My First Missionary Trip: Reflections on worship in Columbia

Three years ago I was due for a sabbatical and was looking forward to learning about worship life in Reformed communities in other countries and cultures. But instead I stayed part-time in the office while also becoming interim director of music at my home congregation.

I love working directly in the congregation. I also love my daily work here in the office. But in both places I am surrounded by Christians who are predominantly Reformed, middle-class Anglos of Dutch descent—only one small part of the body of Christ. Therefore this past summer I jumped at an opportunity for a vacation that held promise to become the kind of sabbatical I had been hoping for.

On August 1, I flew to Cartegena, Colombia, a beautiful city on the Caribbean coast. There I joined pastor-evangelist Alexandra Zamora, who was on a two-month preaching and teaching tour of several Latin American countries. She invited me to come along for part of it to “see what God is doing.” Perhaps somewhat like the several named companions named in Acts 20:4 who accompanied the apostle Paul on one of his missionary journeys, I was privileged to follow, listen, and learn.

Five years ago, Alexandra left a pastorate in Costa Rica when God called her “to the nations.” Since then she has been preaching and teaching in many countries. During those two weeks I was with her in Colombia, she preached at twelve worship services in three churches. The context in each city was urban and upper middle class. She also led ten seminars for church leaders, musician/dance team members, and women’s groups. A few of her seminars were outside the church, including one that she led by invitation of the Colombian army to help the drug police with anger and pain. Colombia is a country in anguish over drugs and violence and the resulting economic tailspin as companies leave and tourists stay away.

After just two weeks in Colombia and another two weeks in Costa Rica and El Salvador, I’m sifting through experiences in what was a very powerful and challenging trip. Pentecostal churches are growing quickly throughout Latin America. They know how to plant churches! Two young pastors I met in Colombia are preparing to come to North America as missionaries; they feel called to respond to our great need for the gospel. Learning that caused me to look at my own congregation and its place in the larger North American culture with new eyes. Here I’ll reflect very briefly on the Colombian part of the trip.

First, these churches are young, and their worship is very similar to that in North American churches recently influenced by the Pentecostal movement. Everyone uses worship leaders and praise teams (keyboards, guitar, drums), and sings by rote or with overhead projection. I never saw a hymnal. The services are usually two hours long—an hour of singing followed by an hour of preaching, ending with prayer. The music is contemporary, including many North American praise choruses.

Second, it is clear from the stories I heard that people come to worship for two reasons: to praise and adore God and to become equipped to evangelize their family members and friends. Many are still “young in the gospel.” Their joy and gratitude for salvation is matched by their passion to be God’s instrument to bring others into God’s kingdom. They are puzzled by traditions (here they lumped Reformed and Roman Catholic together) where members leave evangelizing to the professionals.

Third, the churches are pulsing with energy from involvement of young people. In one large (5000-member) congregation in Barranquilla (seven services every weekend; five on Sunday, all televised by their own TV station), every service involves different vocal and dance groups. Teenagers and younger children crowd the aisles near the front to be near the action. The quality of their musicianship and the dancing is outstanding.

Fourth, great care is taken to disciple the worship leaders. In that same large congregation, I was stunned to find about seventy musicians and dancers, mostly under thirty, gathered for their own worship service on Saturday afternoon before their final rehearsal. They form their own congregation with their own pastor, who is assigned to mentor them spiritually; the lead musician mentors them musically.

I left Colombia wishing that Reformed and Pentecostal pastors, worship leaders, and theologians would sit down to listen and learn from each other. The Reformed tradition is so rich, but have we lost our first love (Rev. 2:4)? Pentecostal fervor is so exciting, but can it be sustained without more theological depth? Reformed churches are already adopting Pentecostal worship practices. What is desperately needed is dialogue among those who lead worship leaders. We need both passion and understanding as we seek to be God’s instruments to build the church.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.