Another World Is Possible: Witness in Argentina

Bringing daily joys and struggles into worship helped renew worship for Gerardo Oberman and others in Reformed Churches in Argentina.

Economic meltdown. Tumbling home values. Multiple bailouts. Job loss up. Public aid down. Big bonuses for a few. Formerly middle-class people eating at soup kitchens.

Times like these tempt churches to turn inward and focus on survival. Yet a tiny denomination in Argentina has chosen another path.

“Argentina is a country of immense natural riches and beauty, where a few live opulently and the great majority live below the poverty line. It is a country that declares itself to be deeply Christian, but corruption, swindling, cynical manipulation, violence, indifference toward others, and a lack of solidarity are on the increase,” says Gerardo Carlos Cristian Oberman, a Reformed Churches in Argentina pastor, musician, and songwriter.

His openness to worship renewal and God’s creativity may give your congregation ideas on how to live out the gospel more gladly. Songs and celebrative worship rooted in real life can build hope that, in the words of one of Oberman’s songs, “another world is possible.” (See the Protestants in Argentina story for more context.)

Singing faith

Begun in 1890 by Dutch immigrants, The Reformed Churches in Argentina (IRA in Spanish) is a denomination of only 16 congregations. For nearly a century, several congregations offered worship in Dutch as well as Spanish. The last "official" hymnal came out in 1962, though many IRA churches use other hymnals, such as the Cancionero Abierto(Open Songbook).

“People wonder whether changing worship means betraying our history. But a church that remains the same for centuries loses its meaning and its members. It fossilizes,” Oberman explained at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship.

A decade ago, he and his congregation in Mar del Plata decided to “think of liturgy not as inherited rites and formulas but as expressions of ourselves, created as a service of love to the Lord of life and in response to everyday questions.” They also committed to be a faith community of openness, hospitality, and solidarity with their neighbors.

They began to “create and sing new songs that build a bridge between pain and hope, between the sorrow of reality and the joy of faith,” Oberman says.

These new lyrics are simple and direct, such as “Let no one miss out on the blessing of God, and no one be excluded from the grace of God.” Worshipers see themselves as a community, so sing more about we andus than I and me. Songs in first person are often the voice of God speaking to worshipers, as in “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give. I don’t give to you as the world gives to you.” Many songs are set to merengue, salsa, and other Latin rhythms.

Celebrating the God of life

“If worship is an encounter between a community and God, then it must also reflect a clear commitment to the gospel of life and desire to transform life,” Oberman says.

Worshipers in Mar del Plata bring their struggles—lost jobs, being robbed, mounting debt, dead fish in dirty rivers—to God in prayer, songs, and sermons. Oberman wrote a creed of hope that proclaims, “I believe in God who sees all this…and laughs, because, in spite of it all, there is hope.”

Many justice seekers use the phrase “another world is possible.” Other activists urge “dar vuelta la historia,” which means, roughly, “turn this story inside out.” Oberman finds the source of hope for change in God’s Word. “We believe another world is possible, because Christ has come to the world to make it new.

“I dream of church as a colorful place where the monotony of centuries of routine is shaken by the sound of a stone rolled away to announce that Jesus is free—and his Spirit cannot be held back by any kind of formality,” he explains.

Worship at Mar del Plata often sounds, tastes, smells, looks, and feels like a fiesta. “We bring in the language of the people, with symbolism, strong gestures, warmth, and sensitivity to the needs of each person, male and female,” Oberman says. Worship does what the world does not do—enfold, accept, value, and bond with people, “seeking a harmonious balance among the potential of all its members.”

Whole body worship

In Argentina, as in many countries, not all voices count in public policy. Physical needs for food, shelter, clean water, and basic healthcare go unmet.

In Christ’s new community, worship makes room for everybody and every body. “Worship that celebrates life must celebrate it intimately, with all our being. By his incarnation, God shows he cares about all that happens in our body. Our strength comes from a God who became human, who knows the harsh reality of life, and who calls us to join our wills in search of another possible world,” Oberman says.

For generations, the IRA kept to its reverent repertoire of stand, sing, sit, listen. “But the ordo (basic structure of worship) is just that. It allows for a lot of freedom and movement,” Oberman says.

Sometimes he asked worshipers to leave their seats and walk around while singing. Youth, not just deacons, now take collection. People come forward into circles for prayers of intercession. They’ve begun interacting with the preacher during sermons.

“We use our bodies in liturgical dance and mime. Sometimes we use drama for the call to confession or for a Bible text. We incorporate actions from biblical tradition, such as laying on hands, anointing of oil, or washing each other’s hands,” Oberman says.

He recalls visiting a church in Cuba, where the pastor “had positioned people around the sanctuary. They demonstrated different violent situations, like kicking someone in the back. The pastor asked, ‘What can we do to change this?’ People came out of their seats and repositioned the others to have a real encounter. That was the moment of real compassion breaking into the service.”

Building hope

It’s one thing to talk about confronting the world’s story of scarcity and control with God’s story of abundance enough for everyone. It’s another to live that out as a faith community.

But the people in Mar del Plata sing, “The gifts that God receives from us are signs that we are truly free.” The congregation, which grew from 50 to 70 people in eight years, supplies volunteers and raises the funds for a neighborhood soup kitchen that feeds 500 (yes, 500) people a day.

The church lobby doubles as a clothing bank. The congregation runs a kindergarten, boys and girls club, and Bible studies. It provides space for Alcoholics Anonymous and a municipal youth orchestra.

As often happens when urban churches share their building with the community, they got robbed. Thieves broke in and stole computers, printers, violins, violas, and cellos.

The congregation didn’t have money to replace all that. They asked their denomination for prayers and asked a small group from Calvin College to come do a fundraiser. Thanks to the robbery, they received new instruments, drew hundreds to classical music and Christmas concerts where Oberman shared the gospel, and built relationships across socioeconomic and national borders.

Protestants in Argentina

Full, active, conscious participation in worship looks different from church to church, depending on its context. As the Reformed Churches in Argentina (a.k.a. Iglesias Reformadas en Argentina or IRA) work toward renewing worship, they do so within specific demographic and socioeconomic realities.

Learn More

Listen to Gerardo Oberman’s 2009 Calvin worship symposium address on liturgical renewal in Argentina. He spoke about how a sense of community memory and of journeying together keeps churches from remaining stuck in the past or “fixing their gaze on a too distant horizon.”

Understand Spanish? Want to buy the new worship song CD Dar Vuelta La Historia, produced by Gerardo Oberman and Horacio Ruben Vivares? Thenemail Oberman. Vivares is a guitar professor at the National Conservatory of Music (Argentina) and orchestra director at another conservatory. He composes, arranges, produces, and promotes indigenous Latin church music.

Caitlyn Kelly’s perceptive photographer’s blog puts a face on poverty in Argentina.

Brush up on copyright issues in using global music. Take advantage of excellent global worship resources, including many you can use for free.

  • Coventry Liturgy of Reconciliation
  • Feautor (which, in Spanish, means faith author) is a free, multilingual and open space to share religious resources.
  • Gerardo Oberman founded and coordinates Red Crearte, a global network of Christian musicians (Spanish language website).
  • This Advent series on imagining peace includes 21 simple songs in English and Spanish. World Council of Churches, Red Crearte, and Feautor partnered to produce it with a Creative Commons license that lets you remix and tweak it for non-commercial use.
  • Open Sourcebook is a free online collection of prayers, liturgies, and more.
  • Reformation Sunday resources from World Alliance of Reformed Churches

Explore how Christians across the world thoughtfully call each other to confess and witness to the full gospel:

As your church ponders how to be (or afford to be) a light in darkness, take heart from Walter Brueggemann’s thought-provoking essay “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity.”

Want to include more Spanish-language songs in worship? Consult Cancionero Abierto (Open Songbook; to purchase, visit Instituto Universitario ISEDET or email rector's office at rectorado@isedet.edu.ar). This impressive collection reflects the renaissance of church music composition in the Southern Cone. It includes Latin American folk and popular music genres and translated pieces from other parts of the world. These songs helped Latin American worshipers, especially South Americans, keep and share their faith during the political turbulence of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.

Browse related stories on ethnodoxologyletting story form your worshipPablo Sosa and congregational singing, and Reformed churches worldwide.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get people talking:

  • If yours is a denominational church, how much do you know about your sister denominations in other countries or in other ethnic groups in your country? Where do you get your information about their context?
  • What does your church’s worship—including language, space arrangement, atmosphere, or ways people use their bodies—communicate to visitors about the relationship between God and people?
  • Describe a time when you felt a conflict between the desire to measure ministry or worship success by numbers rather than by some other measure. What’s the same and different in how your culture and the Bible describe success?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about what gospel (good news) means for us now, before Christ returns to create a new heaven and new earth?

  • Not every church has composers or money to license contemporary song use. What are the best sources you have found for songs and worship materials that you can freely use or adapt? We’re especially interested in hearing about resources in languages other than English.
  • Did you come up with an easy way to help your members remember to “pray the headlines” or “be Christ’s peace” in daily life? What results and new ministry did these new prayer practices lead to?

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