What We Believe

Seven Years of Ministry in Montevideo

Mark E. Richline

On Sunday morning, I stand behind a rickety music stand looking out over a group of twenty people seated on wooden fold-up chairs arranged neatly on a dance floor with disco balls hanging overhead. Seriously? After nearly seven years of rigorous church planting in Montevideo, this is it?

Over the years we have had more than forty in our services, with new visitors every Sunday. We have met in a building positioned strategically on a busy downtown corner. We have enjoyed a large sanctuary, a handcrafted pulpit, and extra rooms for Sunday school. Plus, we have been livestreaming our services and uploading them to our own YouTube channel.

But on this Sunday, any visitor would think that we were a church just getting started.

Water infiltration of the ceiling and walls of our building had forced us into this salon (normally used to host giant birthday celebrations). This is only the latest of a long list of challenges that have discouraged our mission over the years. Members have left Salvos Por Gracia Church, we were robbed of all our audio/video equipment, and additional church-planting attempts have not borne visible spiritual fruit. I understand why Montevideo has the reputation of being “a missionary’s graveyard.” So many have come, started their work, and then given up and gone home.

A good friend recently asked me why we are still here. Our faith in Christ’s promise to build his church is the best answer. We firmly embrace the Apostle Paul’s conviction as our own: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). This powerful declaration fills the believer’s heart with assurance of salvation. It is God’s project, not ours. He started this good work and faithfully continues it. And unlike believers, who exhaust our resources, leaving projects unfinished, God in his infinite power and wisdom will finish the good work he has begun in us. 

Just as God works to finish what he has begun in us, he is working to finish the church he has begun in Christ. He who redeemed his people by his own precious blood will sanctify them by his Spirit until he perfects them at his coming (Eph. 1:7–14). Our twenty-six members of Salvos Por Gracia Church are an important part of a far greater project God himself is working to complete. Focused on this reality, we keep working now, remembering God’s past faithful work, which moves us to expect its glorious completion to come. 

Working in the Present

We build Christ’s church as we worship together. Our people are scattered all over the city; most spend two hours on the bus just to join our services. Yet they come to adore our Lord in spirit and in truth. Though we rely on YouTube for our music accompaniment, we lift our hearts in praise to our Savior. As I preach through the ministry of Elijah and idolatrous Israel, we respond by confessing our own idols and submitting our desires to Christ’s will. Some of our brothers have asked me for my sermon notes to use in their family devotions and in their gospel conversations with others. 

Promoting unity among our members has been challenging in these COVID-19 days. Three members of our church family formed a committee to plan and promote our fellowship. We just enjoyed our first outdoor barbecue in three years! Talking, drinking our mate (Uruguay’s green tea), playing soccer, savoring the slowly cooked meat, and listening to God’s Word were all done to his glory. Before that, we spent a Sunday afternoon preparing and then devouring a favorite meal introduced by our Venezuelan couple. And before that, our married couples came together for a night of fun, food, and encouragement from Scripture. 

COVID-19 has also hindered our efforts to spread the gospel. Over the years, our mission has welcomed many short-term groups to assist us with vacation Bible school and English clubs. However, the pandemic stopped these efforts in their tracks. Even recently, Uruguay’s border policy prevented some interested young people from considering service here as missionary associates. 

Our Lord, however, gives us other ways to evangelize. For a while, we welcomed the public to our Reformed literature table in front of our building. Our women also set up a clothing table in the same spot and attracted several visitors. Far more effective, though, has been the love of Christ shown by two of our families who have “adopted” troubled young relatives into their already small homes. These children constantly witness God’s truth in love both in their new families and in their church family.

Remembering God’s Past Faithfulness

Despite our setbacks, we work, drawing our confidence from God’s faithfulness. We keep his past faithfulness present in our hearts, as did ancient Israel (Gen. 28:18, 35:14; Josh. 4:19–24). I hope you have a regular way of doing this for yourself. Keeping a journal is mine. Recording and then reflecting on our ministry regularly reveals to me God’s faithful character weaving itself in and out of the fabric of his work. 

So many have heard the gospel preached as they walked by our open doors on the Lord’s Day. He has used us personally to have many gospel conversations over the years. For months, Matías and I met with a young Jewish man, persuading him to abandon his confidence in his own obedience to the law. I loved listening to my brother explain with all kinds of illustrations how only Christ’s perfect obedience justifies us before a holy God.  

Many souls have also been edified by our Reformed literature library. Donated funds from generous Orthodox Presbyterian churches have made available Reformed resources on doctrine, apologetics, and counseling not only to our members but also to visitors from other churches. Salvos Por Gracia members love to read, so these books have no time to collect dust on the shelves.

Through our Mission, the Lord has also been constantly caring for this body of believers, as it has installed new sheet metal roofs on their homes, put a necessary addition on another home, provided needed appliances, paid for repairs to their cars, and given transport to doctor’s appointments. Scores of others in the community have experienced his love through food baskets, clothing, and bus tickets that have been offered in his name.

Another community need the Lord has faithfully provided is English conversation instruction and practice. For years, our Mission offered free English classes taught by native speakers. Many children and adults have attended our English clubs, where our Lord has offered the gift of eternal life through the gospel ministry of missionaries and church members alike. 

Of the thousands of immigrants arriving in Uruguay searching for greater stability, several have found the Lord’s help from our Mission. One couple from Venezuela came from a Reformed church and were looking for a Reformed church! When they found us, they expressed their desire to be married. Several months later, Salvos Por Gracia hosted its first wedding. One of our brothers walked the bride down the aisle in place of her father. The congregation blessed her with a wedding gown, flowers, and a homemade triple layer cake as we celebrated God’s love for them.

His faithful work fills us with thankfulness. We recently hosted a married couple from the States who used their Spanish to thoughtfully engage our members throughout the week. Before the couple left, we listened with joy as they praised God for these folks, describing them as lovely, sweet believers who openly shared God’s gracious work in their lives. They were also impressed with the members’ dedication to Reformed doctrine—their commitment to study the Puritans as well as Spurgeon, Pink, and Sproul. To God be the glory; great things he has done!

Expecting Christ’s Finished Church

Our regular celebration of God’s former work keeps us firmly expecting him to finish it. By faith, we pray and plan for the near future. By the time you read this article, we trust that God will have placed our church in its new location, where it will be drawing others to Christ. By September, we hope to have a new missionary couple working alongside us. By this time next year, another ruling elder and a deacon will be added, Lord willing, to our church’s leadership. Within two years, we envision a new church plant taking shape in the vicinity of a member’s home. 

Five years down the road, we trust that Salvos Por Gracia will enjoy a membership of fifty, be financially self-supporting, have its own Reformed pastor, and be working together with a sister church of twenty members. Beyond this, a presbytery of six Reformed and Presbyterian churches would be ordaining its own pastors and planting other churches. However lofty these goals seem in this atheistic culture, we trust them to the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, resting entirely in his promise to build his church. 

Should the Lord bless us with all we plan, or far more, it would still only be a meager taste of heaven compared to the eternal glory that awaits his church. She is the new Jerusalem, her husband’s holy bride, God’s dwelling with his people who will be forever purified, forever free from pain, sorrow, suffering, and death. How gracious of our Lord to call us to labor together with him on the only human entity that will never cease to exist in glorious perfection!

And so, we persevere now in our work, remembering his faithfulness while expecting future glory. What a life-transforming perspective! Our Savior never designs our trials to defeat us, but to direct us toward his final goal.

Last September, Salvos Por Gracia lost its missionaries when we went back to the States for four months of furlough. Though we were unable to work with them, Jesus was working in them. Worship continued under their elder’s direction, while weekly Bible studies were led by another potential church officer. They met each other’s needs, fellowshipped together, and paid all the bills on time. All this took place while the missionaries were thousands of miles away. Whether they realize it or not, they were taking one giant step towards becoming their own church.   

And now Salvos Por Gracia has lost its building. What we first believed to be a major obstacle, we now see as an open door. Moving them out of their building, Christ is moving them to a new place, which is more affordable. As they learn to take greater ownership of their meeting place, our Mission will help them take further ownership of the life and leadership of the church itself. Apart from their loss, they may never have thought to move in a new direction.    

Our perseverance today depends on remembering Christ’s past faithfulness in order to expect future fulfilment. Isn’t it much like coming to the sacrament of the Lord’s Table? There we participate in Christ’s body and blood, rejoicing in his already finished work while setting our hearts on the wedding feast of the Lamb where we are already fully, but not yet finally, seated.

The author is an OP missionary in Montevideo, Uruguay. New Horizons, June 2022.

New Horizons: June 2022

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