The streets were packed with tourists, vendors, and colorfully dressed dancers. It was carnival weekend in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and thousands had flocked to the city to celebrate. We were there to celebrate, too – but not because of carnival. We had something so much better to celebrate: the planting of a new church.
This is the goal of Academia Cristo. We give free online Bible studies to students all over Latin America, but the end goal is not online Bible study. Those studies help us identify and train people to plant biblical, Lutheran churches where they live.
That’s how a new church was born in Cochabamba. In April of 2020, a maxillofacial surgeon there named Eduardo Milanesi saw an Academia Cristo ad online and began studying with us. The Holy Spirit used the gospel he was learning to bring newfound peace and purpose to his life. He wanted to share what he was learning with others. He started bringing his Bible with him into check-ups and surgeries and telling his patients about Jesus. In less than a year, Eduardo finished the 13 courses in our discipleship program, confessed doctrinal agreement with us, and started gathering a group in his medical office to study God’s Word. We call groups like these “grupos sembrador” – planter groups.
It wasn’t easy. Eduardo was still working full time as a surgeon while leading his group in worship and Bible study. His group wrestled with COVID restrictions, addiction problems, and marital struggles. Academia Cristo provides study and worship materials for our church planters like Eduardo to use with their groups to help ease their workload, as well as a “consejero” – a missionary who counsels them as they navigate tough situations.
For the next two years, Eduardo’s group met every week, and by God’s grace, they began to grow – not just in numbers, but in faith and knowledge of the Scriptures. In January, they completed the studies we’ve prepared for planter groups and were received by WELS’ newly formed sister synod in Latin America – Iglesia Cristo WELS Internacional – as a congregation.
That’s what brought us to Cochabamba on carnival weekend. Representatives of WELS, Iglesia Cristo WELS Internacional, and our sister church in La Paz all traveled to celebrate. It wasn’t a celebration of our work or Eduardo’s work at all. It was a celebration of God’s saving work in the hearts of all present – especially in the hearts and lives of the new believers in Cochabamba. As Eduardo likes to say: “A Dios sea toda la gloria.” To God be all the glory.
The new church in Cochabamba is the first one planted through Academia Cristo. But over the past three years, God has blessed us with 51 other church planters and 21 planter groups – all on the same path Eduardo and his church took. God-willing, there will be many more celebrations like the one in Cochabamba in the future.
Written by Rev. Abe Degner, missionary on the Latin America mission team stationed in Asunción, Paraguay.
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