Elsa Cristancho didn’t like the doctor and his wife coming to the house; of that she left no doubt.
“Someone — a non-Catholic — is going to come and teach us the Bible?” Cristancho said to her daughter, Marisol Jula. “No, Marisol, I don’t like it.”
Pacho, the town that Cristancho and Jula call home, is a Catholic community. Like the rolling green Andes foothills beneath the rural town in central Colombia, Catholicism is part of Pacho’s fabric.
For Cristancho, the tradition was a sacred and personal one. Over the years, she spent many days on dusty roads from Pacho to other nearby communities, serving as a traveling Catholic evangelist before moving in with her daughter.
As Jula continued to invite the doctor, she would beg her mother – “Mom, just out of politeness!” — but to no avail. “You can receive them if you like,” Cristancho said, “But I won’t.”
When the visitors were at the house, Cristancho would continue on with her routine tasks, ignoring the conversations in the other room. But one day, Cristancho stopped for just a moment to listen.
“I stood there,” Cristancho said, pointing toward a window across the tiny kitchen. “And I listened to what the doctor was saying about the word of God. I was impacted, and I don’t know why I started to cry. I felt that he was talking to me, and it penetrated my heart … I had never understood the word of God so well as I understood it with them.”
“Since that day she’s always there,” Jula said. “She’s happy.”
Cristancho’s story is not only that of a new believer in Christ — it is also the story of a new church, one that is becoming increasingly familiar in and around Bogota, Colombia. The house church movement may be predominately associated with the growth of Christianity in Central Asia, but some 10,000 miles away in Colombia, the model is also taking root and bearing fruit.
The movement in Bogota is a young one. In fact, it began two years ago as just a pile of books, articles and resources in the hands of 34-year-old Colombian native Jorge Enciso. But Enciso deflects the credit.
“My father-in-law has always been handing me books and photocopies and links,” Enciso said. “And through my studies in the university, I also ran into people that were doing research on house churches, and I’ve always seen that as something that really calls my attention.”
Born and raised in Colombia, Enciso has always been passionate about his culture and his community. But it wasn’t until his mid-20s when he met Christ that he saw how the pieces fit together. “I love Latin Americans,” Enciso said. “I grew to love fighting for the struggles of people in Latin America, but it wasn’t until I met Christ personally that I understood that I was fighting the wrong way — without Christ.” Enciso married his wife, Ginny, a missionary kid who was born and raised in Colombia and they moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he enrolled in classes at a number of institutions. After four years, they returned to Bogota where Enciso stepped into the role of a pastor. But something about the spotlight and growing success made him uncomfortable. “I felt like I spoke too much,” Enciso said. “I was up there on stage too much, and I just didn’t like it.” As Enciso wrestled with that reality, the idea of a house church strengthened.
“It just kind of dawned on us,” Enciso said of himself, his wife and a small group of friends. “Why aren’t we doing this? Why are we just reading about it and seeing how cool it is, but we’re not practicing it? And we made the decision … we see [it] as a calling from God, and we jumped in.”
That decision, along with two years of hard work and lots of prayer, birthed Ciudad Corazón (Heart City). This network of small, reproducing faith communities in and around Bogota is made up of Casa Corazón (Heart Houses).
Despite the stack of academic resources that helped spark the idea, Enciso sees the house church concept as remarkably simple. “We just go around meeting people,” Enciso said, “telling them about Jesus and inviting them to join a community of faith that is very intimate, that is very current, very relevant to society. And we hope for growth — spiritual growth — to happen within these house churches.”
So far, the model is beginning to take root in neighborhoods across Bogota as well as a couple other towns surrounding the capital (north in Pacho and southeast in Villavicencio). Most groups start as small Bible studies and accountability groups, like the one in Jula’s house, until a leader is trained to help the group become an actual Casa Corazón. The hope is that each group will multiply within a year as leaders emerge, and the community grows. But Enciso is quick to add that multiplication is not an end unto itself. “Multiplication is a tool,” Enciso said. “Our goal is to expand the kingdom and see people grow and lives transformed.”
As Ciudad Corazón grows, Enciso sees the evidence of fertile spiritual ground in Colombia, but tilling isn’t easy. The pervasive cultural norm of Catholicism presents one of the biggest challenges. In fact, less than 10 percent of the country’s population is non-Catholic. “Being a Catholic country, the concept of church is linked to a bell tower and a large cross and a building,” Enciso said. “So yeah, people feel weird at first.”
Prejudice presents another barrier in many communities. “In Latin America there’s a lot of classism,” Enciso said. “People of higher socioeconomic levels look at others differently and don’t naturally mingle together.” Despite the challenges, Enciso knows the power of Christ and deep human connections are stronger. “You want to show that there is potential for bigger intimacy, bigger growth and a more honest, transparent, Christian way of living.”
Most groups start with just a few people and grow as the core members invite others from their community. In that simple context, Enciso has seen the walls of stigma and classism begin to crumble. “You have to let go of that and just open the doors,” Enciso said. “So, you can have business people in the same house church with a humble maid, house worker, stay-at-home mom, and we don’t even think about it anymore. We’re just there, and they slowly start to connect together.”
A hallmark of the model is the absence of a central teaching pastor. While a leader will help guide the discussions, the goal is to see all members engaging equally as they interact with God’s Word. “We do an inductive Bible study,” Enciso said. “A collective reading and studying of the Scripture through asking questions. And we pray. We pray a lot.”
Other mainstays of the typical gathering are time for worship, fellowship and sharing food together. “It’s pretty hard for someone to say they didn’t like it,” Enciso said. Although there is one caveat: “Unless the food was really bad,” Enciso said with a grin. “But that doesn’t happen very often.”
At the core of the movement is a growing group of leaders taking the model to communities around Bogota. Dr. Camilo Torres is one such individual who moved his wife and three children from Bogota to Pacho, a nearby village, two years ago. “I came to Pacho as an answer to a need,” Torres said. “So that people can also have access to the knowledge of Jesus.”
Once a conventionalist in tradition, Torres makes for an unlikely house church planter. As a deacon of a large, traditional church in Bogota, Torres was originally unfamiliar and suspicious of the model, even in the early days of his work in Pacho. His original plan was to move his dental practice to Pacho, build relationships with people and eventually gather small Bible study groups into a larger, conventional church service. “It was the natural next step in his mind,” Enciso remembers from many conversations with Torres. But as the groups began to grow, something about the intimacy and transparency of the house church idea thrilled Torres. “It’s easier to show people,” Torres said. “They can develop it in the center of their communities, neighborhoods and families — inside what the people know and love the most.”
Torres’ skill as a dentist has also been a natural gateway to serving the community and sharing the gospel. In fact, Torres first met Jula while working on her toothache. “He was fixing my tooth, and he started talking to me about the Scriptures,” Jula said. “And when he talked to me, it was just this connection.” After that, Jula began inviting Dr. Torres and his wife to the house: the beginnings of a Bible study and eventually a Casa Corazón. Since coming to Pacho, Torres has seen the start of six similar groups.
Another key to the house church movement is a popular vacation Bible school program for kids, called Super Vacas — a play on the Spanish words for “cool,” “cow” and “vacation.” “So the Super Vaca is a super cow, it’s the hero of the vacation,” Enciso said, explaining the storyline behind the program. “It has its own comic strip and all that.”
But Super Vacas is much more than a program or a comic strip. “[It] started in a specific neighborhood,” Enciso said. “We wanted to build ties there between the local congregation and the community because there was a gap.” The solution was a weekly Bible club: inviting kids from the community to participate in games, Bible memorization, urban gardening and other activities. “We totally see it as a model where we can come in with something like Super Vacas, and that’s how we meet kids and their parents. We build trust, and then they start experiencing a thirst for more.”
As more Casa Corazón groups emerge in communities like Pacho and the Ciudad Corazón movement as a whole begins to spread, Enciso continues to dream of the future. This past fall, the groups in each town started meeting together monthly. “People can see God is also working all over the city,” Enciso said. “We want to do that in every city that we’re in and maybe have an annual meeting of all the house churches.”
With growth comes the need for workers. “There’s lots of room for workers … foreign missionaries that are willing to come with the good knowledge of the Word, but also with skills to implement wherever we want the house churches to go to,” Enciso said. It’s an invitation Enciso hopes will be answered by many believers who share his passion for seeing the gospel spread in Latin America.
In a country where religion is everywhere, but authentic, Christ-centered community is just beginning, Enciso dreams of seeing an explosion of the house church movement. “My prayer is that in 15 years we can see … healthy house churches — whether of the Ciudad Corazón movement or of other movements — in every city in Latin America. You can help me pray for that.”
To Enciso, the house church movement is like a fire hose, stretching out with the arms of Christ to neighborhoods in flames. “We see ourselves as firemen. Missionaries are like that … Everybody is running away from the bad neighborhoods; everybody is running away from the hard situations. We’re supposed to run in and redeem them.”
TEAM has the opportunity to partner with Jorge Enciso in the Ciudad Corazón movement. If you are interested in being a part of multiplying gospel-centered communities around Colombia and beyond, visit http://www.team.org. To learn more about the Fundación Comunidad Viva, visit http://www.fundacioncomunidadviva.com.Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons