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Evangelical Christians in Mexico: Believing in Christ alone

Evangelical Christians in Mexico have a strong sense of community, shaped as much by the beliefs they share as the beliefs they oppose. A feature story about evangelical Christians in Mexico.

On Sunday mornings throughout Mexico, increasing numbers of evangelical Christians gather for worship. Whether you sit in pews at a wealthier Protestant church or in chairs at a poorer one, you'll notice two things.

You won't see any crosses-not on a steeple, sanctuary wall, or around a worshiper's neck. Nor will you formally pass Christ's peace to your neighbor or see robed clergy or hear any references to liturgical seasons.

"Evangelicals want to set their identity apart from the Catholic Church," explains Mariano Avila, who has pastored Presbyterian and Reformed congregations in Mexico and the U.S.

Though it grieves and puzzles people in communities where Catholics and Protestants regard each other as members of Christ's body, tension and persecution mar relationships between Catholics and Protestants in Mexico.

However, no matter where you worship with evangelicals in Mexico, you will experience a deep sense of community, say Rosie and Mariano Avila. Rosie does translating for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Reformed Church in America, and other clients. Mariano teaches New Testament studies at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Recently Anne Zaki talked with the Avilas about what Christians in Mexico and the U.S. can learn from each other. Zaki, a global resource development specialist for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, leads workshops on how churches can become more intentionally international.

The following questions and answers are adapted and excerpted from her extensive interview with the Avilas.

Do you have greeters at the door?
Yes, always. As a pastor's wife I always knew who was new in the church, and I went to welcome them.
Mariano: Many churches ask those who are new to stand up and introduce themselves, even in a large church. In some churches they clap or wave their bulletins and make noise to welcome visitors. After the service, people go and greet them.
Rosie: Also, sometimes we invite visitors to a meal at the church. We don't have potlucks like in the U.S. About once a month or on national holidays, ladies from the church will cook for everybody, and the church will give them money for that.

What is the sense of community at church services?
A Catholic church is very impersonal. You attend the service and go home. But in the evangelical church, as soon as you come in, you'll have people close to you. If you don't know how to find verses, they'll help you. Sometimes they ask you to write your name and address, and they'll call you during the week. Also, once a month, everyone who had their birthday during that month comes up front during the service, and the congregation sings a Christian happy birthday song with blessings.

Do you use a printed order of service?
Many churches have a printed order of service, except for many Pentecostal churches, because they are so spontaneous.

Is there a sequence of events?
In the Reformed Church, and many other historical denominations, yes. Usually we start with a call to worship, which is a Bible passage that somebody other than the pastor reads, then comes a song, another Bible passage, then two or more hymns, or sometimes the praise group will lead short choruses. This is followed by another reading, then the offering, then the sermon, and finally the benediction.

Who does what? Or does the pastor do everything?
Generally, there is ample participation of church members. The pastor just preaches. Sometimes elders or deacons preach.

Do you have women elders or deacons?
Well, not yet in the Reformed Church. Baptists, Methodist, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Pentecostals have women pastors and ministers. But women in the Reformed Church are allowed to do anything in the service-except baptize or serve communion. In most evangelical churches, at least 70 to 80 percent of members are women, and they evangelize. On Easter the women do the service, including the preaching, even in the more conservative churches. They were the first ones to see the Lord, so we say, "This is their Sunday."

How else do the people participate in the service?
Most churches, even the Reformed, have a time for spontaneous testimony.
Rosie: You open your Bible to read because you want to know how the Lord works through people. Testimonies are like hearing God say, "I did this for that person in this time and place, and I am going to do this for you, too."

I see kids and youth are very involved in this special service. Are there other times when they participate in worship?
I really miss Mother's Day, a national holiday in Mexico. Starting at 11 p.m. or midnight, the youth group guys go around to their mothers' houses. They play guitars and sing at least two songs of love to each mother. In turn, the mothers give them Jell-O, cakes, chocolates, and cookies. They do that until morning. The youth group usually sings a song to mothers during the service on the closest Sunday to Mother's Day, which is always on May 10. Little kids, young people, and husbands recite poetry.
Mariano: On regular Sundays, everybody attends the morning service with their parents, until the sermon. Then children come to the front and the pastor or an elder or teacher prays for them. As children leave for their Bible class, the congregation sings a song for them. I never heard of a kid's sermon before coming to America.
Rosie: Once a year the youth did everything except the sermon. I remember a four-year-old boy in charge of the offering. A very wealthy man, for whatever reason, decided not to give that day. The little boy kept standing there. Meanwhile I am signaling to him to move on. But the little guy kept staring, as if "I know you have money," so the man finally put something in. The teenage group leads one service a year, too.

How about the elderly? Do they participate in anything?
In contrast to American culture, they usually live with their families and come to church with the family. Homes or special church groups for elderly people are not common. We respect them. Even if she's not your grandma, you pull a chair for her, and take care of her, and you always serve them first.

What would I learn about God from your worship service?
People tend to speak softer, almost whispering inside the sanctuary. It's a very strong sense of reverence. You'll never find a Bible on the floor.

How about the use of Bibles?
In Mexico you always bring your Bible and your hymnal. There are also some in church for visitors. Every week, whenever we read the Bible, people stand up and read together. If you are new or don't have your Bible, people share. In the U.S. people often listen to the Bible. In Mexico, Bible memorization is a major part of services. We give prizes for people who learn the whole Sermon on the Mount or other passages.
Rosie: This is for everyone, kids and adults.

Do you kneel in your worship services?
Not Presbyterians, but most Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists have their little kneeling pads. Pentecostals kneel straight on the floor.

Are there emotions expressed? Is it okay for someone to cry or laugh?
Oh, yeah, even men are free to be overly joyous or cry during the services. But that is not common.

How do you balance that free expression of emotion with reverence?
Somehow we don't relate the expression of emotions to reverence. If you laugh or cry, you are not offending God, because even with all these expressions, people have a very high respect for the sanctuary.

What instruments do you use?
It is common to see a piano or an organ in traditional churches. The smaller and poor churches use guitar and tambourine. Many churches, even the very poor, have electric guitars, drum set, and bass guitars. Sometimes all the noise in a very small room sounds terrible.

What American influence do you see, whether from general or church culture?
Many historical denominations take American tunes, hymns, and praise choruses and just translate them. But now a lot of evangelicals have their own hymns and music. Especially in poorer or rural churches-which are growing fast-there is indigenous music with their own instruments. We enjoy it very much. Sixty percent of people in Mexico live under the poverty level. About 80 percent of evangelical pastors in Mexico never went to seminary or Bible school.

What does the worship imply about what salvation is like?
Every Sunday, the message will be that salvation is through Jesus Christ, and salvation means experiencing a drastic change in your life. Evangelicals in Latin America assume you are a Catholic. So they'll tell you to stop worshiping the saints and the Virgin Mary. That's when the altar call comes. A team of people will be there to pray with you and explain how to accept Christ.   

How much is the church influenced by the Mexican culture?
Evangelicals are known in the Mexican culture by their ethics and behavior. We never drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, never go to a party, don't go to the movies, and we don't listen to non-Christian music. Evangelicals are known for being honest and hardworking.
Rosie: I grew up not Christian and we liked to dance. When I became a Christian, I didn't have the tools to say, "No, it's not a sin," to the pastor. I didn't have any problem with not drinking, because I didn't drink, but giving up dancing, it was like giving up part of what I am. Now I know that it's the missionaries who didn't dance.

How about the freedom of body language in general, apart from dancing?
People are very stiff in the Reformed churches, but in other evangelical churches, people clap or dance. In Pentecostal churches, they sway or jump.

Let's talk about your worship experience in the U.S. What would you say was most shocking in worship services here?
The coldness. As soon as the service finished, everyone quickly disappears. At the church that we go to now, though, the people are very friendly.
Rosie: We get a taste of heaven, because you see a lot of ethnicities, mixed marriages, and handicapped people. I don't know who is wealthy at church, but there are a lot of poor people.

What have you found instructive here that you wish you could one day bring back to worship services in Mexico?
In major celebrations, like last Christmas, the central part of the service was people singing in choir, and a good number were people with a disability. I appreciated so much to see that each person has a place to do something in worship-not just the stars or popular people.
Mariano: People here have a high level of commitment to the church, in terms of their money, their time, their volunteer work. In Mexican culture, it is very difficult to get especially men to commit finances or time to church. Manual work in the Mexican culture is bad, so if you are middle class or higher, you'll never clean or sweep the floor. But in our church in Philadelphia, twice a year, all the men were invited to come and work around the church grounds.
Rosie: The people in Mexico also hardly tithe, because most of them come from the Catholic Church, so they only give what they'd give to a beggar, which is the alms. When they become Christian, they give the same thing. That's why most pastors' salaries in Mexico average $200 a month.

Learn More

Mariano Avila has written articles on biblical spirituality (pp. 7-8), Hispanic ministry (pp. 4-5) and leadership (pp. 10-11), and preparing seminarians for cross-cultural ministry (pp. 6-8).

If you're going to Mexico for vacation, consider visiting an evangelical church, seminary, or Bible school. Choices include Episcopal churches (both English- and Spanish-speaking) and Assemblies of God throughout the country, and Presbyterian Reformed churches in Mexico City.

To learn more about the difficulties of being an evangelical Christian in Chiapas, Mexico, read accounts of 80 years of Reformed Church in America missionaries and the book We Will Not Be Stopped: Evangelical Persecution, Catholicism and Zapatismo in Chiapas, Mexico by Arthur Bonner.

Start a Discussion

  • Reverence for God, the church sanctuary, and the Bible are important values for evangelicals in Mexico. How about in your church?
  • Nearly from cradle to coffin, evangelicals in Mexico memorize scripture together. Why does or doesn't your church emphasize Bible memorization?
  • Which people at your church were born in another country? How often do your services deliberately refer to their interests, music, prayer traditions, or other cultural aspects?
  • How often do your leaders ask members from other countries to share their stories from the pulpit? Do you ask these international members about their favorite songs or musical instruments?
  • Did you know that Hispanics make up the largest and fastest-growing minority in the United States-and that two-thirds of Hispanics in the U.S. have Mexican heritage? Where are centers of Mexican or Hispanic culture in your city or region? Does your church have any ties with churches that serve or reach out to Mexicans?
  • The Avilas say that, in Mexico, the fastest-growing evangelical churches use indigenous music and are often pastored by people who have relatively little money or education. Which aspects of your congregational life and worship are barriers or "welcomes" to the poor or less educated?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers from other countries enrich your congregation's story with their stories?

  • Did you discuss cultural practices or sacred music in a church education class?
  • Did you brainstorm creative ways to use visual symbols or tactile elements from other cultures, so that people gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a worldwide church?
  • Have you identified ethnic sub-cultures, whether of immigrants or refugees, in your area? What have been the best ways for your congregation to get acquainted with these international groups?
  • Have you surveyed your congregation to find out what members would most like to learn from people with close ties to other countries?
  • Has your church library begun to build a collection of books, magazines, music, and videos in other languages?