Confronting the ‘prosperity gospel’ in Guatemala
Langham Scholar Dr. Nelson Morales (originally from Chile) serves as Professor of New Testament at Central American Theological Seminary or SETECA (Spanish acronym), Guatemala, where his wife Xenia also works. Located in the capital of Guatemala City, SETECA is one of the largest and most strategic Bible colleges in Latin America, with programmes that range from diploma training for pastors to doctoral studies for theological educators. Langham Scholars supported Nelson for his PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (USA).
Nelson’s 2015 dissertation was entitled, “Poor and Rich in James: A Relevance Theory Approach to James’s Use of the Old Testament.” In contexts where poverty, violence, and drug addiction are part of everyday life, many Latin Americans long for a God who is mighty to save. Through their teaching ministries, Nelson and Xenia equip pastors and missionaries to confront the dual problems of syncretism (which mixes Christian teachings with Mayan religious practices) and the prosperity gospel. Their church also addresses gang violence through prevention programs. Nelson said in a feature article from 2015:
Fragility of life
“More than 50 percent of the population lives below the line of poverty. People here depend every day on God’s provision. They are more conscious of their weakness and fragility. This can make them more vulnerable to movements like those tied to a prosperity gospel. At the same time, the violence they experience makes Guatemalans aware of the fragility of life.
“Neighbouring Honduras has the highest rate of homicides in the world, and Guatemala is not far behind. Christians here live with the hope of a better life, immortal and eternal. Revelation 21:4 is so patent in this context: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ ”
… “There are some very dedicated churches helping the homeless or drug addicts. There are other programmes working in poor areas of the country, ministering in schools and orphanages. My church, in particular, has prevention programs for gang awareness in the city and short-term medical projects in poor communities in the surrounding countryside. We also send out missionaries working for medical organisations.”
Morales says the evangelical Guatemalan church is relatively new to involvement in social issues—and that some churches still believe social work of this kind is not part of their mission. “The church’s concept of helping those in need has changed in the last 20 years. Before that, the idea of getting involved with social concerns was associated with communism.
“The church’s business was just to rescue souls and send them to heaven—a bit of a caricature, but not far from reality. Evangelicals are rethinking their roles in their own communities. They’ve begun to develop a more holistic gospel to address not just the spiritual needs in their community, but also the physical ones.”
Nelson has recently asked for prayer: “This year has been particularly hard for us as a seminary. We have faced many difficulties of different kinds. Please pray for our seminary, that God would give us the privilege to continue being a light in the region.”
“Please also pray for my wife and me, that God would protect us, and give us His grace to continue serving Him with joy and perseverance. Also, pray for me that God would permit me to go ahead with several writing projects in process this year.”
Country Profile: Guatemala
Located just south of Mexico, Guatemala is celebrated for its mountainous landscape, adorned with formidable volcanoes, biodiverse rainforests, and Mayan heritage sites. Of the country’s 17 million people, 47% are Catholic, 40% Protestant, and 12% irreligious. Twelve years after the 1996 peace accords that ended its 36-year-long civil war, which left more than 200,000 dead and over one million displaced, Guatemala continues to endure high rates of poverty and gang violence, political instability, and the ongoing effects of trauma. Despite these challenges, Guatemala has one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America.