Overrun with gang violence, drug trade, poverty, and religious and political scandals, Guatemala might seem like a challenging context in which to spread the gospel. Yet Nelson Morales, professor of New Testament and Greek at the Theological Seminary of Central America (SETECA), says the most noticeable thing about the Central American country is its openness to spirituality. 

Morales, who moved from his native Chile to Guatemala City in 1993, also works as the director of SETECA’s doctoral and master’s programs and preaches regularly at his church. After nearly 25 years in Guatemala, Morales has witnessed the collaborative nature of the evangelical church—inspiring him in training pastors and church leaders. “The seminary is very strategically placed in Central America where there are more relationships between churches. Because of this cooperation, churches in Guatemala have the capacity to reach more people.”

Faiths Old and New

Today, nearly 90 percent of the Guatemalan population identifies as Christian, split almost equally between those claiming affiliations with the Catholic or evangelical Protestant church. “Catholicism has been an influence in Guatemalan society since the Spaniards brought the sword and the Bible. Then, around 130 years ago, evangelical missionaries arrived.” 

Morales believes that cultural influences have, in some ways, made it easier to spread the gospel message: “Forty percent of Guatemalans are indigenous to the region, and Mayan culture is still an influence here, despite the Spanish conquest nearly 500 years ago. Mayans tend not to separate the spiritual and physical world, so there’s much more openness when it comes to talking about God and miracles.”

Even so, openness has created some difficulties. Despite the comparative newness of evangelical denominations, both Catholic and Protestant strains of Christianity have been present in Guatemala long enough for syncretism to creep in. Morales explains, “In agriculture, you have seeds, and you have land. If you practice syncretism, you might ask your pastor to pray for your production, and you might ask for the Mayan priest to pray for rain.”

In an effort to disprove the power of Mayan gods, some historic Catholic churches were built on cemeteries and other sacred places. “The Mayan religion respected ancestors, and cemeteries were very important. When a cemetery was destroyed, Mayans would come to church to pray—not to God, but to their ancestors. Catholic saints and Mayan gods have also been conflated over the years; people might be praying to this saint or that virgin, but they are really asking their god to intervene for them.”

Today’s missionaries, Morales emphasizes, need to discern which aspects of a society are religious and which are merely cultural—hard work that leads to understanding. “Each culture gives its own distinctive to faith, in particular the expressions of that faith: liturgy, administrative structures, etc. The risk of including pagan concepts or practices always exists.” 

He also stresses that the blending of Christianity with native culture isn’t inherently bad. “In the past, many missionaries naively thought their way to do and understand Christianity was the only ‘biblical’ way. We—the Latin American church—learned from them the ‘correct’ way of doing things. But things have changed, and we realize that there are other ways to worship God. We have to review and adapt preaching, worship, and leadership into a more contextual way of being a church. We want to see a fusion between the culture of the biblical text and the culture of the people of God.”

The Church in Action

In the last half-century, evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Guatemala, and Morales speculates that poverty and other destabilizing influences—the drug trade, gangs, and violence—drive Guatemalans to seek refuge in the Christian message of hope. “Because of the insecurity of life, Guatemalans see hope in God, and in justice on Jesus’ return, from a different perspective. I remember having a conversation with a young lady in the U.S. about attending funerals. It was so strange for her because people in the U.S. rarely think about death. But here, because of the poverty and violence, we see people dying on a daily basis. The only stability we have here is the hope that is in Jesus, his return, and eternal life. The Bible is full of that hope—in the Old Testament also, but especially in the New Testament. I think we have a lot in common with first-century Christians in this area.”

The high rates of poverty and violence are actually two of the main factors fueling the growth of the evangelical church in Guatemala, according to Morales: “More than 50 percent of the population lives below the line of poverty. People here depend every day on God’s provision. They are more conscious of their weakness and fragility. This can make them more vulnerable to movements like those tied to a prosperity gospel. At the same time, the violence they experience makes Guatemalans aware of the fragility of life. Neighboring Honduras has the highest rate of homicides in the world, and Guatemala is not far behind. Christians here live with the hope of a better life, immortal and eternal. Revelation 21:4 is so patent in this context: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ ”

With so many needs present in Guatemala, those in ministry or compassionate work are bound to feel overwhelmed. Which element or problem should be addressed first? Morales says that churches are learning to address social issues in a variety of ways, sometimes forming niche congregations or ministries to work in a specific area. “There are some very dedicated churches helping the homeless or drug addicts. There are other programs working in poor areas of the country, ministering in schools and orphanages. My church, in particular, has prevention programs for gang awareness in the city and short-term medical projects in poor communities in the surrounding countryside. We also send out missionaries working for medical organizations.”

Morales says the evangelical Guatemalan church is relatively new to involvement in social issues—and that some churches still believe social work of this kind is not part of their mission. “The church’s concept of helping those in need has changed in the last 20 years. Before that, the idea of getting involved with social concerns was associated with communism. The church’s business was just to rescue souls and send them to heaven—a bit of a caricature, but not far from reality. Evangelicals are rethinking their roles in their own communities. They’ve begun to develop a more holistic gospel to address not just the spiritual needs in their community, but also the physical ones.” As a SETECA professor, he sees the next generation becoming more compassionate to the distress of people living in poverty and instability. “Our seminary is intentionally aiding the formation of conscience in our students on these issues. We have diverse alliances and activities that help students open their minds, hearts, and eyes to these realities and to ministries working to solve them.”

Challenges for Pastors

The spiritual hunger in Guatemala has opened many doors for ministry, in both good and bad ways. Morales says that since the 1980s, denominational neglect has given way to independent churches and ministries. “There are a lot of political issues that are complicated by denominational oversight. That practical motivation has given way to the prevailing belief that we can do things without accountability from others. Now we have an atmosphere where, if you have a good Bible and can speak well, you can open a church.”

“But without a governing body, there is a loss of control over doctrine. Radio and TV preachers say more and more crazy things because there’s nobody who can say to them, ‘That’s not in our doctrine or our denomination.’ In terms of financial administration, these types of churches can have a dangerous lack of accountability. Some big churches and pastors spend their income on private jets instead of addressing the poverty around them.”

Yet Morales also sees positives in the growing movement of independent churches in Guatemala. The blurring of denominational lines brings more cooperation between churches from various denominations. This resource-sharing can help when pastors feel themselves being pulled in many directions—pastors split their energy between two full-time careers. Guatemala is home to many humble and hard-working ministers of the gospel. “As a pastor here, you experience the nearness of death because of the violence in our city. You need to be a counselor of widows, widowers, and orphans. Many of my seminary colleagues are also pastors, and their role does not just cover preaching on Sunday.” 

As a pastor, Morales is encouraged to see the church move in the direction of a gospel-centered message that addresses needs in the community. As an educator, he is determined to train up more leaders to minister in his adopted country.   

Nelson Morales received support from ScholarsLeaders International, a ministry that encourages and enables Christian theological leaders from the majority world. To learn more, visit: ScholarLeaders.org

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

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