Telling the new old story: Missionaries try technique more like Jesus' own

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BELEN, Peru - It's time for the Sunday church service in this remote village of the Amazon, and at 6-feet-1, a full head above the native Asheninka Indians, the white man can't be missed.

Yet in the context of missionaries' long history of storming the ends of the Earth to convert indigenous people, Chris Ammons' restraint - he's sitting on a corner bench, listening - says more than his presence.

An Asheninka leader, Alejandro Santos Barbaran, tells the simple story of how Jesus calmed a storm.

"Tsikama okenakeka pawentaane?" Santos says, echoing in Asheninka (ah-SHIN-uh-kah) the words of Christ when he asked his disciples, "Where is your faith?"

The scene represents a quiet revolution in the way many missionaries spread their faith.

Old message, new way

A Southern Baptist, Ammons is in the vanguard of an approach that counters the worst stereotypes of preachers forcing Western values on vulnerable peoples.

His message is still the gospel, a story that has contributed to the change of entire cultures, the rise and fall of empires and, recently, to the fatal shooting of an American missionary and her baby, mistaken for drug smugglers over Peru.

Ammons and his wife, Pam, don't push a Bible that few in this illiterate culture could read. They don't preach in a pedantic style the Indians would find as puzzling as MTV. They don't ask for Billy Graham-like altar calls.

"We could go into every Asheninka community and preach something they don't all understand," says Ammons, 44. "We could ask them to raise their hands if they accept Jesus Christ, and every single hand would go up."

"Then," says Pam, "we could write down that we have seen 400 confessions of faith on the Apurucayali River. But how many disciples would we have?"

Chris Ammons is one of an estimated 98 million American evangelicals, of backgrounds including Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, who believe it's a moral imperative to share their conviction that Christ is the way to heaven.

But Ammons has concluded that in places like this jungle, Jesus shouldn't be portrayed as a fair-skinned messiah. If Christianity is to advance on new turf, people from other cultures must make it their own, building their churches, singing their songs and living their lives in their style - unless that flatly contradicts the Bible.

Ammons also notes that Jesus was a storyteller, enthralling his audiences with parables. The "storying" technique works anywhere, advocates say, but particularly in oral cultures.

Few converts had remained

The Ammonses worked as missionaries in Spain; in Lima, the Peruvian capital; then Cajamarca, in Peru's high Andes.

But as their own two children left for college, Chris Ammons conducted a midlife review. His sobering conclusion: Despite the blood, sweat and prayers, he and Pam had fallen short.

They had done their jobs like most missionaries, drawing crowds with fliers, three-points-and-an-example preaching and razzle-dazzle music.

"That approach would usually give us about 250 people at first, enough to start a church," Ammons says. "But in six months, even with us still there, that would dwindle to about 60. When we pulled out, maybe a year later, it might be down to 25.

"So we're ending up with little more than 10 percent of what we started with after a lot of work and time spent with the people. That was demoralizing, but it was pretty much the same story for all missionaries in Peru."

He decided to experiment with a technique developed by New Tribes Mission of Florida, a nondenominational group whose work is increasingly discussed in missionary circles: telling stories instead of preaching sermons. In the Andes, he trained Peruvians making trips to a regional market to take Bible stories and retell them to others in their rural communities.

Not only did the stories go out, the storytellers enthusiastically returned for more.

Excited, Ammons pursued a doctorate in missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., to learn all he could about storying. His thesis focused on storying possibilities in a place where previous, sporadic missionary attempts had failed: the Amazon region of Peru, home of the Asheninka.

Remote region, risky mission

From a pontoon plane flying south from Pucallpa, his base town, Ammons looks down on an endless carpet of green, the world's largest rain forest. The Apurucayali River, a long brown snake, curls in hairpin curves. Every river eventually connects to the river, the mighty Amazon, for which the entire region of more than 2 million square miles is named.

"You get a whole different perspective from up here," Ammons says. "There's some Asheninka villages we travel two days by boat to get to, whereas in a direct plane line it would be just a few minutes."

On April 20, a Peruvian military jet shot down a similar pontoon plane affiliated with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. The Peruvians, expecting drug smugglers, instead found Jim Bowers, a missionary from Michigan, grieving the deaths of Veronica, his 35-year-old wife, and Charity, their 7-month-old daughter.

Ammons didn't know the Bowerses, who worked in another part of the country, but the shooting was a sad reminder of the risks missionaries face, including terrorist kidnappings, poisonous snake bites and tropical diseases.

Ammons himself later contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness he described as "the flu on steroids." The locals call it "breakbone fever."

`Edge of lostness'

Southern Baptists call places like the Amazon "the edge of lostness," not because of remoteness, but in the belief that inhabitants will not get to heaven if they respond to the gospel.

In Peru, where nearly all outside the Amazon consider themselves Roman Catholic but far fewer attend church, this exclusivist theology draws little opposition. Missionaries are applauded for giving the Indians medical care and some education.

On the other hand, secular anthropologists, mostly in Europe and the United States, argue that indigenous people have proved since Christopher Columbus that they need no help. Missionaries bring not only Bibles, they say, but social conflict, deadly diseases, crass commercialism and environmental degradation.

Ammons says such criticism ignores the cultural sensitivity increasingly taught to and practiced by missionaries. "They are more interested in upholding their preconceived idea of the happy, noble savage," he says, referring to the Enlightenment ideal of French philosopher Rousseau, who saw primitive man as essentially good until corrupted by colonial, Christian society. "They can't relate to the fear, sickness and unhappiness among indigenous groups."

Effort for `people groups'

As recently as 1997, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, the world's largest Protestant missionary organization, made maps that put a nation such as Peru in green if even one missionary was in any Peruvian city.

Then evangelicals scrutinized the word "nations," which is "ethne" in the Bible's original Greek. The International Mission Board decided that Christ's "Great Commission," to "go and make disciples of all nations" was to go to every ethnic group, largely determined by language, not just to every nation defined by political boundary.

The Southern Baptist database identifies 12,862 ethno-linguistic "people groups" worldwide, of which 2,161 are "unreached," meaning they lack the capacity to grow churches by themselves. Peru alone has 116 people groups, 64 unreached.

With this emphasis, Southern Baptists also encouraged culturally sensitive approaches - not for political correctness, but for effectiveness.

Ammons tells of one grueling 22-hour bus ride, then a 50-mile, three-day hike uphill to a mountain town, Huacarachuco. When he finally arrived, villagers told him the Coca-Cola truck had just left.

"If this company is that serious about getting a Coke into someone's hands, shouldn't we be that much more serious about something more important than brown water?"

No written language

The journey to Belen is completed by boat, six hours to two days depending on river conditions and the reliability of motors. Ammons could charter the pontoon plane to land at Belen, where the spectacle would attract a curious crowd. But he insists on arriving as every Asheninka does - by canoe.

The Asheninka - 50,000, by Ammons' estimate - had no written language until Bible translators recently created one for them. Their history is sketchy. But they are said to predate the Incas, who ruled much of South America during the 16th century.

Catholic missionaries tried to evangelize the Asheninka centuries ago, but several were killed in the attempt. Protestant missionaries made another try beginning in the 1900s. Little stuck.

Ammons has been to Belen nearly a dozen times already. There are no Cokes, no electricity, no plumbing and no roads. His team for this trip includes his wife; a Pentecostal pastor and his son from Puerto Bermudez, a town upriver; and two short-term volunteers from Ammons' "partner church," Valley Baptist in Bakersfield, Calif.

Ammons leaps to the church floor, grabs a guitar left from a previous visit and strums a few chords. It is still in tune.

Before bed, devotions

After a dinner of freeze-dried food mixed with purified water and before retiring to sleeping bags under mosquito nets, the team gathers in a loose circle for devotions. Ammons holds a flashlight to his worn Bible, turned to Revelation 7: "I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb."

He tells the Californians that the Asheninka will rejoice one day with them in heaven.

"That must give these people (the Asheninka) hope," says Matt Weir, 31, one of more than 30,000 Southern Baptists who annually volunteer for mission trips. "Can you imagine being in this darkness night after night thinking your loved ones won't go anywhere beyond this place when they die?"

"I can't imagine," Ammons answers.

In `Bethlehem,' a gospel story

Sunday morning arrives in a pounding rain that raises the river several feet. When the downpour slows, around 11, barefooted villagers begin sloshing through muddy paths to the church.

Alejandro Santos Barbaran, 42, arrives from Davis, his home village. It took him an hour and a half to get here by dugout canoe; returning will take three hours against the current. Like most Asheninka men, Santos makes no wages. He provides for his family by hunting with bow and arrow, fishing with a spear and growing the yucca plant that provides 90 percent of the Asheninka diet and makes a mean moonshine.

"Belen" means "Bethlehem" in Spanish. If this village is to be the birthplace of Asheninka Christianity, it will happen through this man.

Santos describes his conversion this way: While visiting Puerto Bermudez in a drunken stupor 15 years ago, he heard music coming from a building. Thinking it was a bar, he stepped in. It was a church.

Brigido Ramirez, the Pentecostal pastor, persuaded Santos to become a Christian. Santos says he eventually quit drinking but struggled in the faith until three years ago he received a vision: There was a dried, fruitless tree. God watered it, and it bore tangerines.

Santos says the tree represents the Asheninka, the fruit the new life God wants to give them.

Ammons met Santos a few months later. Previous missionaries might have sent a potential leader to seminary to learn theology and Western ways. If he returned in a few years - many would not - he would have changed so much the villagers would barely recognize him, much less understand his teachings.

Forecast: Fast growth ahead

If there's anything the Asheninka can do, it's pass on a story. To Ammons, to the Southern Baptists, their spiritual future depends on it.

With Santos traveling to this and five other villages, and others making storytelling trips elsewhere, Ammons' projections show the gospel spreading slowly at first, then exponentially. It's the same mathematical formula used by multilevel marketing companies and chain letters.

Only 1 percent of the Asheninka are Christians, Ammons says. But he sees these 500 or so mushrooming to 10,000 before his team pulls out in three years.

With the help of the main linguist who wrote the Asheninka language, Ammons has finished 53 stories to be presented in chronological order, beginning with Adam and Eve. They are enhanced by 105 illustrations, of a brown-skinned Moses, Jesus and other Bible characters.

The Sunday service begins with songs. It climaxes not with the usual Baptist sermon, but with Santos' story of Jesus calming the storm.

Women nursing babies suddenly look up. Men transfix on Santos, even as his wife, Irma, sitting on the floor, loudly elaborates during pauses and even while her husband speaks.

`Now we know it's God!'

Cladis Shareba, 24, holding her 2-year-old daughter, Merta, turns to Pam and says, "Now we know it's God!"

Like many animistic cultures, the Asheninka explain natural phenomena with tales of spirits. Shareba whispers that they thought strong gusts meant the owner of the wind was angry. In fearful response, they would have planted the wooden handle of a hatchet in the ground, the stone edge of the blade facing the wind as if to cut it. They might have shot arrows at the wind or burned a turtle shell so the pungent smoke would send the spirit away.

Now, Shareba says, they know God controls the wind. They will ask Jesus to stop it.

The response illustrates an Ammons maxim: "The only way to replace a story is with another story."

It also shows what Santos says he now knows of his people: "The stories, combined with the pictures, this is how the Asheninka understand."

When this story ends and the gathering quiets, the missionary stands for the first time. He asks a series of questions.

"Who is more powerful, the storm or Jesus?"

"Jesus," they all shout.

"Yes, Jesus," Ammons says. "Was Jesus scared?"

"No," comes the response.

"Why?" Ammons asks.

"Because," answers a villager in Asheninka, "it was he who made the wind anyway."

As if for added effect, the morning storm has completely ended, and the sun begins to appear.