Through focus on relationships, churches' international missions continue despite pandemic
OKLAHOMA CITY (BP) -- In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, Guatemala has closed its borders to most foreigners. But one Southern Baptist church's vision of Gospel advance in the Central American country has not been disrupted.
A "natural connection" with Isaias Vargas, CHBC's associate pastor of Hispanic ministries at CHBC who grew up in the region, which is several hours of hard driving north of the capital of Guatemala City, led initially to traditional summer mission trips. But those then fed a growing desire from Vargas and others to plant churches in the area.
"Our strategy," according to Mark DeMoss, CHBC's senior pastor, "is to find places where we can naturally partner, with the goal of planting a church in that community."
The arrival of a global pandemic hasn't altered that goal. While physical visits aren't currently possible -- even travel within Guatemala is currently heavily restricted -- CHBC's work continues. Aided by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, they're has been training in evangelism and discipleship in an online format -- a blessing at any time, but especially now.
The online training format started as a way to continue the work that began during those week-long summer trips. While CHBC members shared the Gospel and conducted conferences in area schools on those trips, Vargas and others began making shorter trips at other times of the year. Those focused on building relationships with churches in nearby towns and villages, equipping local believers -- who would then spread the Good News much deeper into the region.
"The goal is to train up local leaders that will continue taking the Gospel to these underserved areas until churches can be established," DeMoss said. "There is very little data on these communities and COVID-19 because they are far enough away from the major cities. In Guatemala the disease is about 4-6 weeks behind what has been happening in America."
DeMoss said CHBC will continue the online training, with tentative plans to return to Guatemala as soon as possible with a small team to visit the schools and churches, as well as to continue taking the Gospel to homes where it has not yet been shared. Though a trip could take place be this fall, DeMoss said it's more likely a return would have to wait until spring or summer 2021.
But if their visits are postponed indefinitely, the vision continues to advance.
"As they grow, and we continue to visit we hope to see a local church in the next year or two in that area, which will be able to multiply itself into other underserved gospel communities in central Guatemala," DeMoss said.
"If we're going to have a strategic partnership it needs to [go] far beyond checks and mission teams," said Chad Mize, minister of missions and evangelism at Forest Hills. "It needs to be a relationship where we know one another, we stay involved in each other's lives, we encourage each other."
It's in that context that, even with postponement or cancellation of several mission trips, Mize said Forest Hills has been able to continue its missions involvement.
A good example is a relationship with an indigenous church planter in Italy. Mize and his wife were forced to cancel a trip to visit the planter and his family in the first week of March, as Italy was hit extremely hard by COVID-19. But members of Forest Hills have maintained close contact with the family through virtual formats. They've helped bear one another's burdens with times of prayer and sessions discussing ministry strategies, as well as just connecting in everyday conversations.
"We've been able to talk ministry—what's church like for them, how are [they] reaching people," said Mize, adding: "It's caused us to really walk forward and really invest relationally in one another."
Forest Hills recently began an initiative called "Check in at 10," broadcast live daily on the church Facebook page at 10 a.m. In segments ranging from as few as five to as long as 30 minutes, a different topic is covered each day by staff, along with members of the congregation.
Saturdays are devoted to missions, with a different missional ministry partner involved each week on a rotating basis. Mize said the idea, which initially came from their Italian partners, has allowed Forest Hills members and missional partners to learn from each other, even while they're unable to physically meet -- allowing everyone involved, as well as those watching online, to glean information on effective ministry strategies during an unprecedented time.
"[We're able to] come in with humility and learn at the feet of those that often know Jesus better than we do," Mize said. "Then, we can really see God bring the efforts of believers mutually encouraging one another in the combined mission of Gospel advance."