MEXICO

Beacon: Mexico City

Neighborhood by neighborhood, spiritual renewal is sweeping across Ciudad de México

Written by Annelise Jolley
Jul 4, 2019

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series, Beacon. Beacon features influential global cities that are shaping the theology, culture, and spiritual landscape of their country. For our first installment, we traveled to Mexico City to report on the rise of church planting and the revival taking root. 

“The gospel creates a community that is the solution to the loneliness in our cities. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be ‘a city set on a hill’ that cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:14). Jesus called his people to be a city within a city, a community of people who model to the city what human relationships are supposed to look like.”

– Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard, Why Cities Matter

The first thing you should know about Mexico City is that the rest of the country refers to the capital city as, simply, México: as if it were the embodiment of the country itself.

In fact, Mexico City is nearly its own country. The city spreads across a valley; seen from above the urbanization appears endless. It’s the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city on earth. Each neighborhood, or colonia, represents a distinct culture and flavor. Traversing the web of neighborhoods by car during rush hour can take hours. To talk about Mexico City as a single entity is impossible, so massive and diverse is the urban sprawl.

View of Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood

Mexico is a country of contrasts and Mexico City, its beating heart, sets these contrasts on display. The city is deeply artistic and home to some of the best chefs in the world. Students come from around Mexico and the world to study there, making the city a multiethnic hub of learning and ideas. It is both very rich and very poor, and this wealth inequality manifests itself in social division, crime, and violence. (Some residents travel with two cell phones so they can give the cheaper one away when their bus is inevitably held up.)

It is cosmopolitan and a shaper of culture; as Mexico City does, Mexico does. The cultural tides birthed here ripple out across the entire country. Much of Mexico’s slang originates from the mouths of chilangos (the term for locals). It is a financial center of Latin America, a buzzing behemoth that contains multitudes.

I first visited Mexico City in the fall of 2018. During that visit I met Naomi and Joshua Smith, an American couple who has lived with their children in the Roma neighborhood for seven years. The Smiths work with EFCA ReachGlobal to help come alongside Mexican churches in developing disciples and leaders in the city. In partnership with other Mexican churches, a neighborhood outreach Bible study in their home unexpectedly developed into a growing church plant. This church, Comunidad Cristiana Roma, is now a close-knit family dedicated to the Gospel and the good of the neighborhood.

As we talked about the city’s spiritual landscape, Joshua and Naomi spoke of an awakening they’ve witnessed over the last five years. This awakening takes the form of increased interest in the Gospel, a new understanding of grace among Christians, greater collaboration and trust among churches and pastors, and an uptick of Gospel-centered church plants. 

They shared about planting Comunidad Cristiana Roma with a small group of young, Mexican professions, and holding some of the church’s first gatherings in their friends’ tea shop. They told me about a group of local leaders who meet monthly to collaborate with and support one another. They spoke about Mexico City as the kind of place where art, entrepreneurship, and faith could co-mingle, creating a vibrant spiritual network across denominational and cultural lines.

I returned to Mexico City several months later to talk to other Christians and ask them if they saw what the Smiths did: a spiritual revival in this postmodern, globally influential city. The men and women I met on that second visit—pastors, musicians, ministry leaders—said the same thing: In the last five to eight years, something has changed. There’s been a dramatic rise in church plants. More people, including young adults, want to be part of Gospel-shaped communities. Leaders want to learn from one another across denominations. People raised nominally religious are setting aside legalism in favor of the freedom Christ offers. 

It’s the early stages of a spiritual revival, maybe even too soon to call it such. Yet what everyone agreed on was this: something is changing in Mexico City. God is on the move.

David Sarmiento preaches at Comunidad Cristiana Roma

Transformation Starts in the Neighborhood

The Smiths planted Comunidad Cristiana Roma alongside David and Karla Sarmiento and a small group of young, single professionals. The first Bible studies met in apartments and later moved to David and Karla’s teahouse. The church now rents space in a CrossFit gym on Sunday mornings in Roma and gathers throughout the week in different community groups in members’ apartments. Two years ago, the church asked David to quit his job as an architect and pastor the church full-time. Joshua and Gamaliel Novelo also share teaching and shepherding responsibilities as bi-vocational members of the pastoral team. Other areas of ministry including music, children, and immigration outreach are led by church members who have been primarily discipled and developed within the church itself. The church currently has around 60 adult members.

 

“What everyone agreed on was this: something is changing in Mexico City.”

This kind of church planting—led by locals, often without formal seminary training—is increasingly common in Mexico City. Thanks to a wealth of Spanish theological resources online, and increasing collaboration among churches and ministry organizations, more and more Mexicans are becoming equipped to plant neighborhood-focused churches. Many of these church leaders, like Gamaliel, are bivocational. They keep their day jobs while launching and shepherding localized churches in their off-hours.

“Before, a pastor had to study in a seminary, to know Greek, Hebrew,” says Gamaliel’s wife, Tanya Godoy. “But today, thanks to this internet ‘boom,’ there is access to very good books already translated. That means that the minister is not our only source of knowledge. That means that we ran out of excuses because we have access to so [much] knowledge.”

This ready access to Gospel-centered resources means Christians can plant churches right where they live—and this is exactly what’s happening. The church plants springing up around Mexico City are neighborhood-focused. Neighborhoods matter, after all, because neighborhoods are where we live our lives. When transformed people engage their local communities, the local community eventually reflects this transformation.

“It doesn’t matter if we are at work, or at home, or lining up for tortillas, or at the mall—the Gospel, when we understand it as such, is exciting,” Gamaliel says. “We have to use the time we have left to preach the Gospel in every way possible. And that really has to happen first on our separate neighborhoods where we live.”

Gamaliel Novelo leads worship

For pastor Jorge Altamarino, serving his own neighborhood wasn’t an easy decision. The colonia where he lives, Santo Domingo, is burdened by addiction, domestic abuse, and violence. For years he wanted to leave. He remembers a time when he told himself everyday, “I need to get out of here. There’s nothing good in this neighborhood for my kids, for my family, for myself and even for [my] church.” 

Jorge has now lived in Santo Domingo for 22 years. He’s committed to serving and loving this corner of the city through the church he planted, Vida Abundante, and through relationships with his neighbors. So what changed?

“Once I started living out the Gospel truths, that changes the way you see things,” he says. “Now I see a lot of opportunities to disciple new people, seeing them as potential leaders who would change their communities: students, parents, moms. I pray that God would bring a much more revival in these communities.”

“We have to use the time we have left to preach the Gospel in every way possible. And that really has to happen first on our separate neighborhoods where we live.”

Gamaliel and Tanya see this pattern of Christians committing to their own neighborhoods—and the subsequent wave of new church plants—as the early stages of a reformation. “I see potential, and, hopefully, what we are doing here will be the influence in the rest of the country,” says Gamaliel. “We can be an influence because the rest of Mexico considers Mexico City a point of reference.”

Resistance to Revival

Each colonia in Mexico City faces its own set of challenges, and each local church battles distinct spiritual obstacles. In poorer neighborhoods, such as where Jorge pastors, issues of addiction and violence are common. In La Roma—a progressive, increasingly gentrified community—the leaders of Comunidad Cristiana Roma encounter resistance in the form of postmodern relativism and Christian apathy.

There’s a pervasive belief among chilangos that to be Christian is to follow archaic beliefs. Many Mexicans see Christianity as a religion of conquest and colonization, rather than a relationship with the God who became man within a colonized society.

Local business owners and landlords resist religious influence, a dynamic that’s made it difficult for Comunidad Cristiana Roma to rent a space for worship and attract visitors. “The mentality of the people who frequent [Roma], who live here, think that Christianity is something of the past,” Gamaliel says. Other pastors I spoke with agreed that many people think that to become Christian, a demand originally imposed by conquistadors, is to be conquered all over again. 

Members of Comunidad Cristiana Roma share a meal together

Among Christians in the city, apathy presents another insidious problem. “Even in the church it is very difficult to find people who are really committed, with passion,” Tanya says. “We battle a lot with apathy; it is a battle with our flesh.” She and Gamaliel see their work in Comunidad Cristiana Roma as a call to transmit urgency about the Gospel to people who are materially wealthy and comfortable. 

“If they can really believe it for themselves that they are part of this huge, tremendous movement the Lord is doing all across the world and in this particular city, then things are really going to change, we’re really going to impact the city by impacting this neighborhood,” Gamaliel says.

In other neighborhoods, the forces pushing back against transformation are more visible than the disinterest characterizing La Roma.

For nearly a decade, Betsy Alfaro Camarillo worked with women in the sex industry. Recently she started a ministry for migrants, both those from other countries and Mexicans who’ve been deported to Mexico City from the United States.

When I asked her about spiritual obstacles she’s encountered in her work, she brought up the worship of Santa Muerte, the skeletal saint of death. “There’s the worship of death: of Santa Muerte, of Saint Jude [the saint of lost causes], and of a saint that drug traffickers created up north called Malverde [the narco-saint]. They are the deities of the poor.” 

Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk saint popular among those on the fringes of society and said to grant wishes in return for offerings. Scholars have called the worship of Santa Muerte “the fastest growing religion in the Americas,” and estimate that the saint has 10 to 12 million followers worldwide. The worship of Santa Muerte is particularly common in vulnerable areas of Mexico City, neighborhoods like the infamous Tepito or in La Merced, the red light district. 

“I think Catholicism has supported the idea that you can only be close to God because of your works,” Betsy says, “and a lot of people in those areas dedicate their lives to crime, theft, drug trafficking, prostitution. Therefore, they don’t think they deserve God’s love. They have no option other than to seek deities that accept people God rejects. This creates a lot of darkness but, ultimately, this also creates the opportunity for us to reach those people and tell them that it’s not about what they do, it’s about what Christ already did.”

She recently shifted her focus from working with vulnerable women in La Merced to serving migrants. Mexico City presents a strategic place to reach migrants; Central Americans use it as a resting place on their journey north and many Mexicans who lived in the United States without documentation are deported here. Much of Betsy’s work involves mobilizing churches to care for these people and offer them safe haven. By educating local pastors and missionaries about how to best care for migrants and refugees, she hopes faith communities will become places of refuge.

Betsy’s dream for migrants is similar to the hope local church planters hold for their communities: “That they know that there is a God who loves them and that they have the opportunity to be free through Christ, through our service, through our hospitality, and through the love we can offer them as Mexicans.”

Cross-Denominational Collaboration

A large part of Joshua’s pastoral gifting is his ability to connect people. He is a bridge between churches in Mexico City, bringing leaders together to multiply the Gospel’s impact. Along with several other pastors and church planters, he formed a network called Coalición Por el Evangelio (The Gospel Coalition), that partners with like-minded pastors, leaders and organizations throughout the city for Gospel impact. This group of local leaders meets monthly to learn from and support one another, and to pray for their city.

Naomi and Joshua Smith

 

I attended one of their meetings on a Saturday morning. Representatives from nine churches and several ministries gathered above a convenience store, where a Presbyterian church plant meets on Sundays. People chatted over donuts and coffee before settling in for a discussion about the attributes of urban churches. The discussion ranged from respect for multiculturalism to the integration of doctrine and justice to engagement with art and creativity.

During the meeting, a seminary student named David spoke of something called the “new reformation” among young adults across Mexico, most visibly in Mexico City. “There are a lot of young people who are interested in listening to the sound doctrine, and they go from church to church trying to find the one where they can hear the Word of God.” These same young people, he says, are joining parachurch ministries to work toward social justice, and helping to plant churches.

Zuriel Rangel, a church planter in training, noted that renewal is taking place in churches that are part of historic denominations—churches that, over the last handful of decades, focused more on legalism and morality than the freedom Christ offers in his kingdom. These historic churches, Rangel says, are returning to the basic tenants of the Gospel. As they rethink doctrine they grow more open to collaboration beyond their own doors. “The church in Mexico is transforming from a passive to an active church,” he says. “Churches that were closed regarding their denomination and doctrine are open to changing, and to collaborating with other churches.” 

Rangel continues, “I think that we still need a few years more so that we can talk about our true revival in Latin America, but I think that we are on the right path. Seeing how different denominations can work together is something that seemed impossible [before].”

As the spiritual landscape of Mexico City shifts, the rest of Mexico changes too. Lizet Zárate, a leader in a campus ministry called Comunidad Universitaria Reformada (CUR), has seen local innovations ripple outward to smaller cities and even rural villages. “The use of the Internet has been really important in that it has confronted Christians in other states of the country with what is happening in Mexico City,” she says. “They are asking themselves, ‘If that is happening in a big city, why can it not happen also in my village?’ The church in the city is helping brothers and sisters in other states with new ways of preaching the Gospel.”

“The church in Mexico is transforming from a passive to an active church.”

Earlier this year, for example, a pastor from Puebla attended the Coalición Por el Evangelio meeting during a visit to Mexico City. Inspired by the open-handed collaboration he found there, he returned home and started a similar cross-denominational group in his own community.

“The most amazing thing about this group is that no one is fighting over it,” Joshua says. “We just want to help one another, help pastors grow in churches across the city. I think at some point we will probably need more structure to keep it going, but right now it’s sort of like a Gospel Wild West.”

The Way Forward

The spiritual renewal in Mexico City—a movement still in its “Wild West” stages—has room to grow. One opportunity for evolution involves Mexican theologians growing in leadership and influence. Many pastors in Mexico City still turn to foreign teaching—mostly from well-known American pastors whose translated sermons and books are widely available—rather than learning from fellow Latin Americans. (During my meetings with local pastors, for example, a number of them referenced Timothy Keller’s teaching as influential to their own.) 

Two bigger names among Latin American evangelical theologians are Sugel Michelén and Miguel Núñez, both Dominican. As churches in the city grow, Joshua hopes that his Mexican partners will add their voices to the conversation.

“We have some very capable Mexican leaders and teachers,” says Joshua. “We can be doing our own conferences very, very effectively. But oftentimes I find that my Mexican partners still want the famous Americans [to speak at conferences].

“The reality is that we have the ability to do it ourselves. I would love to see more of these Mexican leaders we are working with being in the front.”

As these pastors and ministry leaders and church planters—people like Gamaliel and Tanya, Jorge, Betsy—continue to welcome God’s kingdom in their own neighborhoods, Mexico City will be transformed. Not only that, but the voices of Mexican leaders will extend beyond the city and even beyond the country. There is work left to do. But God is renewing the city in small and daily ways, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Leonel Pacheco, pastor of a church plant called Fuente de Redención, finds encouragement in the three new churches planted within his denomination over the past five years. Each holds a Gospel-centered vision for the city. “That is something extraordinary here,” he says. “God is transforming the city little by little.”

He adds, “When I first came to Mexico City, we dreamed about seeing a movement of church planting. It is extraordinary to see how now, in the past five years, the Lord has moved in our lives, in the churches, [across] different denominations. I believe that God is really making a big movement.”

 

Photos by Molly Flanagan, Carrying Wonder, and Kathryn Bronn.

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