems elementary to us is often radically new to our brothers and sisters in much of the world. Why? Because in the United States we are blessed to have so many great resources that equip our pastors and leaders to minister biblically and effectively. But for my friend Simean, those kinds of resources seem like unimaginable riches.
That’s why the ministry of groups like SETECA is so important. They are equipping local pastors to be able to know God well and make Him known well in contexts where they already speak the language and know the culture. This will make them effective in a way that foreign missionaries can never be.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t need missionaries to go where there are no – or aren’t enough – local pastors. Nor does it mean that we don’t need to feed the hungry or clothe the naked. All of these are important biblical mandates. All I’m saying is that one of the most effective investments we can make for the Kingdom is in an area that is often ignored or dismissed and this needs to change.
Donating to missions organizations that are devoted to the theological education of indigenous pastors is a way of setting the Gospel free in a culture. This is a way of unleashing the power of the Gospel to transform lives, cultures and the very world itself in ways that we can only imagine.
If you want to see the Gospel set free in our world to do its work, I would like to encourage you to consider becoming a regular supporter of an organization that is devoted to the kind of work that I’ve described here. Again, I’m not saying you should stop supporting the other kinds of things that you’re already contributing to. I’m just saying that supporting a group like SETECA ought to be as important to us as sponsoring a Compassion child or supporting traditional missionaries working to make inroads into new cultures for the Gospel.
And hey, since I’m down here donating my time and experience to SETECA…and since I’m extremely impressed with the quality and the quantity of their ministry to pastors all over Central and South America…might I even suggest that you consider making a small one-time contribution to their work right now? These people know how to stretch a dollar and use it to equip pastors for long-term, effective ministry here. Money that you donate to SETECA (or some other group like it) is used to produce and provide materials, pay for teachers, fund scholarships on which most of the students depend, keep radio stations running (SETECA has a radio station that broadcasts to more than 4 million listeners!) and much, much more.
This is exciting stuff! Even more important, this is one of the most strategic investments you can make for the sake of God’s Kingdom and I encourage you to give some serious thought to using a portion of your tithe to invest in this kind of ministry.
If you’d like to make your first such investment through SETECA, it’s easy. Just visit www.seteca.edu and click on the link for donating.