Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Our First Baptisms

On Sunday, December 18, we had the privilege of baptizing six new members of our church, six new servants of God’s kingdom. Before the baptisms, each person shared a short testimony of why they wanted to be baptized. It was awe-inspiring to see how God has brought six very different people on six unique journeys to the same place at the same time.

Marcelo shared first. He laughed as he explained that he was forced to go to his first Encounter retreat by his wife and the pastors. He gave his life to Christ in that first Encounter. Two months later, he attended another as a leader and experienced the tangible presence of God for the first time. Since then, he can’t stop worshiping. On the bus, at work, at home, he loves singing praises to his Savior and feels closest to God when he expresses his adoration of Him. The Holy Spirit has been repairing his spirit in many ways, and he wants to be baptized to show his love for God and God’s sacrifice for him.

Lucas moved to Córdoba a few months ago. A friend invited him to church, and he began attending the youth and Sunday services regularly. The first big change in his life came from just spending time with Christians his age (like the 40/40 missionaries). His habits and attitudes changed as God began peeling off the person he was to reveal the creation he is. When he attended an Encounter retreat, God opened his eyes to see the work He had been doing. Lucas realized that he is not alone on the journey of his life, that God is always present as protector and counselor, and also as transformer of our hearts.

Stephanie has a long and complicated story of how God has taken her from a dark place of rejection and loneliness to the vibrant person she is today. She started by saying she has been a Christian for twelve years, but corrected herself and clarified that she has attended church for twelve years. She didn’t grow or absorb anything God was trying to teach her. Since fully surrendering her life to God, she has marked the difference between attending church and being a Christian. Before each baptism, Pastor Junior asked the candidate a series of questions to confirm their faith. The last question was if they were committed to serving in God’s kingdom. This question struck a chord in Stephanie. She is no longer a static figure in the church. She is a disciple maker.

Jorge also cited the Encounter as a turning point in his life. He loves being at the church and being with his church family, but attending the Encounter was the push he needed to grow closer to his Heavenly Father. Learning more about God’s word and God’s character has brought a new joy to Jorge’s life. Being made new doesn’t come without its challenges. Getting baptized, for Jorge, is a promise to continue seeking God. After the excitement of justification comes an active and evolving relationship with God in which we are pushed and pulled to be who we were created to be. Through the victories and the struggles, Jorge is committed to his God.

Luca has been a believer in God longer than he can remember. He attended an Encounter retreat shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Since then, he says he feels a need to serve God. He has done so faithfully at youth group, in the worship team, and evangelism events. After almost a year, I think this was the first time I have seen him with a microphone in his hand. In a family of six, it can be easy to disappear behind the ones who enjoy talking. I was so proud when he spoke with conviction, “My life is His.” I turned around and saw his oldest sister sobbing in the corner as she watched her two youngest siblings declare their personal faith.

Carli, the youngest of the Barrera family, didn’t share a testimony, but her love for God shines out of every pore in her body. She is always eagerly attentive in her Sunday school class to learn the Bible stories and apply the lessons in her life. Carli and Luca’s grandmother came to our church for the first time witness their baptisms. Each of the six people who were baptized is part of a larger family and circle of influence. Each is a new light in a dark world. 

District Assembly 2016

In its first years of being planted, a new church looks and acts differently from an established, mature church. The pastors of a baby church have to use different strategies with a different focus from their peers to reach out to a community without the history, traditions, or manpower of a developed church family. These differences are even more exaggerated in our churches within Extreme because we use a specific model a team of foreigners. Sometimes it can be hard for us to fit in with the other churches on a district. By God’s grace and the work Extreme did with district leadership before we arrived, the Córdoba district has always been supportive of our work here in the capitol. They showed their support and approval once again by asking us to host this year’s district assembly. We aren’t even an official church yet, but we are the most centrally located. Aside from convenience, our district superintendent really believes in our pastors and the potential of our impact on the city.

We were more than honored to be asked to host, but we quickly realized that it would be a challenge to fit everyone in our sanctuary. Our own congregation is growing, but we haven’t yet gotten to the point where we needed to expand our space. It is unclear who had the original burst of brilliance (probably Rachel or Pastor), but the brilliance is unquestionable. Our church building is actually a house. When we first moved in we removed a wall downstairs between the living room and the kitchen to create a sanctuary space. The pastors live upstairs with three bedrooms, a kitchenette, and an open terrace. The brilliant idea was to set out chairs and a projector on the terrace and skype into the service on the main floor. Technology is the enemy of any church function, but this time everything worked perfectly. The experiment even opened our eyes to new options when we need to expand. Some of our church leaders are already constructing a roof for the terrace. We are very excited for a build team from Michigan to come and continue the work next year.

On Sunday, pastors and delegates from around the province began to arrive at around 3:00. The assembly began with pastoral interviews by the district superintendent Pastor Croce. Pastors are interviewed (quizzed) every year on their doctrine and the practices of the Nazarene church. This also provides an opportunity for Pastor Croce and his wife, Pastora Mabel, to pray with each pastoral couple for their families, ministries, and the coming year. Field coordinator Pastor Zani arrived from Buenos Aires at 6:00 and the assembly portion began. The district leaders and each pastoral couple reported on what God had been doing in their ministries during the year. It has been a year full of challenges and victories. These congregations are small, between 15 and 60 people, but their pastors are persevering and passionate. They shared about events in their youth groups and compassionate ministries. We can get so focused on what we are trying to do, it was encouraging to hear about how God is working in other parts of our own province. The most heart breaking testimony was Pastora Angelita. Her husband died of a heart attack last summer. Even though she is in her sixties, she continues to lead her disciples, pouring her life into theirs. Seeing her, a true warrior of the faith, seated next to our delegates, some of whom have given their lives to Christ within the last year, was a bit mind boggling.

After the assembly, we had our normal Sunday evening service. As our church members arrived, we filled the terrace with people and filled the kitchenette with food. Pastor Zani preached about the importance of church planting and multiplication. The Córdoba district was established only fourteen years ago with three churches. That number has grown to seven. On January 7, 2017, our church will be “organized” as the eighth official church on the district.  We are grateful to God for the opportunity to join ranks with the other pastors on our district. Our church members took the first step of building districtwide friendships with a potluck dinner after the service. The Córdoba District of the Church of the Nazarene is a growing family. 

More Than Just a Wedding

“Figuring it out” is a big part of a church-planting missionary’s job. Each routine and norm needs to be decided and built into habit. How will we, Puerta Abierta Cordoba, serve communion? Set up the chairs? Celebrate Mother’s Day? Every first is a new opportunity to form the church culture. Recently, we were able to plan our first wedding with a very special family. We pray God will use them to continue forming the culture of the church after we leave.

Last December, Emilse was enjoying a summer day in the park with her sons when she met Rachel, one of our 40/40 missionaries. Emilse had converted to Christianity a few years earlier, but had been without a church or much guidance for a while. She was seven months pregnant and living with her boyfriend. I should insert here that living together is much more normal in Argentina than getting married. The government grants marital benefits to couples who have been living together for a very short amount of time. Unless you have been taught that marriage is a sacred commitment before God, you really have no reason to get married. With a growing church of new believers, we expect to have many more marriage celebrations in the near future.

Anyway, back to Emilse. She was already in love with God and loved everything about our church model and doctrine. Rachel and Damaris quickly started a house of prayer in her apartment and began sharing the gospel with her friends and family members. The biggest obstacle was Marcelo, Emilse’s boyfriend. He didn’t want anything to do with God, the church, or the missionaries. We prayed that God would do a miracle in his life, but we couldn’t have dreamed everything that God had in store.

Emilse and Marcelo’s son, Ezio, was born in February. The baby dedication was Marcelo’s first time in church. If memory serves, he came late and left early. We kept praying, and he slowly continued to soften. By God’s grace and Rachel and Damaris’s persistence, he began attending the house of prayer. By the time May rolled around, Emilse was able to convince him to attend an Encounter with her. Both had life changing experiences, and Marcelo decided to commit his life to Christ. He attended the next Encounter two months later as a leader, and God freed him from his addiction to cigarettes. Emilse and Marcelo have been faithfully and eagerly attending their discipleship classes every Saturday.

The process of putting God in the center of their relationship hasn’t been flawless, but it has been done with great faith and bravery. When they decided to get married, we were in the middle of buying and remodeling a new church building and had no idea how a wedding would work in the space. In true Argentine fashion, all the details came together in the last two weeks before the ceremony. Emilse is an includer and wanted to make sure everyone played a role. Responsibilities large and small were doled out like candy, and somehow everything managed to come together. Or we just forgot things and didn’t realize it.

We ended up using the Methodist church down the street because ours just doesn’t have enough space… yet. Marcelo is the oldest of his siblings and cousins and the first to get married, so his entire family came to celebrate. Emilse doesn’t have any biological family in Cordoba, but her church family was well represented. Rachel and Damaris were bridesmaids alongside Irma, the maid of honor, who faithfully attends the house of prayer and is looking forward to participating in the next Encounter in December. Pastor Junior and Pastora Jaci performed the ceremony together. After the vows, they asked Marcelo to pray for his future with Emilse. He used the opportunity to not only pray out loud, but share in front of all his friends and family about Jesus’s teachings on sacrificial love. We were shocked and proud of him and so so grateful for God’s powerful love.

The wedding itself was a ceremony with a dinner reception afterwards. In the moment, it felt like an American wedding, but now I’m realizing all the “special” customs we love to include were missing. There was no sign in book or candle lighting or bouquet tossing. There was a bouncy castle and a foosball table, which are really a lot better than our typical activities. The entire atmosphere was more relaxed than you might expect in the States. The ceremony started about an hour late. When everyone sat down for the dinner, Marcelo realized he had forgotten to pick up the food. He and a couple guys left the church, walked to the catering place, and brought back the dinner. Everyone had a great time because we all enjoy each other’ company.

Emilse and Marcelo continue to grow in their marriage, their relationships with God, and their leadership in the church. Emilse was recently named leader of the NMI of our church. Marcelo will attend his third Encounter in December. This time his sole purpose will be to watch and evaluate the speakers so that he can teach one of the sessions in the February Encounter. After a year of unforeseeable growth and change, they are excited to see what else God has planned for them and their family.