Images of the Future Church

Third post in a series of seven, which are based on interviews and observations in Guatemala City.

Dear U.S. friend,
How do you evangelize and begin new groups or churches? There are many methods but everyone has to find their own. So I am going to give you a list to chose from. The most effective one is probably that of the Mormons who require that all church members of ages 19 to 21 spent two years at their own expense doing missionary work. They receive an intensive training of several months before beginning. It is the most effective method: between 1960 and 2006 Mormons have grown in Latin America by an average of 10% per year, which means that they doubled every seven to ten years. This can easily be seen in Guatemala: most towns and neighborhoods are dotted with their neat temples. The Jehovah witnesses go from door to door, using a map of the neighborhood and taking notes about the conversion potential of each house. They have been growing by an average of six percent between 1960 and 2006. You should know how successful the Jehovah’s witnesses are, since they have grown 1,581% in the U.S. between 1945 and 2002 while the US population has increased only by 121%, which is also the growth rate of the American Catholic Church; the growth rate of Mormons in the US is even greater. I don’t know the method used by the Seventh-day Adventist here, but they have also grown by six percent in Latin America over the same period of time. I wouldn’t say that the expansion of the Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists is due to their superior doctrine; it is due mainly to their very superior evangelization effort.

The evangelicos follow two typical methods of growth, through daughter churches and neighborhood churches. As soon as an evangelical church is somewhat successful, it starts daughter churches that will continue to grow with the mother church. The neighborhood method is also very successful. It has been the strategy for some time to create one neighborhood church for every 500 people. Typically a missionary settles in a neighborhood into a house or garage at street level, and every Sunday he or she will preach to passerby and newcomers; since there is no ordained clergy and no centralized church government among them, anyone with good bible knowledge can venture doing it on her own; I must admit, this method is very effective.

There is also the cell method of evangelization. Cells grow by internal division: when a group reaches let us say 16 members, it divides into two; the two new cells must recruit new members until they will divide again and multiply. Cell members meet once a week and are usually part of a church. This method has made the success of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea which counted about 1,000,000 members in 2007, thus making it the largest Protestant Christian congregation in the world. In Guatemala City, the El Shaddai church has adopted the cell method after its pastor visited the Yoido church. It now has over 500 cells consisting of about 5,000 members in the capital city; in other words, that church now has about 5,000 missionaries proselytizing throughout the city through cell multiplication. You may like to know that the Pontifical Council for the Laity has authorized the cell method in the Catholic church in 2009, but I do not know any parish using it.

The Catholic recruitment methods I know are very modest, but they work. The neocatechumenates evangelize once a year. They sing at street corners handing out leaflets, or go from house to house in groups of twos telling people that the Lord invites them. They spend about 15 minutes in each house. Those who accepted the visiting missionaries are invited to catechesis one evening per week for about two months. After that, they will go to a four day retreat preached by some of their members. The retreat ends with a final Eucharist of 3 hours. That day the liturgy of the Word is expanded because after each reading they recite a psalm, and have reflection time for greater participation: each person can share what the gospel means to him or her; the priest’s homily is a brief summary of the various reactions plus his own. At the end of the Eucharist they dance, the way king David danced singing psalms. There is a dance after each Sunday Eucharist, but usually the latter only lasts two hours. At the end of their retreat, the new members will form their own community meeting once or twice a week. But sometimes it takes several years to form a new community.

The Catholic charismatics have their own method of recruitment. They have one general assembly per week, and they also meet in small prayer groups another day; their leaders may have one more meeting of their own. The recruitment tool is the assembly to which every active member should invite friends and newcomers. They also organize retreats for the newcomers. Retreats are used in most parishes; they were initiated by the Cursillo de Cristiandad that has been very popular in the 1950s through the 80s. One charismatic group I know organizes one retreat every month, which means not only finding people to attend them but also staff members to preach, and they are very enthusiastic about it.

One more example from another parish. They have one mission per year, followed by a retreat. They go from house to house, inviting people to join for one month of instructions once a week, to be followed by a four day retreat. One member told me that out of 100 houses visited, 80 will receive them. How is this possible? Through lots of publicity. They go through the streets announcing the Mission, so that people know that a missionary will come and knock at their door. This parish is divided into districts, and each of them does its own publicity to announce the coming Mission. Although they may be well received, very often people just listen to what they have to say but do not commit to the one month of instructions and the retreat. There is only a one mission per year, the rest of the time is used to incorporate into the parish and its communities those who went through the weeks of instruction and the retreat. Through the yearly mission they gain about 80 to 100 new people every year; these will probably come to church regularly, but they may not all join a house-church or small community; still, not too bad!

What we do in my parish is about the same. We do not have a publicity campaign because people already known us through our continuous evangelization – about which I will write to you in my next letter. Once a year all house-churches endeavor to start new communities. For that purpose we go from door to door; we invite them to form a group that will meet once a week, in one of their homes, for two months of instruction. Not all who join may persevere for the two months, and those who do may not necessarily go for the retreat, but those who last to the end are likely to form new house-churches. This method works well for us: every year we gain a score of new small communities, besides new regular Sunday attenders. But don’t be mistaken: there is no magical method; each one takes years and decades to yield fruit in abundance.

What is needed are strategies. Homilists give us exhortations, and theologians write theologies of evangelization, but what is needed is strategies, not more rhetoric. What do you do in your country to attract new members? How do your small rosary and other societies attract new members? Do you still have parish missions? I would very much like to know, so that when our lay missionaries come to preach in your Latino parishes, they know what to expect.