Lessons in church planting

Tim and Hannah Flatman lead a church-planting team in Sabá, northeast Brazil. As many Brazilian evangelicals could be described as experienced – even prolific – church planters, Tim considers an important and potentially uncomfortable question. Are they needed?

A bit of history

The denomination we work with in Brazil, Betel Brasileiro, arrived in Custódia – a city of 40,000 in the semi-arid sertão region of northeast Brazil – 40 years ago, and planted a church in the city centre. 30 years later, that city centre church itself began to plant churches.

One, in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of the city, now has its own leadership team and is almost self-sustaining. Another, in a rural quilombola community a short drive away, is still dependent on the city centre church, but has seen many people come to Christ.

Two years ago, the city centre church began to hold monthly services in Sabá, part of another  quilombola community up in the hills, north of the city. And we arrived in Custódia a year ago to develop and lead the team planting a church in Sabá.

Before we arrived, God was already at work through Betel Brasileiro church in Sabá. Before Betel Brasileiro arrived, God was already at work in Sabá. And Brazilians are experienced in church planting. So what are we doing here?! Is there a role for cross-cultural mission workers, church planting in northeast Brazil?

What are quilombolas?

Earlier, we mentioned quilombolas. It’s time to explain who they are. Quilombola communities are communities of predominantly African descent, formed as an act of resistance to slavery and racist oppression. They have their own social, economic and cultural practices and their relation to their land is an important part of their identity.

They vary hugely. Some quilombola communities are 400 years old and some are newer. Some practice traditional religions like Candomblé, but many don’t and never have done. Many are in isolated locations, though many are not. Some have incorporated other marginalised groups over the years, including white slaves. Some mixed with indigenous communities. So is there a role for cross-cultural mission workers in quilombola communities? Undoubtedly.

A world of difference

Brazilian church teams planting churches in quilombola communities are themselves cross-cultural mission workers, whether they realise it or not. There’s a world of difference between the city centre church in Custódia and the quilombola community half an hour north of them. One of the dangers for residents of Custódia is that they plant a church in their own image that is not authentic or relevant for quilombolas. A danger very familiar to European mission workers!

As migrants in Brazil, Hannah and I already live an in-between, liminal, existence, constantly navigating issues of cultural difference; adapting but never entirely; always trying to decide what feels wrong because it is wrong, and what feels wrong because it just clashes with our cultural upbringing and worldview. As white, ‘rich’ Europeans, we grapple daily with issues of privilege and status. We are afforded more respect and deference than we deserve. We want to practise and prefigure the interculturality we see in Revelation 7, but are always at risk of imposing our own culture, because of the power relations we are a part of.

Privilege and status

So part of our role is to help middle-class, relatively privileged, white(r) Brazilians already planting a church in a quilombola community to recognise and grapple with these issues too. In preaching to the city church, we emphasise humility (Philippians) and the dangers of pride due to status, riches and education (Corinthians).

We challenge stereotypes about what these communities are like. Like many people in poverty, they are often seen as idle, in need of moral education, dependent on benefits, prone to drunkenness. The reality is that they are mostly hard-workers, but with little work available, and the community is characterised by self-help and mutual assistance.

Their poverty is obvious, while their considerable strengths are less visible. One church member giving a talk in Sabá asked if people not working at 4pm were lazy. She didn’t realise that most residents rise by 5am to work on the land and have finished working by 4pm, when they socialise for an hour before it gets dark. These stereotypes feed into poor contextualisation. Instead of offering spiritual resources for life, guest preachers who don’t know the community feel they need to focus on morals, or else give the same evangelistic message again and again, in the hope it will result in transformation.

Re-imagining evangelism

That message is often given in the way they themselves received it. It is a logical, propositional form of evangelism, based on a series of proof-texts. It exhorts people to separate themselves from the world – a key message in (Brazilian) evangelical subculture. They use it because it worked for them.

Separating yourselves from the world is easier in a city, where people choose their friendships according to common interests. It is more complicated in a rural community, where everyone is a relative of everyone else.

In Sabá we have emphasised evangelism through storytelling and methods that don’t rely on literacy. We recognise that many people will make decisions about following Christ together with their families and that while conversion must be personal, it is not always individual.

These are not new issues for mission workers. But they are new to a lot of the people from the city centre church involved in the church plant.

Holistic transformation

We made it clear from the start that our vision is to plant a self-sustaining church in Sabá, which itself reaches out to other quilombola (and non-quilombola) communities, and which offers holistic transformation to the whole community. Even while our focus is on evangelism and discipleship, we preach and hopefully practise a holistic gospel.

We spent months visiting people in their homes and, together with them, are starting to implement their suggestions: a regular mum and toddler group; a project to build bathrooms in homes with poor sanitation; the construction of a playground; midweek bible studies; music lessons. We want it to be clear from the start that social transformation is part of the gospel and not an add-on.

Everyone involved

It’s also about full involvement. We want baptised Christians to be formally involved in leadership, but in the meantime we are always looking for ways to model and prefigure participative church. That is especially important in quilombola communities, because there is a risk that richer Christians coming from the city will treat them as objects of paternalistic charity, instead of recognising their dignity and building on existing strengths.

We involve everyone present in decisions at the end of services. We encourage everyone to give something in the offering. We provide music lessons and hope that some participants will one day follow Christ and join the worship group.

We involve people in Bible readings and encourage testimonies about what God is doing in their lives, whether or not they have yet made a decision to follow Jesus.<