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Missionary Spotlight – Argentina today

May 2003 | by Trevor Routley

Argentina is a marvellously rich and varied country, populated by 38 million people, one third of whom are concentrated in and around the capital city Buenos Aires.

 

Another third are in the richest province (Buenos Aires). The rest live in a million cities, towns and villages scattered throughout the Republic.

The literacy rate is among the highest in South America, even though the average schoolchild reads fewer books per year than in other South American countries.

Roots

 

Where did the Argentine people come from? Sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors descended from Peru and Bolivia, while others explored inland along the River Paraná. The native population reacted to the conquistadors with either hostility or servility.

Today, less than 5% are ethnic Indian; the rest come from Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. About 40% can trace an Italian descent, although Spain is considered the mother country.

Yet behind the European elegance of many cities is the reality of villa miserías — many live in wood and tin shacks, and their culture is a mixture of honest poverty and criminality.

Today, with high unemployment and children dying of malnutrition, widespread corruption, political chicanery and inflation, many are looking for new horizons.

Linked to this, Argentina is still a ‘young’ nation. Mass immigration only started after the 1860s (with further large influxes between the two world wars).

National pride

In short, Argentina lacks a fully developed national identity. One sociologist defined the Argentinian as ‘a European who wants to be a Yankee’. But, increasingly, many apply for European passports (usually Italian or Spanish).

The typical Argentinian believes he is superior to everyone else on the planet! But his pride has been tempered by the events of the past twenty years.

The Falklands War was a turning point from which the nation has begun to look at itself more critically and work, not only for economic betterment, but moral renewal.

This longing has been reflected in the events of the last 18 months. Popular demonstrations led to the fall of an elected (but inept) administration, and local, spontaneously formed, neighbourhood committees reached out for renewal in political life.

However, it all came to little and people feel deceived. The movement was taken over by violent activists or by politicians mouthing platitudes about change yet doing nothing.

Evangelicals

 

So where does the Evangelical Church fit into this social ferment — in which many admit that the real crisis is moral, not economic, and a change of heart is needed?

Sadly, despite involvement in a wide range of welfare work, most churches have lost their way since the gospel was first pioneered in Argentina in the face of Romanist opposition.

In the 1820s James Thompson distributed Bibles and started Christian schools. Allen Gardiner, who died in 1851, evangelised the Fuegian Indians, and founded the South American Missionary Society, which still has a wide-ranging impact on indigenous peoples.

In the 1870s William Morris (Methodist) founded schools and orphanages. Pablo Besson (Baptist, 1880s) helped gain for Evangelicals the right to be married and buried outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Brethren missionaries arrived in the 1880s (often ‘tent-making’ by working for British-owned railways). The Evangelical Union of South America (now Latin Link) started in 1911.

It worked in harmony with other groups, especially the Brethren and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, sharing evangelism, conferences, training facilities and the publication of a magazine.

Divisions

 

This harmony was threatened between the wars by the penetration of Pentecostalism. Today the Evangelical cause is fractured into endless personalised denominations, groupings and churches.

Most pastors’ associations, conferences, Bible colleges, churches and denominations have been infiltrated and divided by ‘third wave Pentecostalism’.

Other adverse influences include liberalism, dispensationalism, church growth methodology, and worship ‘renewal’.

The instability of the Argentine character is shown by the way in which novelty after theological novelty sweeps through the churches, wreaking havoc.

Each new thing is greeted with choruses of ‘This is it!’ and as quickly jettisoned when people realise that ‘This’ is not ‘it’ after all!

Argentine mix

 

Argentine church leaders have refused to learn from history. In trying to build something truly ‘Argentine’ they have ended up with a pragmatic mix of Benny Hinn and pop culture — translated into Spanish!

The result is that the Evangelical Church often makes ‘news’ for all the wrong reasons. Evangelicals are identified with mass rallies and high profile ‘evangelists’, who appear on television and whose sometimes scandalous behaviour is ventilated by the press.

There are healing crusades — cinemas are turned into mega-churches; people are promised the stars; and receive a handful of dust.

But there are, thankfully, still a few churches where the Bible is expounded, church life moulded round scriptural principles, and worship is dignified and holy.

Decisionism

 

In many churches the ‘gospel’ preached is man-centred; people go to satisfy their immediate felt needs. There is little emphasis on sin and repentance, and decisionism is unquestioned.

Some churches, especially Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian, hold nominally to Reformed confessions of faith, but have little heart experience of their teachings.

There are Bible Baptists from the USA, and American Reformed Baptist missionaries have recently begun working in Argentina. But as yet no Reformed Baptist church based on The 1689 Baptist Confession has been established.

There is a wealth of Reformed book titles published in Spanish, but it is difficult to find them in the Christian bookshops. There is little interest in theology, and book prices have outrun people’s earnings.

Bleak situation

 

Spiritually the situation is bleak. I have lived in Argentina for more than thirty years and seen increasing darkness fall upon the churches.

But the gospel is powerful. We need first and foremost gospel preachers to help form gospel churches. We need sound theological education at every level, books for pastors, and Reformed conferences where the doctrines of grace are explained.

Above all, we need Argentinian men who really believe and practise the whole counsel of God.

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