Church Multiplication Case Study #1: Hundreds of Churches in Honduras
In February 2015 Bob Logan and I traveled to Honduras for a week to study a Honduran church planting movement. Bob has been connected to this group for more than twenty years. The church Bob planted in Southern California, Community Baptist Church (CBC) of Rancho Cucamonga, has been the major supporter of the Honduran movement both financially and relationally. This connection was initiated during Bob’s pastorate and has continued with his successor Rob Acker. It’s a powerful example of the impact of consistency in relationship and missional focus. Bob’s earlier study of this movement has been pivotal in his understanding of the development of movements and is reflected in his many writings and teaching.
Located primarily in the northeast quadrant of Honduras near the border with Guatemala and Belize they have planted some 235 churches over the last three decades across that region. More recently they have begun to expand internationally, and cross-culturally planting churches in Nicaragua, Guatemala and the United States. In addition, they have begun planting churches among the people of African descent who populate the Atlantic coast of Central America where the race and culture is significantly different from the majority population of the isthmus. Within Honduras these people of African descent are called the Garifuna.
The movement was started by Conservative Baptist Association (formerly CBA now CBAmerica) missionary George Patterson, affectionally known in Spanish as Jorge. Patterson initiated the movement and ultimately returned to the United States after giving leadership of the movement to Humberto Delarca. Within the CBA, the churches in Latin America are structurally related to their home missions department rather than being part of WorldVenture (formerly the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society), their department of foreign missions. The churches under Humberto’s leadership are currently in the process of separating from the CBA, and intend to affiliate solely with CBC and some likeminded congregations in the US. The reasons for this decision are beyond the scope of this paper.
Humberto Delarca is an impressive, humble leader who has learned how to lead autonomous local congregations...a strong Baptist value. He is a strategic thinker who is relentless in his commitment to the mission God has given them to reach the campos blancos.
During our weeklong journey we visited one or two churches a day with most of the churches hosting a special service where Bob preached an evangelistic message. In addition to traveling with Humberto for the week, we were able to meet with about half of their regional level leaders and interview them; hearing their stories and hearing them each share their common philosophy of ministry. The repetition through different voices and personalities was really helpful in understanding what was happening and identifying the common threads of their core values and practices.
I appreciated the level of contextualization I observed in the churches - both to the Honduran culture and for ministry within a primarily Catholic nation. Though clearly a people of the Spirit they differentiated themselves from the Pentecostals both in the form of their worship as well as in rejecting the legalism that so frequently marks Latin American Pentecostalism. They are deeply committed to sharing a Gospel of grace and often ask outside speakers to share on the topic.
They identify seven elements of a healthy church from commandments given by Jesus. These seven aspects of the church also provide a common process of discipleship and help define the steps of growth in the life of new follower of Jesus. The seven are:
- A changed life as the result of conversion and a relationship with Jesus
- Being baptized
- Loving your neighbor
- Taking the Holy Supper (communion)
- Teaching others....making disciples
The third step above refers primarily not to the love of others within the Christian community but rather love of one’s neighbors and, specifically, those who do not yet know Jesus. New believers are introduced early in their Christian walk to the obligation to remember those outside the community of faith.
They place a high value on the Bible as God’s word. Leaders frequently referred to scriptural verses to support their strategies and practices. It appeared that they most often took their precedent from the practices of Jesus as described in the Gospels. Their emphasis is on obedience to what one is learning rather than on the acquisition of knowledge.
Their church planting model is to train new Christians to go to the next village where they build relationships with the residents. As relationships are developed they look for opportunities to serve and to share the Gospel. As individuals respond they are ultimately gathered together and look for a leader to emerge from within the group. This emerging leader is trained while simultaneously being helped to look to the campos blancos: most often a nearby village. The campos blancos are the ripe harvest identified by Jesus in Luke 10:2. They are very intentional about applying Jesus’ words regarding responsiveness of the inhabitants in Luke 9:5 (“And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from the city, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them”) and will quickly move to another village if they discover the current village to be unresponsive. This is clearly part of a discernment process to determine what God is working. They want to be working where God is active.
Particularly in the early stages of planting a new congregation, and before a recognized leader is appointed, there is a strong emphasis on the ministry of every member. They practice what Paul describes in I Corinthians 14:26 where he writes that “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (NASB). We watched this one night at a church service high in the mountains. The formal time of singing lasted only 10-15 minutes, but was followed by nearly an hour of congregants walking forward to initiate a song they felt God had laid on their hearts. Amazingly the content of those spontaneous songs matched exactly the core of Bob’s message later that evening! It was quite powerful to watch.
While I did not ask many questions about finances, it appears that the movement is largely funded through Lempira rather than through dollars or Euros. The outside financial support seemed to go primarily toward two areas. One was the building of “chapels” or church buildings as teams from the US strategically came to help them erect buildings for growing congregations with the teams providing workers as well as money to purchase building materials. The second area of financial support is for Humberto’s work within the movement. This has been important in allowing him to keep the movement focused on the mission rather than succumbing to the expectation that he care for the pastors. It was interesting that in each church our small group traveling together (consisting of Bob, Humberto, our Honduran interpreter Adelson and myself) were consistently introduced as “missionaries.” “Missionaries” seem to have a recognized role within the movement but are not viewed as having “structural authority.” Humberto did not seem to have a national title and I wondered to what degree they had been influenced by Alec Hayes’ book “New Testament Order and Missionary.”
Most of the pastors are bi-vocational. Perhaps my most poignant memory is of the pastor of the church in Yoro holding the microphone as he prayed in preparation to introduce Bob as the evening’s speaker. Gerardo owns an auto repair shop and had come to the church service directly from his shop and would likely return to repairing cars after the service. As I looked at his calloused, unwashed and grease streaked hands, I thought “these are hands of church planter.” Bob was similarly impacted, taking a picture of his hands and blogging about what he observed. Gerardo not only pastors the church in Yoro but has facilitated the planting of half a dozen other churches through extension chains. You can see a picture of his hands and read more about him here. Gerardo’s story was typical of those we heard. These folks have faithfully given their lives for God’s kingdom, in some cases, for decades.
Their structure is based on the fruit of successfully planted churches with “area” leaders being those who had successfully facilitated the establishment of an “extension chain” of five churches with “regional” leaders being identified where multiple extension chains totaled ten or more churches. The titles for the regional and area leaders emphasized the teaching role of the leaders with the regional leaders being called master extension teachers.(1) This was consistent with both Baptist polity and its emphasis on the autonomy of the local church as well as their emphasis on providing teaching to leaders. They believe that leaders must first be students in order to teach and an emphasis on lifelong learning was clearly evident.
The pivotal biblical principle for this movement seems to be II Timothy 2:2 which reads:
“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (NASB)
They understand this verse to identify four successive generations of Jesus followers namely Paul, Timothy, the “faithful folks” and those “others” who will be taught. From this they conclude that an essential task of a disciple is to pass on what they are learning to someone else as they are learning it. This has become their method of developing churches planters. They call these successive generations of church planters “extension chains.”
So pivotal is II Timothy 2:2 to their philosophy of ministry that they will not allow a leader to remain as a church pastor who is not actively discipling others and reaching out to the campos blancos. Changing leaders is a delicate process within a movement of autonomous churches but they find ways to do it for the sake of the Kingdom.
As a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy degrades a bit with each successive copy, and sometimes added streaks appear on the later copies, also with churches do the further generations of churches experience a degradation of quality. They sometimes deal with this by sending an experienced leader to initiate a new extension chain and thus begin the process with a new original to be copied.
Consistent training through the extension chains is an important part of their strategy. The materials they use can be traced back to the original materials developed by Patterson. A redacted version of their training materials can be found here. In addition they have developed a number of resources which were initially developed to deal with specific situations, but which have been circulated to other regional and area leaders who might find them helpful in dealing with similar situations.
For example, one master extension teacher Geronimo showed me a sheet of paper he carried with him folded in his Bible which listed relevant scriptures and an outline for helping pastors who had become discouraged in their ministry. The reproduction and distribution of these specialized help sheets allowed leaders to benefit from the experience of others.
It was very interesting to visit a movement of similar age to the Vineyard and be able to observe some of what God had taught them. I was deeply impacted by what I saw and learned and anticipate that more will be learned from the Honduran experience as I visit other church planting movements over the coming year.
Some Key Observations
While there is much to be learned from what the Hondurans are doing, I have boiled them down to 6 key observations:
1. Keeping the missional vision alive and at the forefront of each person and especially every leader
They have done a wonderful job emphasizing the responsibility of every follower of Jesus, and especially every leader, to share the “Good News” with others at the forefront.
I observed several main ways they accomplished this. The first was to immediately teach new converts about their obligation to love their neighbor. This was the third area in which new believers were discipled following a changed life and baptism. Loving one’s neighbor is linked to sharing the Gospel with them.
Second, the vision of the campos blancos was repeatedly emphasized among leaders. The next mission field of the campos blancos was easily identified as the next village or town that did not already have a church or at least a reproducing church. This kept the focus from being too nebulous. This might be a challenge in urban or suburban areas with less distinct horizons. Having small, readily identifiable groups (e.g. a village or town) for the next church to be planted seemed to be a critical component to keeping the vision of mission alive.(2)
Pastors were evaluated by their ability to start new groups in successive villages or towns. Broader leadership roles were given to those, not with larger churches, but with churches that multiplied in extension chains. In addition, the strongly encourage pastors to take personal responsibility for the mission of the church while leaving the care of the congregants to the elders.
Their commitment to move forward looking for the ripe fields, and their willingness to abandon those communities not currently responsive to the Gospel, served to reinforce their commitment to the mission.
2. Jesus as a model and an emphasis on the Gospels as source
It was interesting to observe how frequently they pointed to the Gospels and the model of Jesus as precedent for what they were doing. They went back to the source looking for foundational principles which were then contextualized and applied.
3. Growing by extension chains - passing it on
Rather than building a strong central church and planting new churches out of that “mother church” (like spokes coming out of the hub of a wheel) they are growing by the development of extension chains. One church plants another church and that church plants another and so on for successive generations. This seems the difference between growing by addition and growing by multiplication. Growth happens from many places rather than from a single strong location.
Each new congregation is planted within an relatively small existing group (e.g. a village or town) as opposed to trying to gather disconnected people and create a new group from a number of different villages.
This model of reproduction appears to have several logistical advantages. Church planters are not relocating to distant places. Their emphasis on reaching the next community, as well as working to develop a group from which a new leader emerges, keeps most people in their home locale. This is not a model where potential pastors and church planters are prepared in one location to be sent to another place; rather, leaders are identified from within the newly emerging gathering.
Because new congregations are planted near an existing congregation like the links in a chain, care for churches and pastors does not need to happen over long distances. This is a significant logistical advantage on many levels.
Additionally, they have not faced significant struggles identifying leaders of leaders or in trying to get pastors to follow appointed leaders. The leaders emerge organically as they are the ones developing extension chains and as training is offered through these leaders, reinforcing their leadership role.
It does seem more challenging when they need to replace a leader such as when an extension leader has a moral failure. While there we watched Humberto working with a replacement leader. Interesting, they have also concluded that passing the baton is generally much more difficult than lighting another torch.
4. They have consistent, constant training - a key to reproducible systems
As is clear from the titles given their regional and area level leaders, the primary role of the leader is to train others. They emphasize being a good student if one is to become a strong teacher. The content of the teaching continues to be drawn from the original materials developed for Theological Education by Extension (TEE) by Patterson et al.
5. The emphasis of their training was on personal obedience rather than the acquisition of knowledge. Disciples were formed as they were obedient to what they learned in the Bible.
Humberto indicated that approximately 75% of what they taught focused on obedience and application while only 25% of the teaching focused primarily on passing on knowledge. Logan put it this way on his blog:
They figure– rightly, I think– that it’s meaningless to give people information if they’re not living it out. Along those same lines, they assume that if you’re not living out what you know, you’re not in a position to teach anyone else. Teachers are those who practice what they know.(3)
They believe that not just teachers but all followers of Jesus must practice what they know. How different this is from the usual emphasis in the US on right beliefs regardless of how one lives.
6. Separating the functions of care and mission while also keeping them linked
This observation is perhaps the most difficult to describe but it seems very important to me. Because of their structure, Humberto was free to focus on mission and calling the pastors and churches to reach the campos blancos rather than devoting the majority of his attention to caring for existing churches and pastors.
It seemed they were able to do this by not giving Humberto a structural title. As noted above we (including Humberto) were consistently introduced as “missionaries” outsider ministers visiting the churches. It was obvious that people in all the churches knew Humberto and deeply respected him but he was able to keep enough distance to remain focused on mission rather than on caring for the existing churches.
This seems really important for us in the Vineyard as we think of the role of regional or national leaders and who is selected for those roles. Allowing the primary leaders to be focused on mission while simultaneously developing a [parallel?] structure of care for existing pastors and churches seems really important in sustaining a missional edge. It would seem that these need to be linked to the leaders but still separate.
Within the Vineyard we have several places around the world where we have seen twenty, forty or more churches planted and then the planting of new churches has stalled. In reflecting on this, I have wondered if the heart to plant more churches in some of the key leaders has lost its fire by their being overwhelmed at the thought of having to care for more churches. Keeping the functions of care and mission separate though linked might mitigate this problem. It certainly seemed an important issue in Honduras.
Some of my lingering questions:
- Clarity on the finances between churches...is there more connection than I observed?
- Applicability of their model to urban/suburban settings. What needs to change for it to work outside a rural context?
- I would like to know more about the role of the “missionary” among the Honduran churches. I continue to wonder about the influence of the writings of Alec Hayes on Patterson and through him to the Hondurans. Its on my “to do list” to investigate this further.
- What will succession look like for them especially at the highest levels?
- How are they, and how will they, develop their cross-cultural ministry skills?
- I would like to hear more about the training process through the extension teachers.
- The role of prayer and discernment
For additional information:
Bob Logan has been blogging about some of his observations from our trip to Honduras. His many helpful insights which offer further perspective can be found here.
The relevant blog posts were primarily in February and March of 2015. They can probably be easily found by searching for the tag “Honduras.”
(1) As I understand it, their area level leaders were simply called extension teachers.
(2) This seems similar to what Fresh Expressions has been able to do in urban and suburban areas.