Church planting

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There were two women standing at the garage door, waiting for the church to be opened. In a church as small as Casa de Dios, it’s easy to recognize new faces, and these were women that we’d never seen before. As the doors were opened and we filed in to take our seats, we introduced ourselves. Bere and Yuri were their names and we greeted them warmly as the service began.

Before long, we’d finished the song service and I (Dave) was asked to preach the message. While I wasn’t sure that I’d be speaking that day, I routinely prepare something as it’s common in Mexico to invite the missionary to speak when he or she attends.

I shared from Luke 24 and highlighted the words of Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “¡Oh insensatos! (Oh senseless ones!)” I explained how the short-sighted expectations of Jesus’s followers had not only blinded them to his appearance there on the road, but also to the point of his ministry. I encouraged the group gathered that day to not get carried away by their own hopes and dreams that blind them to the revelation that is often standing in front them. I encouraged them to look to Jesus, the one whose victory came as an apparent victim.

The service was soon coming to a close when Bere raised her hand. She had a word that she wanted to speak to the congregation. In it, she spoke of the loss of her father-in-law, her pastor and spiritual mentor, to COVID-19. She also spoke of her battle with sickness and later depression as the pandemic wore on. But having come this particular morning, she felt that she’d been encouraged to lay aside her senselessness, to give up her expectations about how God should work on her behalf and to trust in His plan despite the difficulties.

Later, we prayed for Bere who said that she had felt compelled to attend Casa de Dios that day and that, despite the closed doors and the humble appearances that greeted her arrival, she knew that she was in the right place to hear from God. She also told us that she was awaiting news of a critical exam that may reveal cancer in her body, a possible cause of the symptoms that she had been experiencing.

Kelly exchanged numbers with Bere. We promised to continue praying for her and asked her to let us know the doctor’s report. To our joy, just last week she shared the news: “God still works miracles. The scans showed that I’m completely healthy.”

As we’ve mentioned before, ministry has been difficult in Mexico as many remain reluctant to venture out despite the decline in infection that we’ve experienced over the past few months. Still, Bere’s story encourages us to believe that with God there are no coincidences. We’re in Mexico to be used as He wills and in the way He chooses. Thanks for your prayers and support that keep us here.

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This isn’t what we wanted. In February of 2022, we had expected to be viewing the pandemic in the rearview mirror. However, here in Mexico at least, we find ourselves in the middle of a fourth wave of infection, with cases higher than they’ve ever been.  Our faces are rubbed raw from the constant use of masks, our hands are irritated from the constant use of sanitizer, and our patience has seemingly worn thin with everyone and everything as we deal with yet another canceled event, another notice of exposure, or another positive test result.

Still, I think what most affects us is the uncertainty of it all. We follow the guidelines, uncertain if they will protect us. We take the treatments, uncertain if they will make us better, and we make plans, uncertain if we’ll be able to keep them. We are in effect off-balance, stumbling into an uncertain future. Nothing works the way it used to, and the solutions we’ve gone to in the past don’t seem to fix the problems we’re facing today.

Here, though, we’re faced with a choice. The situation, it seems, will not change, or at least will not change in the way that we had hoped it would. Therefore, we must ask ourselves are we willing to change in the face of the situation? Will we continue to fight against the pandemic trying to overcome it as an impediment to our progress, or will we adapt and allow this moment to teach us about ourselves and how we can transform and grow in spite of the restrictions? Can we learn through this pandemic that sometimes, the obstacle is the way?

You may be wondering, where is it that you’re coming up with this crazy idea? Would you believe from our time teaching the Bible?  As we’ve been teaching in the local church, we’ve encountered moms and children’s workers who are frustrated by the Bible’s complex and deeply flawed characters. Where do they turn to find the role models that their children and students need?  As we’ve been teaching in our formation classes, we’ve encountered missionary candidates, ministers who desire to disciple new believers, who are upset by the Bible’s seemingly random and at times contradictory statements. How do they do their work when their manual of faith and practice so rarely reads like a manual? What we’re discovering together, though, is that it is precisely by dealing with the barrier in front of us we achieve our greatest breakthroughs in understanding and appreciating the Bible.

Perhaps an example is in order. Many of you are familiar with the movie the Karate Kid, either the Ralph Macchio/Pat Morita film or the Jaden Smith/Jackie Chan remake. In both films, the protagonist wants to learn martial arts to be able to defend himself. As he agrees to learn from the master that is willing to teach him, he expects to be trained to kick and punch from the get-go. However, contrary to his expectations, he is given menial tasks: Daniel has to wash and wax cars, “wax on, wax off” while Dre must pick up his coat and “put it on” again and again. Frustrated because they feel that they are wasting their time, they’re ready to quit. It’s only when the master shows them that it was actually through the menial tasks that they were learning to defend themselves that they come to appreciate their methods.

So how does this relate to the Bible? First, we need to allow our frustrations with the text to teach us as Dan Kimball, the author of How Not to Read the Bible says, “the Bible was written for us but not to us.” That is to say that, although we can have confidence that every word in the original documents of the Bible is exactly what God wanted it to say, the Bible wasn’t written with our contemporary culture and its assumptions and values in mind. Once we realize that we are, in essence, looking over the shoulder of another civilization as we read the Bible, we’re able to take the position of the learner. We begin to observe the text, not only what is being said but also how it is being said to discover the message that was being conveyed to its original audience. It’s only then, when we agree to read the Bible on its own terms, that we begin to ask the right questions that lead us down the path of understanding. The process is slow and difficult at times, but the work is worth it as through it we begin to see the true wisdom and power of the Word of God, first for the ancients and then for our modern society.

Coming full circle, then, to our present situation, we need to ask ourselves what we will do with this time of uncertainty. Will we chafe at it as the surgical masks on our faces or will we allow it to humble us to understand our complete dependence on God? Will we spend our days placing blame on others either for the restrictions that have been imposed or their failure to follow them or will we begin to understand how connected we are to our neighbors and how our actions have real consequences, both positive and negative, for those around us?  Growth and transformation are possible, even in the most difficult seasons, if we’re willing to discover that sometimes the obstacle is the way.

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“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; —Amos 9:13

“Buenos días,” came the greeting. “I’m Israel Cauich…do you remember me?” I did. Israel was one of the church planting candidates who was laboring in Tipikal, Yucatan during my time as the District Evangelism President. During those years, his attempts to establish the church were a difficult struggle with inconsistent results. As the pandemic took hold and churches were forced to close their doors, I was concerned that fledgling works like his would find it difficult or impossible to reopen. Israel’s message early this month was a pleasant surprise.

Israel’s church is reaping the benefits of patient sowing. This season, let’s encourage others in Mexico who are working toward the harvest!

“Right now we have a small establishment to hold services,” Israel said, “and we’re making plans to build a church. God has been good and faithful!” I couldn’t agree more. Israel’s church, Puerta del Cielo, had overcome so much adversity, not only surviving but also thriving in the midst of it. The Lord had blessed his patient and persistent sowing with growth, and now he and the church are reaping the benefits.

The motto of Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) is “establishing the church among all people everywhere.” Often this is a slow and painstaking process. Still, through the effort of trained, patient laborers like Israel, the work is being accomplished. According to the most recent edition of AGWM Vital Statistics, every 1.3 hours somewhere around the world a new church is planted.

As we release this year-end edition of our quarterly newsletter, we’d like to highlight the efforts of some of the missionaries we serve as Area Directors who are directly involved in this work of establishing the church in Mexico: Rich and Jenni DeMartino, Ernie and Sandra Peacock, and Shawn and Carolina Sislo. They are sowing the seed of the gospel in Guadalajara and Aguascalientes, where the population of evangelical Christians is only 5%. They are reaching out with compassion to those who are suffering the physical, emotional, and economic effects of this pandemic while navigating the restrictions of this public health crisis. The process has been difficult, often mixed with tears, but they, like Israel, anticipate a harvest.

This Christmas season, we’d like to help facilitate that harvest. As you plan your year-end giving, would you consider blessing one of our missionary church planters? You can help Mexico missionaries establish the church by heading to our giving page and entering the amount you wish to give. Under “Advanced Giving Options”, select option 40. Your gift may be just the encouragement they need to stay the course!

Note: this post is just a portion of what we share in our quarterly newsletter. If you’d like more information from the Godzwas or would like to print this update, take a look at the full PDF version of our quarterly newsletter or, better still, sign up to receive our newsletters direct to your inbox! 

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Just a few paces from the flashing lights and bustle of activity of the General Council exhibit hall, in a space created to illustrate the syncretism, idolatry, and animism common to the region of Latin America where we serve (see photo), Danny* was speaking to me with tears in his eyes. He was attracted to “the shack,” the location of this display of indigenous religious expression, by the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe which was positioned prominently in the center of the structure. Being of Mexican descent, he was keenly aware of its significance. Although he described himself as non-religious before his conversion, he knew how central this image was to Mexican religious expression and how distracting it can be to the nurture of true faith in Christ.

This “shack,” which housed examples of indigenous religious expression, was just one piece of the LAC missions display at General Council 2021.

Still, as the conversation continued, it was clear that Danny had entered that space with a need that casual exchange could not meet. A young pastor of a fledgling church plant, he was struggling with the opportunities and challenges of serving his Hispanic congregation. He questioned his ability to guide a community so needy during a time so tremendous. He lamented his lack of a mentor as he struggled to motivate a congregation comprised of several who surpassed his age by decades.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this,” he said apologizing, but it was plain to see what was transpiring: surrounded by symbols of false religion, Danny was looking for a sign of hope. And, as I spoke the words, “can I pray for you?”, that shack designed to display the pervasiveness of syncretism became a sacred space, a point of encouragement for a beleaguered pastor. As Jesus, the way the truth, and the life met with us, Danny discovered that he had come with a burden but left with a blessing.

Danny’s story is special, but it is in no way singular. As I exited the shack, I saw another group, with hands raised, praying in the middle of our regional missions display. Clearly, in the four days of General Council 2021, hundreds of visitors were engaged and informed. Dozens signed up to explore opportunities in short-term or career missions and many were encouraged as missionaries shared their time, stories, and prayers.

What a blessing it was to advocate for missions during General Council 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Thank you for your prayers and support that make such trips a possibility. Please continue to pray that we would see fruit from our efforts—new workers to continue the unfinished task of disciple-making in Mexico and throughout the LAC.

*name changed

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It’s been a full and rewarding month of ministry. We started things off by participating in the virtual Missionary Training program, where two new missionary units destined for Mexico joined the dozens readying themselves for global ministry. Later, we took part in our LAC Leadership Meetings, where we discussed initiatives to encourage resilience in our missionaries during these difficult times. We also had the chance to encourage some itinerating missionaries headed to Mexico City (see photo) and finished off the month advocating for Mexico and missions at Northland Cathedral in Kansas City, MO. However, one of our more surprising activities was a guest question and response session with students from Instituto Bíblico Bethel in Merida.

Encouraging and having fun with missionaries, Crag and Natalia Baumtrog and their kiddos!

When I (Dave) received the message from Fernando Diaz, pastor and Bible School administrator, I had feared the worst. The coronavirus pandemic has entered a third wave in the state of Yucatan, and I was concerned that he was reaching out with bad news. Instead, I was pleased to learn that it was an invitation to share with his church planting class.

I logged on, not knowing what to expect. Bethel had been meeting virtually for over a year. I had wondered what the dynamic might be after so much time online. Would Zoom fatigue have taken its toll?

The class was a lively one. Following a brief introduction and recap of our experiences stimulating church planting with the district evangelism department, we launched into our time of questions. There were many, and they were varied, and extremely practical—”When should I move from Bible studies to weekly services? Which workers from my home church should I invite to accompany me in the church plant, how should we divide the responsibilities?” In our conversation, I found that the students were actively involved in starting new works, deftly navigating restrictions placed on them because of the pandemic, while reaching out to share the gospel message to friends, relatives, and neighbors. Needless to say, I left our session extremely encouraged. Despite the pandemic, the church is growing in Yucatan!

Still, the price to be paid to the pandemic has been costly. Nationwide, the church in Mexico has lost 270 pastors to COVID-19. In addition, Tomás Vera, the minister who succeeded me as the leader of the evangelism department has been diagnosed with cancer and is very ill. Won’t you join us in praying for their health and strength even as they work to extend the reach of the gospel?

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March marks one year since the coronavirus swept through the United States and changed our lives forever. In times of crises like the last 12 months, it seems as though all we can do is worry. But then we read the words of Philippians 4:6:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 

We have not been unaffected by this tragedy, but as we have increasingly turned to prayer, we have found that God is the one providing for and protecting his people.

As we watched the virus spread through Latin America and into Mexico, our thoughts went immediately to our friends in the Yucatan. The churches planted during our last term, especially in the extreme south of the state, were extremely fragile and isolated. Their people are poor, largely dependent on what they can produce with their hands or grow in their fields. As the pandemic took hold and the economy came to a standstill, we wondered how they would survive. Then, when five named tropical storms passed over the peninsula, we feared the worst. 

In Blanca Flor, the floodwaters destroyed crops but they also brought fish!

The damage was considerable. In Blanca Flor, where our students Lily Dzul and Kary Yam began their work, floodwaters had not only cut off their access to the village, they had totally washed away their crop. Still, even though they faced the worst they prayed for the best, and God answered! 

While the floodwaters had destroyed the corn in the fields, they brought fish with them. So, instead of harvesting a crop, they fished for their food! Meanwhile, Lily and Kary were able to overcome their lack of access to the congregation by recording their messages and sending them via social media. Those with cell phones gathered with others to share their messages of hope and encouragement. Despite the storms and the isolation, God had provided! Despite the threats to the church, God had protected his people! 

Yes, the past year has been disastrous in many aspects, and we continue to ask God for mercy on those who struggle with COVID-19 and its after-effects. Still, although we may be tempted to wring our hands in worry, we are reminded time and again that it is far more productive to fold our hands in prayer. He is the one who is providing and he is the one who is protecting his people.

 

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That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. —John 17:21


We met this week with Jay Dickerson, LAC missionary training coordinator,
and newly approved missionary to Mexico, Elizabeth Dyvig, for candidate orientation.

“Calgon, take me away!” was the catch-phrase of a memorable TV commercial of our youth. It’s the cry of a mom confronted with an impossible domestic situation just before she’s transported to a secluded bubble bath of peace and quiet. For us, it would become shorthand for “I’m having a rough day, or week, or month and I’m ready for it to just be over.”

As we head into this, our seventh month of the pandemic, I’m certain we’ve all at some point wanted it to just be over. We’ve looked for the escape hatch or maybe even strained to hear the trumpet sound heralding Jesus’s return. Still, as we recently concluded our “40 Days to Listen” prayer and fasting emphasis, we’ve been reminded that God has not rescued us from the world, that is to say, taken us physically from it. On the contrary, he’s commissioned us to go into the world as his ambassadors of light in the midst of darkness, bearers of truth in the midst of popular opinion, and agents of life even in the midst of so much death.

Our Mexico Missionary Leadership Team, which Kelly and I lead as Area Directors, took up the challenge of memorizing John 17 during these past 40 days. We did so because we felt that this “high priestly prayer” would reveal his deep desire for us. As we rehearsed the words of that chapter, the nature of our mission revealed in that text became apparent. Jesus prays for us, “I do not ask that you take them from the world.” Furthermore, he says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” As the words of the Keith Green song say, “Jesus commands us to go.”

But he does not send us alone. He has called in the reinforcements, each one an answer to prayer. He sends Shawn and Carolina Sislo, who just last month entered Mexico after 6 months of waiting. They’ll be planting churches in Mexico’s “Last Frontier,” Aguascalientes, a state less than 2% evangelical. He also sends  Elizabeth Dyvig, a pastor from North Texas who just this week was approved by the World Missions Board to work in Central Mexico. And, as John 17:21 says, he goes with us as well into, yes, a divided world, yes, a sick world, yes, a suffering world, but a world that just might begin to understand its need for a Savior.

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As we visit churches during our itineration (photo), we are casting a vision of a Mexico redeemed. It is a vision of unreached people groups reached, of cities saved, of rural zones healed, of university students discipled, and of children formed. But although we may be able to imagine such a future, we may wonder, how could we achieve it? The answer is found in the AGWM slogan: establishing the Church among all people, everywhere.

Let me explain. This fall, I was sitting with Gabriel Borbolla, the current Secretary of the National Missions Department in Mexico. He was also the coordinator of disaster relief after the devastating earthquakes that hit Oaxaca in 2018. As he described the effort to assess the damage and distribute aid to the most vulnerable, a common thread emerged: the local church. It was the local church that rose to the occasion to bring relief.

But the local church is so much more than an agent of compassion. It is strategically positioned to be an instrument of transformation. It is a body of people, changed through an encounter and an ever-deepening relationship with the living God. And, as these people continue to interact with their social networks, they are able to influence change within their community.  Just as the presence of the local church enabled physical relief for the victims of the Oaxaca earthquakes, so its increasing influence in the community can facilitate their salvation. 

Yet, there are entire people groups out of the reach of these compassionate, transformative bodies of believers. There, where the church has not been established, we must choose to go. The National Missions Department of Mexico has risen to the challenge to plant the church among the unreached, targeting 4 Mixteco groups among which to establish new congregations. As missionaries in Mexico, we stand with our national colleagues, fixing a goal of establishing 200 new churches within the next four years, and, as Area Directors, we are challenging each missionary unit to play their part through encouragement, investment, and direct involvement. The local church is the key. Only as it is established will the vision of Mexico redeemed become a reality.

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In the month of November, Kelly, Jonathan and I (Dave), had the privilege of attending the first-ever National Evangelism Conference in Veracruz, Mexico. It was a beautiful sight to see the more than 1,800 participants commit to spreading a message of love and hope in the location where, 500 years prior, the Spanish Conquista had unleashed a wave of oppression.

Still, even with the enthusiastic response in Veracruz, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when confronted with the unfinished task in Mexico: over 113 million who still don’t know Jesus, 3 million of them considered unreached, in a nation becoming more violent and less secure by the year. How can so few make a difference in the face of so great a need?

Then, I think of the Christmas story, and how God came to Earth in the form of the baby Jesus, so small and seemingly insignificant. His bed was a feeding trough. His first visitors, simple shepherds. Even at the height of his popularity, he could be described as a homeless, itinerant preacher. His best friends were among the most marginalized of Jewish society. Yet, it was through that one life that God culminated his plan of salvation and through those few followers that he literally changed the world. That is the hope of Christmas.

And that is the hope that we share, that God will bring peace on Earth, fullness of life, as well to Mexico. But who does he have to represent him in that country? Many are like Roberto (photo, bottom left), an illiterate pastor in Kini, certainly not wise by the world’s standards, but with God’s help, he’s planted 8 churches. Or there’s Lupita (photo, top right), not powerful or influential, not even in her local church, but, through her diligent visitation, she’s led dozens to Christ. Against the sheer numbers of those who still don’t know, the 1,800 who attended the evangelism conference may seem a weak witness, but God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength (1 Cor. 1:25).

So take heart wherever this word might find you this Christmas season. The outlook may be grim, and the future may seem dark indeed, but the light has shone in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it (John 1:5). Experience the hope of Christmas and be sure to pass it on.

(This article appears as well in our winter newsletter. Download a PDF copy to print or share electronically.)

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It was five years ago when we last ministered in Tigre Grande, a small village in the south of Yucatán near the border of Quintana Roo. We had been invited by Rangel Vázquez and his wife Claudia, missionaries who were in the midst of restarting a church, which, 13 years prior, had literally been flooded out of existence. While the redemption story was encouraging, the situation was tenuous. They had yet to establish a permanent meeting place (photo, top left) and had found it difficult to gain traction in their attempts to reach the men of the village (top right).

However, on this past April 28th, the anniversary of the reformed congregation, those struggles were a thing of the past. Not only was the service held in their own building (top middle), but its very construction proved to be the encouragement necessary for several men to join the congregation—first to donate materials and labor to build the building and later to worship among the faithful who gather there weekly.

The Sunday service was a celebration of all that God had done among them. The current pastor, Yani May, a Bible school graduate and former student of ours (pictured in orange in photo bottom right), has not only been able to consolidate the believers who had been disbanded but has also successfully evangelized new ones. These received their certificates of baptism during the service.

Furthermore, the work happening in Tigre Grande is reproducing. Yani’s church has already served to stimulate the planting of another in Blanca Flor, but their vision is much larger. Fernando Diaz, the lead pastor of Príncipe de Paz in Mérida (pictured in blue in photo bottom right), who serves as a mentor to Yani, envisions Tigre Grande as a training center to reach the surrounding villages there in the extreme south of the state of Yucatán.

It was a joy, then, for our family to travel the three hours from Mérida to be with Fernando, Yani, and so many others who have been instrumental in the success of the work in Tigre Grande. Even Rangel and Claudia, now serving in the state of Chihuahua among the indigenous Tarahumara, sent greetings via video to recognize the efforts of the pastors and congratulate the perseverance of the congregation. I shared from John 15, encouraging them to maintain their connection to the true vine, placing priority on their relationship with Jesus Christ as they continue their journey into year six and beyond (bottom left).

Thanks for allowing us to have been a part of their history through your support! For our updated prayer list and links to our secure giving site, head over to our support page.

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