On November 19, 2009, Encounter with God visionary Kenn Opperman went to be with the Lord. As fellow pioneer Roy LeTourneau recounts, Kenn’s big and bold vision was a catalyst to the Encounter with God Movement and helped sparked a new era of urban impact in Latin America.
Growing up as the son of a famed inventor and industrialist, I was raised to think big. One of Dad’s favorite lines was “There is no such thing as a big job, just small machines.” I suppose a little bit of his DNA passed on to me. As just about anyone will tell you, I dream a lot, but never small. Yet my dreams were never bigger than those of my friend Kenn Opperman.
In the course of his life God stirred in him dreams that impacted tens of thousands of people around the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ. His vision continues on today in the work of Church Ministries International.
A Heart for the City
Kenn and his wife Joyce began their ministry as missionaries to Peru as part of the great wave of missionaries sent out following World War II. Like all missionaries in those days, the Oppermans were assigned to minister in a remote region of the country. Capital cities like Lima were primarily supply posts for missionaries heading to the “field.” But Kenn was never one inclined to do something just because it was the way it had always been done.
By the mid-50’s Lima was already a city with over 1 million residents. The thought of so many people without the gospel troubled Kenn. How could the church not have a presence there? In time he won approval to move to Lima and begin a work. Many of his colleagues thought he was crazy. They argued that the people in the cities were hardened and cold to the gospel and he would toil in frustration.
A Big Enough Vision
Kenn saw the city not as a barrier to the gospel, but as a platform big enough for a big vision—a vision to disciple a nation for Christ.
That vision resonated with me. As our friendship grew, we would spend hours together talking and debating about how we could make a bigger impact for the gospel in Peru.
We could each be very stubborn when we were sure that we were right. More than once Shirley would say that we could swap heads and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Despite our stubbornness we both shared a similar passion and burden for the city. For years, no matter the setting or the gathering, it seemed that every conversation would eventually come back to a discussion of how to achieve this. Long after our wives would give up and go to sleep, Kenn and I would continue to pray, to argue and to brainstorm.
A Bold Dream
It was during those conversations that Kenn came up with a dream to have one entire year of evangelism in his church. He estimated that with $15,000 he could provide promotion and transportation for a series of international evangelists for an entire year.
That doesn’t seem like much, but in those days that was a huge budget for a missionary. I was skeptical of Kenn’s idea. It seemed a bit overambitious.
In the midst of our ongoing debate, I was invited to speak at an outreach in the city of Trujillo. On the first night, I lectured on the subject of “Christianity and Atheism.” Afterward there was an open forum and a small group stayed to debate and ask questions. I didn’t know until later that among them was the president of the local atheist club.
Through this event, I came to a deeper understanding of why so many Peruvian young people were drawn to atheism and communism. They were following the only light that they had. Yet I—with no formal theological education—found that I could answer so many of their questions with just a layman’s knowledge of the Bible.
The experience profoundly impacted my belief in the power of the gospel to change hearts and minds. On the last night of my speaking engagement, I called Kenn and told him two things: 1) he needed to do his full evangelism plan; and 2) on Monday, there would be a bank account in his name with $15,000 in it. I had only one requirement—he couldn’t tell anyone who gave him the money.
As you can imagine, a humble missionary suddenly flush with $15,000 in cash for which he could not tell the source put Kenn in a bit of trouble. He received a great deal of pressure to divulge the source, but to his credit he never did.
With the resources in hand, Kenn went to work. Beginning in 1961, the Lince Church held evangelistic outreaches each month for two solid weeks for an entire year featuring evangelists from around the continent. For a church of 75 people, the impact was astounding. In that one year, more than 1,000 people placed their faith in Christ.
Such results would be tremendous anywhere, but the fact that they occurred in Lima exploded the myth that the people of the city were unresponsive to the gospel.
Never the Same
Unfortunately, the gains were short lived. The next year, the Latin pastor of the church went to the U.S. for additional training and never returned. Not long after, Joyce’s health necessitated that she and Kenn return to Canada.
The loss of leadership and subsequent lack of follow up led to stagnation in the church. It didn’t take long before attendance dropped back to 180 a week. But a fire was lit.
Prior to the year of evangelism, one of Kenn’s missionary colleagues counseled him against the idea saying, “You don’t want to do that. You’ll get the people so spoiled they will never want to go back to the ordinary.”
How right he was. None of us were ever the same. For the next 10 years the Lince congregation hungered to be used by God as they were in 1961. Kenn and I would see each other 1-3 times each year. As before, our conversations always returned to how we could impact nations for Christ. I made a promise to Kenn that if I ever had the money and he would lead, we would go back and do it better than before.
Answering the Call
By 1972 Kenn was pastoring a large church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. One Sunday night, he issued a challenge to young people in the church to answer God’s call to missions. Many responded and committed to serve the Lord overseas. Blessed by their response, Kenn was settling into bed excited about what God was doing through his church. No sooner did he lie down than the phone rang.
“Hello,” he answered.
“Kenn,” I said, “I have the money.”
I didn’t even have to tell him who was calling or what it meant. He knew instantly. With my father’s passing, I was designated as president of our family foundation. Some of those resources were now available for fulfilling my end of our promise. The next day Kenn fulfilled his. He called his church board together and announced his resignation.
Within a few weeks Kenn and Joyce moved to Orlando to join the staff of the LeTourneau Foundation. We began to plan. I managed the financial side and Kenn began pulling together the ministry side of things—working to identify a location and a team. At first, we considered Bogotá, Colombia, but a sizeable amount of the foundation’s assets were locked up in Peru by a government that would not allow them to be moved out of the country.
Back to Lima
As such, we found ourselves back in Lima at the Lince Church. Unknown to us, cottage prayer meetings had been breaking out in the congregation with a common theme—“Lord, please use us again as you did before.”
The church had recently called a then unknown Argentine pastor by the name of Alfredo Smith. To this team was added veteran missionary Gene Kelly to coordinate things locally.
Only God could bring about such a combination—a church eager for revival, a visionary leader like Kenn, gifted leaders to carry out the vision and the resources to make it happen. The results were unparalleled.
Under the banner of “Lima to an Encounter with God” we launched an intensive evangelism effort that mirrored the plan in 1961, but with two additions.
The two weeks of focused evangelism each month were followed by two weeks of intensive discipleship. These discipleship courses consolidated the new believers into the church.
In addition, we began constructing facilities to accommodate rapid growth—starting with a Christian Education building and fellowship hall capable of seating 300 people. As soon as that was completed we began work on a 1,000 seat sanctuary.
People thought we were crazy. Career missionaries told us that no evangelical church in Peru could ever be that big. But just 15 months after it was completed, the church was full. What followed exceeded even our great expectations.
A Continuing Legacy
While the major part of my life has been connected to helping advance the Encounter with God movement in Lima and beyond, Kenn was the one that had the vision. I just got to put some legs on it.
Most of us that were there at the start are no longer involved on a day-to-day basis, but the work and the vision go on. That tells me that it wasn’t us. It was God. You know you’ve done something worthwhile when the founders move on and the work is stronger than ever.
On November 19, 2009, Kenn moved on from this world to be present with the Lord. But his life and his vision are stamped indelibly on the Encounter Movement.
The Lince Church is today home to 7,000 believers and has spawned more than 60 daughter and granddaughter churches throughout Lima and additional churches in every provincial capital of Peru.
Encounter churches are active in 10 other countries and tens of thousands of believers gather to worship in them each week. They continue to proclaim the gospel, grow, disciple, raise up leaders and multiply throughout the continent.
On the day of Kenn’s “homegoing”, Church Ministries International and the Encounter churches in Quito, Ecuador launched a new evangelistic initiative in that city modeled on the original concept in Lima.
Four Quito churches conducted simultaneous evangelistic outreaches led by four international evangelists. Through their ministry 118 people placed their faith in Christ in just four days.
I can’t help but think of Kenn rejoicing with the angels in heaven as the seeds he planted nearly 50 years ago continue to bear the fruit of a tremendous harvest!