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Latin America and the Caribbean: Past, Present and Future

A conversation with Regional Director Richard Nicholson

Randy Hurst: What is one of the greatest challenges you see in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Dick Nicholson: One of the greatest challenges is effectively reaching the region’s major cities. Many of them are hard to penetrate — especially among the upper and upper-middle classes. Montevideo, Uruguay, for example, is one of the most unevangelized cities in the Americas. A very modern European city with a large Jewish population, it is spiritually resistant, secular and well-to-do.

Uruguay has the only atheistic constitution of any country in our region, so it’s a challenge to go to places where people have been closed to the gospel for decades. Still, we are seeing some success in that respect. Other challenging cities — including Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; and Quito, Ecuador — stand in need of a spiritual awakening.

RH: Why did early Pentecostal missionaries tend to focus on rural areas instead of cities?

DN: First of all, in the early days there were more rural areas than urban, so the primary emphasis was on starting outstations in villages. However, with the move toward urbanization, the population centers have shifted to the cities. Secondly, land on the outskirts of town was cheaper to purchase. A few hundred dollars bought a piece of property. While that’s still true in some rural areas, in the major cities property can sell for a million dollars or more.

RH: Is this an area in which we can help some of our national churches get a foothold in the cities?

DN: Absolutely. One of the benefits we bring to the table is our ability to combine resources from our missionary family and from churches around the world to help national churches reach untouched, expensive urban areas. Because we have done this, we now have growing churches in Latin America that are now able to make that kind of effort themselves. My wife, Cynthia, and I just visited a church in Asunción, Paraguay, that has paid its own way and now has a building for 10,000 people. Churches are becoming able to do things that weren’t possible even a decade ago.

RH: Are there still people groups that have never had a gospel witness?

DN: Latin America and the Caribbean includes vast geographical areas and inaccessible places. In the jungles and high mountain regions, there are hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples who are challenging to reach because of their location.

RH: Talk about the revival and explosive church growth in Latin America. What are the challenges we face in training pastors?

DN: Training and resourcing our leadership is the number one challenge. Currently, churches outnumber available pastors. Bible schools are booming and reaching out in every way possible. Night schools, Saturday schools, day schools, seminars and two- or three-day workshops are some of the ways we can put more tools in the hands of national workers. If we fail in this endeavor, everything else we do will be weakened.

The key to effective training is finding what works within a specific context and making it happen. In some areas where we minister, illiteracy is a major obstacle. We’re working hard to help them learn to read. If the culture is predominately oral, we need to find ways to reach the people through a method they will accept. We have all kinds of methodology available; the challenge is to find what works in a specific culture. Not every method fits every circumstance. People are coming up with new, innovative approaches, and that’s encouraging. They refuse to accept that something can’t be done.

RH: Do you feel it’s our responsibility to “reap where the harvest is ripe”?

DN: One of the great principles J. Philip Hogan expounded on during his years as AGWM executive director was that you need to follow the Holy Spirit’s leadership. Hogan stressed that the Holy Spirit knows better than anyone where the opportunities are right. Strategy involves being heavily dependent on the Holy Spirit and employing resources and human strategies that are Spirit-inspired. We have to go through doors that are open, because those doors may not open again. We risk losing many golden opportunities if we’re not sensitive to what the Holy Spirit is doing.

RH: What are some of the challenges in reaching children and youth?

DN: Some of our national brethren have told me: “We like the good things you bring from North America, but not the negative things. Don’t send them our way.” The kinds of products that come out of Hollywood are tantalizing and tempting to youth and bring out a negative element to the subculture.

To counter this, we are making every effort to reach Latin American youth with truth. As a result, we are seeing God do amazing things. In Venezuela a youth congress drew about 20,000 young people. In places like Argentina and Mexico, huge outreaches are having an eternal impact on young people’s lives and futures. There’s a genuine flow of the Spirit that is resulting in a new generation of on-fire young people and children. Historically, I don’t think the national church understood the need to include young people and children as much as they do today. Our missionaries have been involved in changing that outlook, and the results are thrilling.

RH: How is the increasingly tragic issue of sex trafficking and exploitation affecting your region?

DN: The phenomenon of sex trafficking and exploitation baffles me. It’s happening in tranquil places — Costa Rica, for example — that had no history of it. In some places, people come for sex tours. Old men hire young girls, even though they are warned they will be jailed for doing so. In Argentina, about 500,000 girls are abused or exploited sexually, emotionally or physically. Mexico is another prime site for this kind of thing. I’m thankful that God is raising up men and women with a vision to reach into that lurid and negative subculture with the answer: Jesus Christ.

RH: Which countries in Latin America would you say are in the forefront in developing their own missions outreach?

DN: I would say Argentina, El Salvador and Costa Rica — probably in that order. Venezuela is also becoming very strong. About 20 countries in the region have missions departments.

One of the most recent nations to rise up and take on the missions challenge is Cuba. About a year and a half ago, church leaders said, “Our time has come. We’re tired of sitting around, and we really believe it’s our time.” At the national conference in January, they commissioned a leading pastor as a missionary to Spain with full support by the national church.

This focus on world missions is an extension of the Cuba fellowship’s church planting emphasis in their nation. In the last 17 years the church in Cuba has grown from 317 congregations to more than 9,000. Their objective is to plant a church in every village and town. House-to-house personal evangelism is taking place throughout the island, and in eight years believers canvassed 4 million homes. Coupled with a tremendous surge of Pentecostal revival, this outreach is reaping incredible results.

We thank God for what is taking place, but we also realize that life is not easy in Cuba. I’m told that the nation’s divorce rate is about 98 percent. The church is doing its best to counteract this trend by reaffirming marriage and teaching Christian marriage principles. We’re praying that as the Holy Spirit works to reverse the patterns of the past five decades we will see changes in marriages and strong family units built up.

RH: What is your message to the American church?

DN: These are days of huge harvest — not only for bringing in the lost, but also for multiplying our effectiveness. We’re motivating, discipling and training believers to take His message to the farthest corners of the earth. In recent years, a wave of several hundred missionaries has fanned out from Latin America across the globe. Many churches today are passionate for missions and extending the kingdom of God. We must make the most of these open doors by reaching those who have never heard, training those whom God has called, and letting God direct our work so He will receive the glory.

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