How to Build a Denomination: Blazing the Trail for Reformed Churches in Uruguay

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Nov 2, 2017

Church planting is tough—no two ways about it. There’s no playbook guaranteeing success, no easy formula or secret sauce. It’s an often painstakingly slow process of patience and faithful obedience, building up a core group, discipling new believers, and working through the Presbyterian nitty gritty of selecting elders and moving towards particularization.

How much more challenging then, is starting an entire denomination from scratch on a foreign mission field? Yet that is exactly what one MTW team is doing in the South American nation of Uruguay.

“Uruguay is the most secular place in all of Latin America,” said MTW missionary Ray Call. “Many people do not believe in God, or if they do they think that the church is unnecessary and they can believe whatever they want. So there’s a great need to share the gospel of Jesus.”

The complexities of pioneering
After Ray completed seminary in St. Louis, he and his wife Michele served with MTW in Mexico for a number of years. Then, feeling a call to South America, they began to look at church-planting opportunities in Uruguay. MTW did not have a team there at the time, so the Calls ended up partnering with a family from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and another from the Brazilian Presbyterian Church who had already planted a church in country.

But with no Presbyterian or Reformed denomination in existence in the entire country of Uruguay, the Calls’ task is bigger than starting a single church plant. They have to build an entire denomination.

“It feels like a really pioneering field,” said Ray. “We’re starting from the ground up—planting churches and trying to develop a denomination. We’re going to have to develop a Book of Church Order and church planting and theological education and mercy ministries and everything. Teaching English as a second language, Lord willing we’d like to see a university ministry. So there’s a lot to be done here.”

“It’s very difficult because it’s so multi-faceted,” Ray added. “We have to take it step by step.”

Wisdom from experience
In order to better wrap our heads around all the factors involved, we wanted to talk to someone who knows a little about starting a denomination on the field. That led us to Clay Quarterman, a long-time MTW missionary and professor at the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine. Over the course of his missionary career, Clay has been involved with starting Reformed denominations from scratch in both Portugal and Ukraine. He even wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the subject.

But those years of training and equipping national leaders to plant churches and start Reformed denominations weren’t smooth or quick, far from it. Over and over the team Clay served with had false starts and changed strategies. They had team conflict, failure, and tragedy. Yet, through it all, God was in control. The connections they built with their national partners grew strong in the midst of adversity and failure. Strategies came and strategies went, but those relationships forged in struggle for the kingdom lasted and formed a foundation for the churches and denominations that followed.

“You don’t see much of [that progress] in the short term,” said Clay. “You must sit with [people], live with them, watch their children grow up—just as they watch yours. Then, you can all see Jesus in your midst.”

So what does it take to start a denomination from scratch? According to Clay: 

  • It takes a clear vision of what you’re there for—the Church.
  • It takes clarity about your bottom line—lives brought to Christ and enfolded into an ongoing local body.
  • It takes prayer. That is what clarifies vision and keeps us on track. What God will do is what counts.
  • It takes grace. Duty alone is not enough. And the grace we experience in our own families and teams communicates volumes.
  • It takes a team with multiple skills and a unified vision.
  • It has to build on what God has done through the ages in that country. Good training in missiology and history is essential.
  • It should build on what God is already doing there—cooperating with other churches and missions.

“The goal is not to establish your own church, but to lead others in establishing a Biblical church built fully on the Reformed historical foundation that brought the gospel to them,” said Quarterman. “This will mean teaching in humility and repentance. It will also lead to conflicts with some of the emerging leaders. It will mean discovering some wolves among the sheep (Acts 20:30), and defending the flock from wolves who attack from outside (Acts 20:29). In the end, it will mean letting go, as the Apostle Paul turned over the work to the Ephesian elders with tears, saying, ‘And now I commend you to God and the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32).”

Working toward the goal
Back in Uruguay, the Calls and their OPC teammates are still quite a ways off from that point of letting go. For the moment, their focus is on just planting their first church and developing associated outreaches. They have a worship service every Sunday, a weekly prayer meeting, an annual VBS, and have started weekly English classes.

Though a Presbyterian denomination has yet to form, there are two other Reformed Presbyterian churches in Uruguay—one pastored by the Brazilian missionary, another a completely self-governing, self-supporting Uruguayan church. Over time, Ray hopes to build stronger bonds between these churches to form a Presbytery.

Ray’s church, for its part, is still in the early stages.

“I’m excited that we have five new members and two of them were baptized this past February,” said Ray. “It’s really slow going here so that’s huge for us … We’re hoping it goes faster, but it’s all in the Lord’s hands.”

What God will do is what counts
Church planting and denomination development in Uruguay is about playing the long game. It’s more about patience and faithfully following God’s call than about following a playbook for a quick and easy church or a quick and easy denomination.

“There’s no formula,” said Ray. “We want this to be a Uruguayan church. We want to see leaders raised up and see them plant other churches around Montevideo and the rest of Uruguay. Then we could step back and move into more of a helpful, coming-alongside type ministry.”

A full denomination may be a long way off, but Ray and his team labor on with faithful obedience—driven by grace, focused on the Church, confident that the Spirit is at work, and with their eyes on the prize. They’re on the right track, it seems. But in the end it is God who will build a church and a denomination in Uruguay, using one little MTW team and Uruguayans for his purposes along the way.

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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