Unlocking Hearts

When Protestant missionaries first went to Peru in the 19th century, they trekked to remote rural areas where the name of Jesus was often totally unknown. The gospel transformed hearts and lives, and new churches were born.

Meanwhile, Lima, Peru’s largest city, was undergoing a population explosion, more than doubling from 1925 to 1940. It then grew even more rapidly after World War II, increasing from 1 million in 1950 to 11 million today.

Unfortunately, as a sizable economic middle and upper-middle class emerged in Lima, very few churches existed to serve them. Worse, there was a prevalent perception that the gospel was for the lower class. Most didn’t understand how the good news about Jesus was relevant to their needs or interests.

A Nontraditional Strategy

Enter “Lima to Encounter With God,” a movement started 50 years ago. Today it represents 60,000 baptized Christians in about 80 churches, most centered around the middle and upper-middle classes.

Pastor Javier Cortázar has lived through much of that era. He started Monterrico Alliance Church 33 years ago with a handful of people. Today, having grown largely through the “Encounter” model, it draws 800 baptized members. Other churches in the movement have grown even larger.

“When we started churches to reach the middle class, we found a strong resistance and prejudice against the gospel,” he says. “So we had to come up with strategies to face these obstacles.” 

The nontraditional aspect of the strategy is its departure from the conventional approach of bringing people to church to hear the gospel preached. Instead, the main emphasis has been family ministry that starts outside of the church building. 

“Too many people don’t want to go to church, and if they don’t come, who will hear you?” Cortázar asks. “People are not interested in religion, but when you speak about marriage, family and children, they pay attention. So we started an evangelism focus on reaching families and healing marriages. We have seen again and again that the family is the open wound of society through which the gospel can reach the middle class.” 

Meeting in Retreat Centers

Even though people aren’t interested in religion, they’re open to meetings held in Catholic retreat centers. 

“Since they’re interested in improving their marriages, they’re willing to come to these centers for what we call Marriage Encounters,” Cortázar explains. 

The emphasis at each retreat is squarely on marriage. “When we start talking about problems within your marriage, and offer testimonials from other families, people want to hear more,” he says. 

Over the course of the 48-hour program, church leaders end up presenting Christ as the only solution to marriage problems.

“This movement was born with a strong emphasis on evangelism and discipleship of the middle class,” Cortázar explains, “and it has been amazingly effective. Hundreds of couples have come to these encounters. In fact, this approach is the only ministry I’ve seen that creates lines of unbelievers just to get in. Some 90% of the couples that come to these events have never gone to an evangelical church.”

Over time the church has begun to hold retreats for men’s, women’s and youth ministry—about eight different retreats a year, and each retreat brings the church a new wave of fresh contacts. “The church lives in constant waves of evangelism,” Cortázar says.

The retreats generate a secondary impact: When the church reaches a couple, then they eventually might come to the church with their family. “If we win the couples, we can reach their sons and daughters as well,” Cortázar says. “So our church is filled with families—which enables us to reach even more families.”

Next Step: Small Groups

Interestingly, most people at a retreat do not make a decision for Christ. Many are interested in continuing to improve their marriage, but not comfortable enough to come to church. Leaders in the Encounter movement have found that the most effective next step is for people to be in a small group. 

“Retreats can be impactful, but they’re not enough,” Cortázar says. “If we don’t connect them with ongoing discipleship, we are just throwing water to the ground and wasting it.”  

The most effective method of discipleship has proven to be small groups held in homes. So the church trains leaders—whom they call mentors—to run these groups and disciple those who attend. These small group leaders touch on relevant topics, and progressively bring the Bible more and more into their groups.

The availability of a follow-up group is announced on the last day of the retreat. They’re called growth groups, and most meet on a Saturday. People’s participation can last one to two years, but according to Cortázar, of those who make a decision for Christ, 80% do so while attending a small/growth group.

The church produces materials for the mentors to use, yet the training for these group leaders emphasizes that relationships hold greater influence than content. “We emphasize that it is not how much you know, but the relationship you have with the small group,” Cortázar says. “The heart of the small group leader makes more impact than their knowledge. If we put too much emphasis on information, we lack enough emphasis on formation.”  

Then at some point, group members are willing to come to church with their new friends—and they often bring their children as well.

“The small groups work as a bridge between the marriage weekend and the church,” he says. “People can take months or even years to come to the church. We have learned to sow with patience.” 

Changed Lives

Carlos and his wife knew their marriage was in deep trouble. They went to counselors for help, but it wasn’t working. On the brink of getting a divorce, they agreed to come to a retreat sponsored by Monterrico Alliance Church

Carlos, like many people who attend their first weekend marriage retreat, arrived in a defensive mode. Carlos was an atheist, while his wife was more open to spiritual things. During the retreat they fought with each other. They were in crisis and didn’t care about what others thought. Still, the Holy Spirit initiated a transformation, and during the weekend, the couple moved from indifference to interest in the content. From the outside it seemed like nothing further would happen. 

Each retreat ends with a call to the altar. Cortázar noticed Carlos weeping during the entire service. Then at the altar call, Carlos came forward to give his life to Christ. 

“What happened?” Cortázar asked. 

“I came into the chapel and I knew God was here,” Carlos responded. “I felt God’s presence. I couldn’t stop crying because of my sins. When you asked who wants God’s forgiveness, I raised my hand, and now I know he has forgiven me.”  

Carlos and his wife stayed together and flourished. The couple became part of the church. Today, both are mentors in helping other couples find hope for their marriage and new life in Christ. 

The success of these retreats has led other churches to want to adopt this ministry strategy of discipleship and evangelism. It has been replicated across South America with good results. 

“This is Year 30 for our church of doing marriage retreats,” says Cortázar. “They are still as impactful as the first year, because the families are each day in more crisis. It’s needed more now than ever. The Holy Spirit wants to move the church through the redemption of families.”

Lima, Peru
Founding Pastor: Javier Cortázar
Website: AlianzaMonterrico.org
Founded: 1991
Denomination: C&MA
Attendance: 800

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Warren Bird
Warren Bird

Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the vice president of research at ECFA, former research director for Leadership Network and author of more than 30 books for church leaders.