Crop farmers can tell you that it takes a lot of work and planning before a harvest can be gleaned from a piece of land. One of the first things to do, even before seeds are planted, is clear away rocks and brush. In an evangelical sense, that is what a team of 10 Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students, professors and their spouses were doing in the South American country of Uruguay, March 10-18.
“Uruguayans are an aggressively unchurched, secular people,” said Keith Eitel, director of the seminary’s World Mission Center who led the group along with his wife, Glenda. Eitel said there are obstacles to the gospel that must be softened or removed so that subsequent mission teams can water seeds of the gospel and bring in a harvest of souls.
Uruguay lies on the South Atlantic bordering Argentina and Brazil, and has about 3.5 million people living in an area slightly smaller than the state of Washington. The city of Montevideo, where the Southwestern team took up their assignment, is the capital. The culture is highly secularized and post-modern. Most of the population identifies themselves as Roman Catholic, but Eitel said there is a wide-spread distaste for things associated with organized religion.
Eitel explained that by “aggressively unchurched” he means that many people in Motevideo are aware of Christianity but deliberately reject its message. This is particularly true in the Montevideo community of Pocitos where the Southwestern team was assigned. Missionaries estimate more than 20,000 Jews live in that area; their presence traces back to immigration during World War II.
Using the Gospel Advancement Project (GAP) as their evangelism strategy, the Southwestern team joined up with Charles and Karen Clark and Paul and Pam Sheaffer, missionaries to Uruguay appointed by the International Mission Board. The Clarks have been church planters in Uruguay for many years, and the Sheaffers for about a year.
First, the Southwestern mission team walked throughout the Pocitos community and prayed that God would open doors and give opportunities to get inside the guarded, gated apartment complexes where thousands of people lived.
One of the group’s guides around Pocitos was a believer. He told them that it was difficult to hand out “religious literature” in the apartment buildings because guards controlled access to those residences.
“Of the many apartment complexes we targeted, the guards in all but two of them gave us access to put the leaflets in the apartment mailboxes,” said Art Savage, associate director of the seminary’s World Missions Center. “One of our guides was amazed and told us he was seeing an openness in his country he had never seen before.”
Southwestern Professor of Christian Ethics Bill Goff was also part of the Southwestern mission team. He is fluent in Spanish, having spent 27 years in service with the IMB before coming to Southwestern in 1998. Goff had travelled all through Uruguay during his time as a missionary regional supervisor. He confirmed Eitel’s assessment of Uruguay as “perhaps the most secularized, unchurched country in South America.”
However, Goff also was delighted to see an emerging openness to the gospel among the people he met on this trip. One evening, Goff gave a Spanish-language presentation on Christian character development to about 30 cell group members of four cell groups planted by the IMB missionaries.
“It was a discipling effort,” Goff said. “All but one of them had been saved for less than a year. These are highly educated and successful business people.”
The Southwestern team also went door to door and distributed Gospels of John. In spite of some rejections, the team followed a carefully mapped strategy and ended up distributing more than 3,800 Gospels.
On the streets and in public gathering places, team members paired up with translators, some of whom were the teenaged children of the missionaries, and did personal evangelism. Another part of the GAP strategy was handing out gospel tracts in the marketplaces and along the boardwalk and invitations to a free health fair to passers-by. Over the course of the week in Pocitos, the team handed out more than 1,000 gospel tracts and personally witnessed to some 100 individuals.
Paul Sheaffer was especially pleased with the results. In a post-trip update, Sheaffer reported that the Southwestern team uncovered 12 “excellent prospects” who wanted to come to a small group Bible study.
“We have already received several inquiries from people receiving their Gospels asking for more information,” Sheaffer wrote. “While there was no immediate salvation decisions, the gospel was shared in a powerful way and we believe several individuals will make decisions in the near future.”
“For them to have a dozen people interested is remarkable,” Goff said. “This initial response is a very good indicator of a spiritual interest.”
On the last evening of the mission trip, the Southwesterners put on the free health fair to which they had been inviting people during the previous week. Curtis Bogard, team member and husband of Southwestern master’s student Patricia Bogard, is a dentist and helped answer questions about dental care while his wife gave a seminar on dental hygiene. Team member Glenda Eitel, the wife of Keith Eitel, is a Southwestern Seminary campus nurse and a lactation specialist. She gave information and advice on breast-feeding babies.
A psychiatrist and a psychologist, who are recent believers and attend the missionaries’ house church, gave seminars on depression and the importance of friends. Goff said a recent double digit increase in suicides in Uruguay has made the citizens “very quickened” to these kinds of presentations. At the end of health fair, Goff spoke in Spanish and invited those in attendance to the next set of presentations scheduled for April.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for the Southwesterners and local Christians to work together to build relationships and water seeds of the gospel that had been planted earlier,” Savage said.
This is the second trip Southwesterners have taken to Uruguay over a two-year period. Savage is hoping that a third trip can be put together for follow-up evangelism next year.“Our students saw God knock down barriers in an area that was supposed to be hard to reach,” Savage said. “Everyone was amazed at how doors opened to share the gospel.”