The Mexican Pipeline

Anyone who has planted a church will tell you that it’s hard work. Some of them might also be able to tell you it’s dangerous.

For a four-year period roughly covering 2008 to 2012, that was true of Andres Garza and his fellow team of church planters with Mission to the World in Monterrey, Mexico. Andres, an RTS-Charlotte graduate who leads the MTW Church Planting Center in northern Mexico, had steered his team through a season of drug gang–fueled violence that prompted many people to leave the city, with those who stayed living in fear of venturing out at night lest they get shot.

“Before that, Monterrey used to be the most peaceful large city in Mexico,” says Andres, who calls himself a “guinea pig” in that he was part of an experiment by MTW in handing the reins of team leadership over to a national instead of an American. Today, though peace has largely returned to Monterrey, the church planting network Andres leads has been refined — in fact, as is oft€en the case in the midst of persecution, it has become more fruitful.

Andres and his team have taken on the audacious goal of planting at least two churches in each of the 27 largest cities in northern Mexico. From an American perspective, 54 churches may not seem like very many, but the church climate in Mexico is much different than it is stateside. Centuries of religious tradition have clouded Mexicans’ minds and hearts to the true gospel, and the MTW church planting team faces other obstacles as well.

God is faithful to save His own, though, and Andres’ life testies to this truth. In his last year of college in Monterrey, the woman who later became his wife invited him to an evangelistic campaign at her Presbyterian church. “I only showed up because I was attracted to her,” Andres admits. Eventually attracted to the gospel as well, Andres came to faith in Christ and, through the infl‚uence of MTW missionaries, responded to a call to ministry.

“Most people in Mexico think missions is about going to the jungle and living in a tent and evangelizing the Indians,” explains Andres, who as an architect and city planner, was hired by MTW to help with demographic studies to aid the then-fledgling church planting movement in northern Mexico. “City planning is a passion for me, but when they started relating city planning to the church and with mission, I started thinking about ministry in a different way.”

Eventually Andres tapped into an already-existing pipeline between RTS-Charlotte and MTW in northern Mexico. In 2002, one of his current partners in church planting ministry, Jorge Aleman, had already completed his first year of seminary there, as had Michael Lee, an American who serves as an MTW missionary with the Monterrey movement.

Michael’s especially circuitous route to the mission field passed through, among other things, a haze of marijuana smoke and meeting his wife through a mutual friend who dealt cocaine. “I was high as oft€en as I could be, except at work,” is how Michael describes his life before he came to faith in Christ. That work — a series of successful jobs in the hospital field (first in food services and then in administration — eventually gave way to a calling to ministry, which he and his wife wrestled with for several years. At age 39 Michael began attending RTS-Charlotte, where he pursued a ministry internship with Bethel Presbyterian Church across the border in Clover, S.C.

That’s when Michael learned that Bethel (as had Filbert Presbyterian Church, about 30 miles from Clover) had established a partnership with MTW’s work in northern Mexico. One of the beneciaries of that partnership was Michael’s RTS classmate Jorge Aleman. Jorge had been an associate pastor at a church in Monterrey that one of the MTW missionaries there began attending. Jorge was invited to attend an assessment center that MTW had set up to evaluate potential church planters.

“[That missionary] came when God was speaking to me about the mission of church planting and how I can be involved with that,” he recalls. With the support of the Bethel and Filbert congregations, Jorge began attending RTS-Charlotte.

The three alumni, along with a fourth graduate, Jose Luis Cardona (who finished his RTS-Charlotte degree last year), serve together in the MTW Church Planting Center in Monterrey. (Jaime Jimenez, who graduated from RTS-Jackson four years ago, is a church planter in the network.) While Andres leads the MTW team, Jorge serves as the coordinator of training for church planters, Jose Luis helps with the training as well, and Michael helps the Mexicans coordinate the theological training received by the church planters.

“Theological training is hugely different in Mexico than it is in the U.S.,” Michael explains. “When we see seminary here, we see the buildings. In Mexico, seminary is a small conference room with a table and five chairs, and I bet that’s probably what seminary looks like in most of the rest of the world.”

Seminary not only looks different in Mexico, but it also must adapt to cultural realities. MTW has started a seminary in northern Mexico, but aft€er a few years, it wasn’t accomplishing its intended purpose, primarily because aspiring Mexican pastors (and Mexican churches for that matter) don’t have the disposable income to uproot for years at a time as is customary in American seminary.

“Our vision in northern Mexico is 54 churches in the 27 largest cities,” Michael emphasizes, “and [to provide theological training for enough pastors] at the normal rate would take 100 years. So Jorge and I realized that our current model wasn’t working.

That’s when Andres, Jorge and Michael retreated to a cabin in the northern Mexican mountains and brainstormed a new plan. Ultimately they drew from the Incubator model developed by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and adapted it to a Mexican context. In essence, the new model incorporates intensive church planter training, mentoring and coaching over two years in 16 modules, with four classes, four modules per class, and one-week classes from Monday through Friday.

As the adjustment of their training model illustrates, learning from mistakes is a recurring theme with these church planting leaders. “When we started this church planting movement, we made a lot of mistakes,” Andres admits, explaining that he originally went to RTS intent on fixing mistakes and improving the work. “We still make mistakes, but not the same ones.”

The Lord has been gracious to work powerfully through these men in spite of their mistakes, as the MTW network has succeeded in planting approximately one new church each year in northern Mexico. Jorge tells about one of these church planting projects in Durango, a city of about 800,000 people in northern Mexico that had no Presbyterian church for a long time. A year and a half ago, MTW sent a church planter and his family along with an MTW missionary.

“When you’re planting a church from scratch, it’s really difficult, especially in Mexico,” says Jorge, who explains that the Durango church has grown to the point where it has launched worship services and has a core group of members. That church has opened a biblical counseling service in the community that has served to draw people into the congregation.

Michael relates a story about Mary, an industrial engineer in Monterrey who was invited to Iglesia Cristiana del Sur by Cecilia, a childhood friend. Within a year, Mary came to faith in Christ and invited her mother to a Bible study Michael attended. When the Bible study leader outlined differences between religious tradition and biblical Christianity, Michael thought the woman would never come back.

“Mary said, though, that this was the greatest thing that ever happened to her; she had been dying to hear the Word of God,” Michael testies, continuing that the mother keeps coming back to the study, participating and asking questions. “All of our churches have stories like that.”

Jorge acknowledges that such stories show the Holy Spirit working supernaturally on the hearts of Mexicans, just as He continues to work on his own heart concerning the MTW church planting movement itself. "The vision that God has given us is something that’s impossible for us to do,” he confesses. “We want to reach the 27 largest cities in northern Mexico and plant two churches in each city. When I see that vision, my [initial] feeling is always, ‘No, we’re not going to do it,’ and I feel discouraged.

“But on the other hand, when I see what the Lord has been doing through us in these years and how the church planting movement has grown, I always give thanks to Him and say, ‘You are doing this.’ In that sense I get encouraged again.”

Church planting in northern Mexico may not be as physically dangerous as it was a few short years ago, but as the RTS-Charlotte alumni church planters trust the Lord to do what only He can do, it’s no less adventurous — or fruitful. 


Republished with permission from RTS Charlotte. 
Paul Schwartz in Monterrey Mexico on May 27, 2014

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