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If They Don't Change After Worship, Then They Just Came To Do Cardio

From his native Guatemala, Pastor Jorge Fuentes came and established himself in the United States. For 18 years, he has been the pastor at the Church of Christ Elim Central in Los Angeles, a numerous and prosperous congregation in Southern California.

This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated and edited into English. Read it in Spanish.

There are few cases of immigrants who came to the United States as adults and found success; Pastor Jorge Fuentes is one of these exceptions.

Fuentes was told that the United States was the “grave of pastors.” Despite this, he wanted to prove it for himself, so he came and established himself here. That is when he realized that this wasn’t true. For 18 years, he has been the pastor at the Church of Christ Elim Central in Los Angeles.

At his arrival, Jorge Fuentes saw that the church was often used as a center of social gathering for Spanish speakers. “When I arrived, I realized this and told the Lord that I would not make the Church a social center, but rather, a center of worship for him, a center where people would come to hear God’s Word,” says Fuentes.

This is a congregation that seeks to maintain the revival in worship that was born in Elim, Guatemala 40 years ago.

In this interview, Pastor Jorge Fuentes shares with us some noteworthy thoughts:

  • Pastor Fuentes believes that worship is important in the foundation and formation of leaders. He adds that worship and the Word are necessary for the spiritual growth of leaders. I ask: Do our universities and theological seminaries need to put greater emphasis on worship?

  • Fuentes argues, referring to his congregants, that it is pointless to come and rejoice here if when they leave, they continue on the same path. He says that what they are doing in the service is just “cardio.” Is it that some people come to church just to enjoy the rhythms of the songs and the collective experience?

  • Contrary to what they do in most Hispanic congregations in the United States, who are always updating their repertoire for worship time, this pastor calls for new topics combined with old to avoid running the risk of losing the legacy of worship. Is this an important point to consider in other congregations?

Here is our conversation:

Why is worship important during the service of the church?
We believe that in the congregation, worship is the means by which souls are softened, so that the Word can come and be implemented. Worship is the threshold to enter the Holy place.

Softens hearts?
Yes, softens. After worship full of reverence in the presence of God, it is much easier to preach, and it is much easier to reach the objective of preaching the Word.

So, the time of worship is important.
Super important

Is it as important as the sermon, or is it simply prior preparation?
It is important because we believe that when someone praises, they are giving God their worship; then, during the time of preaching, they are receiving the Word of God. It is two-way street: When we worship, we give ourselves to God, recognizing who God is. But during the time of the Word, God gives to those who listen.

Often, the willingness of people is to receive rather than to give... I come to receive, I come to feel...
This is distorted, because in worship we give to God. God gives us his presence, yes, but we worship to be softened, to remove the loads that we carry, in order to enter a spiritual dimension.

By giving, one also receives?
Of course.

How much time is allocated for worship?
An average of 45 minutes to an hour.

Do you use your own songs or those from the broader church?
We use traditional songs, songs from the local congregation, songs translated from other languages like English or Portuguese. We use some of everything, not just a single style. Mostly we translate English songs.

Do you think worship is important in the foundation and training of leaders?
Yes, it is foundational. We believe that worship and the Word are necessary for growth in both a sheep and a leader. These are two things that must always be present. It is very interesting that a minister, who grew where there is strong worship in holiness and seeking God, ultimately has firm and true growth. Worship and dance are of vital importance when seeking growth. I always say that when someone enjoys the Praise and Worship, that worshiper has grown because they now know how to praise and to whom they must render.

So, you think that worship should be linked to dance?
It is celebration and worship or vice versa. There is not one method, but if we believe that by praising we are thanking God for what God has given us, then we are recognizing who God is.

Are songs of worship that have joyful rhythms related to the songs of praise that have slower styles?
There are no limitations on this, because sometimes the lyrics of the songs are fast paced, recognizing who God is, and there are slow songs that we use to thank God for giving to us. The rhythm has nothing to do with it.

Why do you think that Latinos respond more passionately to musical expression in worship?
Because of our idiosyncrasies. Simply put, if we look at the music of Latin America, from Tijuana to the South, themes of joy, happiness and rhythm abound, for instance, in Mariachi, Cumbia, etc. That is why they respond that way, in the same way that African Americans are more expressive.

One pastor told me that a Latino is a little more responsive to music compared to an Anglo, because as the Anglo emigrated here, he or she listened to music for hearing pleasure. However the Latino, due to the situation of suffering and oppression, began to create music expressing experiences, feelings and pain. What do you think of this?
It can be. But I think the joy and dance is a result of believing in the true God, which the Word says, will give us times of refreshment. Therefore, he or she who is born again, by giving oneself in worship and praise, can experience a ‘taste’ from God.

A moment ago, when I asked about the importance of worship in leadership training, you mentioned that they assimilate and learn. But what about the people who come and are always on the altar, broken, but no change is seen in their lives?
That will always exist. It is perhaps a bad habit, because I believe those who worship genuinely in holiness, consequently undergo a change. There are songs of liberation that liberate us simply by singing them. Our soul is free to enter the spiritual dimension, to pronounce and sing freedom. We believe that when the Spirit takes the person, there is liberation in their lives.

Is music from God?
We would have to first look at the levels of worship and praise that you believe. To better explain, there is satanic worship that sings to the enemy, there is worship in the world that sings to woman and her beauty, there is folk praise that moves our soul. There is also Christian worship where we sing to God with Mariachi, Cumbia, or Marimba, that’s better than the other levels already mentioned. But other than that, there is a level of restored praise, that restores the discerning who is born again. It is this type of music that moves you, the kind that makes you cry when you listen to it. Sometimes during a service, we are left speechless, because a chorus takes us and there we are crying, thanking the Lord.

Does it have to do with the rhythm used or the content of the song?
I think it is more about the content of the lyrics. I think it’s easier to step back and analyze a song you can sing. People are more inclined to slow songs. We are careful to use biblical structure, which is done by prioritizing content, than the harmonic part that is instrumentation, even though it is not the most important factor in the time of worship.

What basic details do you keep in mind when choosing a song?
It is what the Spirit gives. My son, Leo, who is in charge of worship, comes and introduces a new song. I don’t know anything about music, but sometimes I have told him that I don’t like a song; we have removed some songs because of that. Another thing we promote is that the musicians be present during the sermon, because that is when we minister.

Do you seek to amalgamate worship with the teaching of the Word?
Yes, if I preached about mercy, we would include songs about this in the repertoire, to confirm the idea of the teaching. There is a chorus that was recently recorded saying, “Nothing will separate me from the love of God.” I will give a message with this theme and then when we sing at the end about the same idea, people experience brokenness. When the Word and worship are ministering together, people begin to respond. I’ve seen that this has helped a lot. Though it is not the norm, we have occasionally sung a single chorus of a song for half an hour. And we do no more, because as a pastor I see that people are being touched.

Is it true that emotions are important during worship?
The Bible says that we cannot ignore our emotions. I cannot stop at the door of the Church, leave me emotions there, and say, “From now on I will be spiritual.” Paul says in his letters that we must sing with understanding, but he does not say unemotionally. There is a chorus that I love to sing that says, “Thank you Christ.” I start singing it with my emotions, but gradually, those emotions pale compared to the power of the Holy Spirit.

How do you make those emotions channel the spiritual message?
That is personal.

Does each person live a different experience?
Yes. Each person has a different experience. We cannot assume that everyone is the same.

How do you handle these things?
I think there is a flow from God, whoever is singing or managing the service, must be sensitive to this movement in order to allow the Holy Spirit to move. Regarding the step from emotions to what is spiritual, I think it’s hard to define a border, because it is a place we do not see; we do not know exactly when we have arrived at this spiritual place. All we can do is drive people towards that spiritual experience and everyone is going to move in that environment according to their personal choice, because we are not all arranged in the same way, with the same freedom and the same needs.

Understanding the expression of the worship in a musical way is just one more activity in the lives of people. How do you manage to get people to seek this experience during the week?
That’s somewhat personal, but my role as a pastor is to teach how to worship. We give them guidelines, for example, I say to a person, if you want to be a worshiper, you must listen to worship music. At home, in your car, play worship music, because the media is bombarding us with worldly music. I motivate them to slowly leave that music behind. I do not tell them not to listen to it, but I do preach that there is something better—music that allows you to pour out your soul. There are testimonies of people who were embittered, desperate and when they began to sing, everything changed. It is possible that a chorus of worship can touch you and calm your conflicts. It is very difficult to determine who likes or doesn’t like worship, but what is clear is that at the time of the service, we worship.

Do you think that we have failed as a Church, leading a Latino to think that church is the only time one needs to worship during the week?
We must let the Holy Spirit take control; the director must be sensitive to see how the anointing comes, because it can sometimes be an anointing of peace, or an anointing of joy. There are many forms of anointing that God uses to minister. God is multifaceted; God does as God wants.

In this congregation, do you teach about a God that is in Heaven receiving praise and feeling satisfied, or a God that is among you?
Both. We believe in one unique God, manifested to human as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, the Father is there, but the Bible also says that he dwells among his praise, and so the Lord also comes down.

Is it that God comes down, or that when I open up, I realize God was always here?
The latter: he is in you. It is a matter of finding the right circumstances that allow him to manifest himself.

Then, God coming down is figurative...
No. The Father is in heaven and the Son is there interceding for us. But he also comes down through the Spirit. It moves us. That is why there are three people: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Is it possible that the plight of the undocumented immigrant pushes a person to surrender to the Lord in worship?There is a very interesting situation in this country. I lived it, because I came from Guatemala as an immigrant at age 47. When you say in Latin America that you are coming to the United States, they say that it is the “tomb of Pastors.” I came to see if that was true. The Church was used as a social center for families, because they didn’t speak English and at church they found Spanish speakers. That included those with and without documents. When I came, I realized this and said, “No Lord, I will not make the Church a social center but rather, a center of worship for You, a center for listening to Your Word.” And we did. We must come to Church to have a new experience every time we’re here, because if not, it becomes routine.

You have mentioned dance, but have you incorporated other types of art?
No. In fact, we do not practice dance as a learned art, but as a spontaneous dance. It is not choreographed, it is the expression of a person who is happy, and decides to jump and dance.

Do you think that in some ways we transmit and reinforce the idea of Latin American machismo?
Good question. In fact, we sometimes get judged for not allowing women to participate in our church. But we go to the Bible. Of course we know that the participation of women is a reality, because we even have services strictly for ladies, for gentlemen, for teenagers, and for children. We do not give participation to women, not because we don’t want to, but because we are based on the Bible. A woman can be a very good evangelist and some women are better evangelists than men, and they can be very good teachers. We have 170 groups discipled in the Greater Los Angeles and there are women who are teaching. The women may be teachers, but we do not believe in having them be pastors.

So, you don’t have female worshipers?
Yes. We do have female worshipers, from the musical point of view, but not in the position of pastor. We have very good female worshipers, and we have even recorded fifteen CDs, including several songs sung by women.

What can identify a person who has been touched during the time of worship?
He or she should be living in holiness, because there is no point in coming to church and rejoicing if when you leave, you continue to live the same way. If a man arrived angry with his wife, he should leave the service knowing that is neither appropriate nor correct. This is how worship works. But if you leave and are doing the same things, what you are doing in the service is just “cardio.” Living in holiness and away from sin is difficult for those who have lived that lifestyle and are now coming to a new spiritual life. That is when worship helps in getting out of this.

Is worship also an evangelistic tool?
Yes. There are evangelistic songs.

Can worship function as a means of outreach for newcomers?
Sure, there are testimonies of many who say they like the Church because of the worship, but God uses a thousand ways to attract His creatures.

Is it that genuine worship changes the heart of God, or does it change the person’s heart?
God’s heart will never change; it will always be the same. But the heart of the person changes when there is genuine worshiping.

Do you think that travelling worshipers that visit churches benefit or harm the church?
I think that the word worshiper has been misunderstood, because for example, decades ago, there were worshipers here in America who worshiped and started recording. Many of these songs came to us, but things have changed since then. And now, there are many who compose worship music to make a profit, and that’s where they are no longer true to worship.

Are you constantly updating your musical repertoire?
The Music Department rehearses once a week. They are always updating the repertoire, but we sing new songs and old songs. I think one of the things that the Church has forgotten is what Jesus said: the wise person is one who knows how to take new and old things out of his or her treasure. The tendency of the contemporary church is to just take the new, and that results in a loss of legacy in worship. I think the Church seeks to modernize quickly and tries to find the latest songs that are just emerging. That is why many who come to be part of a worship team do not know the songs that were sung before; they do not know the story, and how things were occurring in past times. I think it’s important to have a mixture of old songs and some that are a little more contemporary and current.

Do you sing traditional hymns?
We still sing some hymns.

Do you think the effect is the same as in a new song?
Yes, but it depends on the moment. The hymns "How Great Thou Art," To God be the Glory,” and “Amazing Grace” are old, but we sing them. We also sing joyful songs that were sung when worship began to change. It is dependent on the director to see and discern the anointing that is to come.

Do you want to add anything else to this conversation?
We have tried to maintain the Praise and Worship movement born in Elim, Guatemala 40 years ago. It’s been about ten years since it started here. Thank God that we have this revival, and allow in the new, because new things are good just as more traditional things are. Sometimes, some people are opposed to singing oldies, but I think that we sing all of them because that is what the revival was about 40 years ago.

Do you think that the lyrics of current songs present a closer and more accessible God?
The Apostle Paul says there are three ways to praise and worship: hymns, psalms and spiritual songs. These three must exist in restored praise. We use traditional hymns, we put music accompaniment to the psalms, and spiritual songs are about experiences. The ultimate goal of worship is to reach the Blessed place, because it is there where marvelous things happen.

How do they realize they are in this place?
It is very difficult to say, because sometimes when we are worshiping we cannot say who came and who did not come, that’s personal. But it is clear that more and more people come every day. They come to look and to feel. People come from Tijuana, Mexico. I asked why they came if there is a church in Tijuana, to which they replied that the worship is special here. “I feel different,” they said. All I can say, then, is that it is very important to reach the Blessed place, a place of ecstasy, where you and God are alone.