These past few months have been quite extraordinary for us here in Central America. We have been seeing God answer prayers prayed a long time ago and we are excited about sharing it with you.
About two years ago, a close friend of ours from the YWAM base took us to a local church. It was a short 15-minute bus ride to get there, and when we got off the bus I realized I had passed this place hundreds of time before. It was on the main roadway that led from the center of San Jose up to our bordering city of San Pedro. As we arrived, I took in the building I was looking at. It was an old, worn down, home of some rich Costa Rican I’m sure from the early 20th Century. As I looked at it, I realized why I had never seen it before – it had just never registered in my head as a church. I guess I had passed it up as some house, but low and behold, now, as I peered up at the top of the small building, I saw a sign titled Iglesia El Olivo (The Olive Tree Church).
Up until this point, Nicole and I had spent nearly two years looking for a local church to call our own in Costa Rica. It was not an easy task and we visited countless other churches, on the hunt for one we could plug into. So often, as a missionary, it is easy to write off church as something unnecessary. I mean, we have our churches back home right? And we do our own worship and prayer times at our mission bases with the other missionaries. So why do we need to plug into the local church?
I could write an entire blog post just about that, but I will refrain and just try to focus on the main point.
If our only purpose for going to church is to worship, pray, and listen to preachings, then we have missed out and are not living out the church the way it was intended. The church is a community. It is about people and relationships – iron sharpening iron. I have gone to youth group and church services since the age of 11 and have seen hundreds of preachings and participated in all types of worship. But after all those church services, I can only remember a handful of the preachings, and only sentences at that, which I still carry with me today. The same goes for my encounters with God during worship. But do you know what I do remember? The relationships. What God used most to transform and impact me wasn’t the preachings or the music, it was the times I had together with those people. The conversations, skateboarding, going to the movies, all nighters, driving around and being crazy, trips to In-N-Out Burger. I could sit for hours telling stories of my experiences with those people – the tears, laughter, fears, doubts, encouragement. The church isn’t just a service for 60 minutes. It’s about the people, and how God wants to use relationships with others to speak to us and touch our hearts.
Now as I walked up to this church I couldn’t help but think about all of the stigmas and stereotypes I had experienced in Latin American churches, and what I might find inside. Loud music, pastors screaming at you, fire and brimstone, suit and ties, lots of religion. (Not all churches in Latin America are like this, but it is a high majority).
As I walk into this church, though, the first thing I notice is everyone wearing “normal clothes”, and the pastor has gauged earrings and tattoos.
At first I was like, “What? Am I still in Central America?” It was a small room of around 60 people, two thirds of which appeared to be between the ages of 14 and 25. This was a Sunday morning service mind you.
During worship I felt like I was at a hardcore concert, seriously! People were jumping around (which is very typical of a Latin church, warm blooded culture, ya know) dancing, and the whole band was getting into it. After the worship one of the two founding pastors (brothers aged 27 and 29) of the church got up, and started preaching. For one of the first times in my church-goings in Costa Rica, I was genuinely interested and soaking in the words he was speaking.
After the service, I was greeted by an unexpected number of people, including the young guy who had been speaking that day named Derek. I remember feeling such incredible elation at just feeling accepted walking into a church for the first time. Every person wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing, and even exchanged numbers with us to come and see the YWAM base.
I walked out of that church building feeling a sense of family and friendship, and with peace in my heart, I knew that this was a community I wanted to come back and be part of.
Now, almost two years later, we have been going with consistency to El Olivo. Over this time we have made great friendships, and been able to gain a deeper insight into the Costa Rican culture and christian community that lives in it.
One of the biggest struggles of the Latin church in recent years has been dealing with the calling of their members into missions. For so long Latin America has been a place that has received, not just with finances or charities, but also with missionaries. Since the mid-1500’s, missionaries have been coming from abroad to disciple and serve this part of the world.
Until recently, the church began to be confronted by this idea of themselves “going into the world and making disciples of all nations.” Looking at where Latin America is now as opposed to let’s say 100 years ago, it can be agreed that they are mature enough both economically and spiritually to begin to go out.
We work with many Latin missionaries here in San José, and one of the common struggles they all share is, “the church doesn’t support us.” The problem here is that most churches are not used to the idea of giving and going out. For so long they had been on the receiving end, and now God is calling them into a greater role globally for the kingdom. This is very scary for a lot of pastors, and many are unwilling to give up their “prime” youth leaders to go off into other countries to serve and bring the gospel. This often creates a conflict, and more often than not, ends in a church not supporting that person spiritually or financially. I have heard of only a few churches in my entire four years in Latin America that have sent out, or even supported a missionary to go out.
I’m not trying to give the church here a bad name; they have done a good job for the most part of discipling the people in their communities, caring for them, and creating a church that can be a refuge for those going through hard times. That being said, many of us recognize the great step of faith that is required of a church to take part in things that won’t directly benefit its ministry. We believe, however, that God wants to grow and expand the influence of Latin Christians around the world.
For many years, missionaries have gone into countries to try and “civilize” the people of those cultures, and as a result we have tribal people on the African plains who are wearing pants, ties, and long sleeve button-ups singing english hymns in a church. Nicole and I don’t want to add to the scars that the missionaries of the past have already given this part of the world, so we have taken things very slowly with our church. Until now.
Two months ago, the pastors of our local church here in San José came up to us and told us they wanted to talk about our role in the church. Up until this point, we have not done anything directly for the church in regards to ministry, leading anything, or trying to change the way they do stuff. Nicole and I just wanted to be members of the church, and create friendships in that community. The first thing Derek and Daniel told us was how grateful they were for our steady and faithful attendance at the church. That we had shown that we were trustworthy and steadfast. I couldn’t help but think, “just from us coming two or three Sundays a month you have been able to see we are trustworthy and faithful, what?!?” After that, they told us that they wanted to start supporting us and two other missionaries monthly as a tithe from the church………. “What?!! Are you kidding me? A local Costa Rican church of 90 or 100 people want to start supporting two gringo missionaries??” This is unheard of! I mean, I could imagine that some bigger church of at least a couple hundred members might start supporting a local Costa Rican to do missions, but for them to give to us? I had to hold back my tears as they told us this.
Next, they said that they had been praying and believed that for them to complete their role as a church, they needed to be involved in missions around the world. So they asked Nicole and I if we would pray about becoming the missions directors at the church!
Nicole and I could not believe it. After two years of just going into a church on Sundays, they had approached US to get the church involved in missions. How crazy?! After praying about it, we confirmed with them that we would help get the church involved in missions. God had brought to us what we had already been dreaming about for so long for Costa Rica. Now we were seeing God bring it to us, in the perfect fashion. Not from us pushing anything upon the church, but them seeking us out for it. After spending time processing and praying with the leaders of the church we decided we wanted the ministry to be two-fold.
Our mission is to see those with the calling to missions lifted up, equipped and sent into the nations, and to see the church as a whole involved in reaching out to the local community with a tangible and practical love.
1) Send out Missionaries: We want to raise up and equip those with the calling within the church, and send them out to the nations. We will do this through meetings and workshops on missions, to try and awaken the calling of missions within the church.
2) Get the church as a whole involved in local ministry: We want to do this through doing local ministry every two weeks, whether it’s taking food to the homeless, or doing skateboard competitions with children at risk in poor communities.
Our goal is to see a church raise its eyes from an inward focus to an outward focus. To begin caring about what’s going on in the world and want to be a part of it. To see those in Central America and all of Latin America believe the truth about who they are. That they are NOT victims, but ARE victorious and capable of going into their communities and beyond, bringing the only thing that can truly transform the nations: Jesus.
Maybe it sounds a little far fetched, but transforming the world always starts with small steps, and our small step is a local Costa Rican church of 80 people that decided they wanted something more than the social norm. God has called us to be GROUNDBREAKERS, and we want to shake the norms of this society and break ground into new realms that have not been explored before. To be radical enough to believe that Latinos are going to be the ones to complete the great commission. To open doors for those who cannot open them for themselves, and see new and great things birthed.
This is our vision, this is why we do what we do. Thank you God, and everyone who has supported and believed in us. We wouldn’t have been able to do this if it wasn’t for the sacrifices and investments of those around us.
Love, Ryan (and Nicole)