It’s enough to make a missionary want to pack up and go home.
That’s how some might feel when serving in a spiritual environment where even the evangelical church is characterized by anti-intellectualism and pastor worship. Imagine a pulpit ministry dominated by feelings and opinions. Welcome to Bolivia.
Kep and Debbie James left Ohio for Bolivia twenty-five years ago to church-plant, supported by Parkside Church (Pastor Alistair Begg) in Cleveland. Within two years they established a solid biblical church, Iglesia La Comunidad (ILC), the first evangelical church in the southern suburban area of La Paz.
The couple is affiliated with SIM (Serving in Mission) as missionaries to Bolivia, where only around 10% of churches are evangelical. Kep James says these churches tend to be man-centered instead of God-centered. But he sees that problem as a reason to stay, not to go.
The evangelical movement in Bolivia began over a hundred years ago in rural areas. But the country actually banned evangelical churches from cities until 1945 due to its bad reputation for mysticism and animism (influenced by Andean culture). Decades later, the church remains weak, characterized by captivating faith and prosperity teachings that replace reliance on God’s word with a confidence in leaders referred to as apostles and prophets.
In 2000, Kep turned the La Paz church over to its pastors and elders, but he and his family stayed put. While his wife still helps lead the women’s ministry at ILC, his focus changed to addressing the specific issues of pastors and church leaders.
“Bolivians pastors have no culture of study,” he says. “They don’t really teach the Bible. They teach without a mention of God’s word.”
The missionary tells one story that particularly motivated him: “The church in Bolivia wants to send out missionaries. One evangelical church sent a couple out to the Middle East. They returned home later as converts to Islam.” That tragic outcome points out the need for leaders to be competent in biblical understanding and ministry skill.
Bolivia has had only one trained pastor for every 10,000 people. Kep James says that typical seminary graduates don’t know how to study the Bible, “so they teach by lecture and rote memorization.”
He put together a 2.5-year training course consistent with the ministry priorities of SIM. The program, Equipping Servants Internship (ESI), trains church leaders to “be true to Christ by learning to think, live, serve and teach biblically.”
ESI began in 2002 with 15 pastors. After completing the course, three of those pastors were chosen to select 15 other pastors to train. The on-going process has led to 800 ESI graduates and another 650 current pastors and leaders in training. In 2008, a women’s group was also added.
There are now 46 ESI groups, with an overflow from Bolivia to other countries, including many in Mexico and a few in Ecuador. Another group is getting started in Peru. Kep says the changes in leaders’ lives have been so compelling that there’s a waiting list for those who want to get into a group.
ESI participants come from many denominations and backgrounds. Their training includes group Bible study with accountability and mentoring. The pastors remain active in their local church ministry during the training, which targets issues such as: not relying on God, winds of philosophy, and the perspective on marriage—“a huge need.”
The Gospel Coalition-International Outreach (TGC-IO) donated Spanish-language theological resources to Kep, who says the books and DVDs were added to the training materials they provide to ESI pastors with the support of Parkside Church.
“They went really fast, and they’ve been incredibly helpful,” James says. “Resources here are super expensive and hard to get.”
TGC-IO’s Packing Hope program sent several John Piper works. These included: “Blazing Center,” a DVD series addressing the centrality of Christ; Battling Unbelief, which expounds on the sufficiency of scripture, and copies of This Momentary Marriage, which offers an enlarged view of the meaning of marriage.
Kep says they are praying for God’s guidance as they plan to expand the ESI training over the next few years into five more Latin American countries—Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia.
“We’re very thankful we stayed.”