Birthed in the megacity of Lima, Peru, “Encuentro con Dios” or “Encounter with God” is a proven model for developing sustainable, multiplying and locally-resourced church planting movements in the urban context. In cities throughout the continent, Encounter with God Churches are raising the credibility of the evangelical church in society and re-calibrating expectations of what can be accomplished by national churches in Majority World countries like those that comprise much of Latin America.
The Encounter with God Model is effective in meeting the challenge of the modern urban world. This is particularly vital in Latin America–one of the most urbanized continents in all the world where more than 75% of the population live in urban areas.
Many strategies and programs have been attempted throughout Latin America—each with varying levels of success. While many programs contain methods that can be incorporated into the Encounter Model, Encounter is unique in that it provides a comprehensive framework of principles that guide the implementation of contextualized strategies, programs and methods.
Following principles culled from the missionary methods of the Apostle Paul and paralleled by the example of the Early Christian Church, Encounter is a field-tested and proven missions model highly relevant to the increasingly urban world of the 21st Century.
The Encounter with God Model is undergirded by 3 Biblical Foundations, 4 Core Concepts and 10 Practical Principles.
Three Biblical Foundations
Three biblical priorities form the foundation of the Encounter with God Model.
The Encounter with God Model is rooted deep in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. The book of Acts, as well as Paul’s own epistles, testifies to the missionary nature of his work. Paul’s focus was to plant seeds for the gospel in major urban centers of the Roman world, ultimately moving toward the city of cities—Rome itself. One has only to study the geography of Paul’s missionary journeys to realize that Paul focused his ministry on centers of influence.
“If the goal is to ‘make disciples of all nations,'” writes historical sociologist Rodney Stark, “missionaries need to go where there are many potential converts, which is precisely what Paul did. His missionary journeys took him to major cities such as Antioch, Corinth, and Athens, with only occasional visits to smaller communities such as Iconium and Laodicea. No mention is made of him preaching in the countryside.” (Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. San Francisco, Harper Collins, pp. 25-26, 2006.)
Having planted the seeds, Paul left the task of spreading the Good News to the churches he established.
Furthermore, Encounter is Great Commission oriented. The intent of the Encounter with God Model is to—as the Commission states—MAKE DISCIPLES.
It has been said that the great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached, but that it is undiscipled. (“Building the Church,” Brochure. South America Mission, 2009) CMI believes that the Great Commission is more than just taking the gospel to new locations, but in seeing it bear the full fruit of discipleship that marks true transformation.
A Great Commission focus demands a balance of evangelism and discipleship follow-up. There must be the reproduction of new life on a regular basis, but there must also be a systematic approach to maturing each one of these converts.
Such discipleship is best done in the context of the local church. In fact, the church is the one institution that God states in His Word that He will bless. Social and educational works are necessary, but we believe if we build the local church properly it will be able to provide these other things to its own community more effectively, thus enhancing its testimony, drawing more people to make decisions for Christ and influencing the surrounding culture through love and good deeds.
Four Core Concepts
From the three previously mentioned biblical foundations, Encounter is guided by four core concepts. These concepts are applied on a national level and help guide decisions on where to plant Encounter with God churches and how to deploy resources.
First, we must recognize what is called the “small step concept.” This means we must use all our manpower, whether missionary or national, in its most productive role.
When a missionary moves from an urban North American setting to the jungle, a huge step has been taken involving change in culture, language, health, food; and even then there often remains a cultural separation. Much of his time is devoted to just trying to exist. Estimates vary, but many missionaries in remote areas spend 80% of their time tending to the details of daily survival, leaving only 20% of their time for actual ministry. In most cases, such a model does not represent the best use of time and resources.
When missionaries from North America are sent to a capital city in Latin America a small step is taken. A little cultural change, another language and they are at work. On many levels the culture of the city is very similar to the missionary’s home country.
When the nationals in the capital are won to Christ and challenged properly, they go to the secondary or provincial cities—a very small step for them since this is where many of them originally lived. When those in the provincial cities are won to Christ, they in turn go to the smaller cities and even to the jungles.
The nation is won through everyone taking only a small step. If we are to reach the world, we must wisely use the resources we are given.
Focusing ministry on the urban professional segments of society forms the second core concept. Reaching the urban professional addresses two critical dilemmas facing the continuation of any missions endeavor: LEADERSHIP and RESOURCES.
While missionaries do good work, they can rarely have nationwide impact. Strong national leadership is essential to long-term results and such leaders are abundant in the urban professional segments of society. These possess the education and background that prepares them for leadership.
They are also the ones able to support the work financially and lead it in such a way that others will follow. After a strong base is built, they can reach widely in both directions—down the social ladder to lower income people and upward to the more wealthy. They are more effective in their hometowns than a missionary ever could be and are often working in places of authority where they can make an extended and sometimes nationwide impact for the gospel.
The third concept is that of concentration. In the past many churches and organizations have felt the responsibility to reach the whole world and, therefore, approached missions with a “shotgun” mentality. In contrast, the Encounter Model concentrates resources and personnel into one place in order to develop a thriving ministry that will be capable of reproducing itself.
By concentrating our efforts and resources on one church, more people are reached with the message of the Gospel and we are able to discover, challenge and train qualified national leadership to continue the work using the “small step” methodology.
Concentration helps the church achieve maturity more rapidly. While the reproduction of new churches may be slower in the short term, the strength of the churches that are formed enables them to become new fountains for resources and leadership. Over time this leads to exponential growth that quickly outpaces traditional approaches that grow only by addition.
Lastly, the most effective way to evangelize a nation is to begin where the people are located. This concept links the other three together.
God is allowing great populations to accumulate in urban settings. In Latin America between one-quarter and one-half of a nation’s people are living in the capitals. In Peru, eight million of the twenty-four million people live in Lima. In Uruguay, nearly 50% of the nation live in the capital city of Montevideo. Some say this urban growth makes the task of evangelism and discipleship more difficult, but we say it is the hand of God moving people within easy access of the Gospel. Accessibility to half of the world’s population can now be accomplished by sending missionaries to urban centers.
In Latin America, because of the heavy centralization of government, almost anything of any importance has its origin in the capital city. Since this is where most businesses thrive and where university education takes place, there is also a heavy concentration of urban professionals. Therefore, this is the place we choose to concentrate our initial efforts. By effectively reaching the capital you can reach the nation.
Practical Principles of Each Church
The four core concepts are worked out on a local level through ten practical principles. Because of our biblical belief that God is using and blessing the local church, it is essential that there be an operational strategy with the individual churches participating with us. This is not to imply that we run the local church, but rather that we have uncovered nine specific principles which, when acted upon by the local congregations, greatly assist the establishment of strong, nationally led, reproducing churches.
From the very beginning, prayer has played a major role in the Encounter with God churches. Divine guidance is an absolute essential in the preparation, as well as in the actual working out of the programs of evangelism and church growth. This can only be secured through effective and fervent prayer.
CMI attributes its continued ability to aid the churches of Latin America to the prayer support of interested Christians in North America and to the dedicated observance of this principle on the field.
Teams of national pastors and, on occasion, a missionary carry out the ministry of each church. Team ministries are used to spread growing responsibilities. In Encounter Churches the pulpit ministry is shared. This provides continuity, a breadth of experience, less missionary paternalism, greater efficiency, and smoother, less traumatic pastoral transitions should a single team member move on to a different ministry.
In Lima, the larger Encounter with God churches with congregations of over 2,000 people have eight or ten pastors on full-time staff. Even new daughter churches typically start out with two pastors in order to keep up adequately with growth. The Lima churches alone have a combined team of over 200 pastors.
This team concept is followed not only on the local church level, but also in the inter-church organization. Encounter is not merely a group of churches that happen to be located in the same city and agree to work together on a common project. It is a family of churches with common roots, common goals, a common strategy, a common program and a common destiny.
A third part of the strategy involves the location of the church within the capital city. In these countries, where most people travel via public transportation, a church’s future growth and ministry is endangered if it is located even one block off the main avenue where the bus routes flow.
We insist that any congregation expecting to be a part of the Encounter with God program permanently establish herself on a main avenue. The strategic location makes two important contributions to the spreading of the Word of God: 1) accessibility—easy to find, good parking, and close access to public transportation, and 2) credibility—everyone is aware of their presence.
It is a far better investment to build where the greatest number of people can be reached and influenced with the message of the Gospel than to limp along off the beaten path just to save some money.
The location of Encounter churches is augmented by their facilities—attractive enough to draw those in the middle and upper socio-economic levels, but not so elaborate as to be an impediment to the lower income social levels. As a result, in many cities we see a virtually unprecedented social dynamic where people of all social classes attend the same church. Each church building acts as a center for spiritual development. New and old converts come together for fellowship, worship of God, training in discipleship, and evangelism efforts to reach their community for Christ.
Important as they are, location and an aesthetic building are not the only keys to the growth of these churches. Another key is found in evangelism, which is the stimulus for rapid growth. It is the gospel method of enlarging outreach and bringing new life in Christ to the masses.
In addition to personal evangelism, the Encounter congregations implement regular evangelistic outreaches aimed at capitalizing on evangelistic momentum. Those who were saved at one outreach bring their friends, relatives, and acquaintances to the next. As a result, momentum is gained and church attendance literally explodes.
This principle is another reason for the required construction and development of large church facilities. Church facilities become evangelistic centers that must be large enough to conduct these intensive evangelistic campaigns.
The discipling of believers is vital and of equal importance with evangelism. As soon as spiritual babes are born they must be nourished and developed. In each Encounter with God program, a systematic and responsibility-oriented plan of discipleship is a major focus. While the methods of discipleship may vary from country to country, a thorough plan for discipleship and leadership training is a key to the future viability of a multiplying church movement.
In Lima, new converts are immediately encouraged to attend the Bible Academy that has special classes two evenings a week. Initially, new believers are taught basic truths to ground them in their newfound faith. Then, they are led into deeper study of individual books within the Bible, and finally into studies which will develop them as church workers.
In many cases, Christian Growth Cells are also established. Each church organizes and trains lay leadership for neighborhood Christian Growth Cells, which have a four-fold purpose: (1) the teaching of the believers; (2) prayer for their mutual needs; (3) stimulation of fellowship and friendships among believers; and (4) giving opportunity for evangelization of family and friends in a more intimate atmosphere.
Ongoing multiplication and expansion of churches requires consistent development of new pastors and leaders. In order to effectively minister to large and growing numbers of people, each church must train and constantly maintain an adequate number of full and part-time workers to function in team ministries.
Those called to vocational Christian ministry receive additional training through a variety of means including local seminaries, theological education by extension and Christian academic institutions that provide online courses.
The formation of new daughter congregations in the capital city by each local church is not an option but an essential aspect of growth. They are committed not to build bigger and bigger but to multiply themselves by the “hiving off” of members to form the nuclei for these new churches.
A commitment to evangelism and growth includes a commitment to a missionary vision. Forming churches in other cities and towns is a natural outgrowth of the widening of the leaders’ vision from the local to the national. As a result of the Encounter with God evangelism thrusts, people from other cities and towns are also converted in the Encounter churches in the major cities. Often they return to their previous home cities and begin new churches.
Encounter churches are also expanding their vision beyond the borders of their nation and are sending out missionaries to other countries. This is in line with the growing number of “Majority World” missionaries now augmenting North American missionaries for missions service.
The final portion of this strategy involves investment for the future. CMI believes in the development of churches that are financially accountable and eventually free of all forms of subsidy. A key to this has been the financial commitment of the national churches. Church Ministries International supports no ongoing expenses of the churches nor pastoral salaries. It supplies finances only for the construction of facilities and some overall program costs.
It is our conviction that a young church that is receiving resources for land and buildings must also commit herself to help other new churches. Rapid inflation in many Latin American countries makes it impractical for churches receiving financial assistance to repay it as a dollar for dollar loan. Instead, as buildings are completed, the church commits to a program of mutual assistance, paying into a Revolving Fund at least 20% of its monthly income.
Although it cannot fulfill all the country’s financial building needs, each year the Revolving Fund is strengthened as new churches begin to contribute. Ultimately, as the number of churches involved in the program grows, the fund will be able to handle projects without outside assistance and our job will be completed in that country.