Growing two churches in one community

Ben Greene

Pastor & guest writer

Point Magazine // January 2021

Every day, conversations around Miami unexpectedly reveal a shared way of life between Filipinos and Hispanics. Five centuries as neighbors — dating back to Spanish colonial days in the Philippines — have tossed together their foods, words and even names into a peaceful but sometimes surprising community.

“The only difference is the way we make adobo and the way they make adobo,” The Seed of Faith Ministries pastor Efren Carlos said.

He is quick to laugh with his soft chuckle. Born in the Philippines, Carlos recalls when he entered a store after moving to Miami, the clerk would assume he spoke Spanish. He doesn’t. Then, a Hispanic person nearby would ask his last name.

“And they would think, ‘Why is your last name a first name?’ They would be kind of surprised, and then we would have a conversation,” he said.

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers began developing commercial and religious influence across more than 7000 islands in what is now the Republic of the Philippines. The islands were eventually named to honor King Philip II. By then, the everyday experiences of Filipinos and Hispanics were already inseparable, a way of life that continues to this day in Miami.

“Why not capitalize on that future?”

The Lord has stirred the people of Seed of Faith to reach their Hispanic neighbors. The history that brought two people groups together 500 years ago was a tool in God’s hand.

“For us as a church, that is a big motivation, that is what motivated us to reach out to the Hispanic community,” Carlos said. “The second reason we prayed on reaching out to the Hispanic community is that where Seed of Faith is (located), the majority of the people are Hispanic.”

Carlos said research shows that, in 30 or 40 years, the United States will have a much higher percentage of Hispanics.

A key priority for Converge churches is that each church would play a role in church planting. “Why not capitalize on that future?” Carlos asked.

The Seed of Faith Ministries, an English-speaking Filipino congregation, had been having visitors who only speak Spanish.

“We’ve got to do something about that because those are lost opportunities,” Carlos said. “It all starts with the understanding that people are dying without Christ.”

Every time he takes a missions trip, Carlos shares what God has done with the church.

“That also contributes to the passion of Seed of Faith believers,” he said. “Their eyes are open, and their willingness is converted into a passion for reaching people with the gospel. That excites them, and that’s why they are being supportive of missions.”

Starting and strengthening churches that send missionaries

Ernie Cabrera is vice president of Church Partnerships for Converge MidAmerica, Southeast and Caribbean and served as Converge Southeast executive minister before its merger with Converge MidAmerica this past fall. Converge Southeast had grown from 100 churches to 260 in the four years prior to the merger.

As part of Converge’s mission to “Start, Strengthen and Send,” Cabrera helps churches like Seed of Faith Ministries start new churches, grow stronger and send missionaries.

“I love seeing our ethnic churches go beyond their ethnic culture,” Cabrera said. “[Seed of Faith] wanted to do something significant to reach its community. They really do want to see people come to Jesus.”

God is honoring his passion in the hearts of those Seed of Faith believers. A Cuban-American pastor, Raciel Sanchez Guerra, has been found to lead Seed of Faith Español. He had been a pastor in Cuba and planted a church in Mexico.

Finding a pastor who would be the right fit as a Converge church planter was key. But the Lord was more than able. A Converge church in Orlando, Florida, Converge with a Hispanic ministry connected Carlos to Pastor Guerra.

“I can see his passion in reaching specifically the Hispanic community,” Carlos said. “I can say, he’s not only passionate for reaching people for Christ but I can see his passion for God.”

Soon, Guerra will go through the assessments and trainings Converge offers for church planters, Carlos said.

Because the pandemic forced worship online, people are joining Seed of Faith virtually from Miami but also Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala and Chile.

Those churches Guerra served may affiliate with Converge, Cabrera said, in part because Guerra has a heart for joining Converge.

Cabrera said Converge is increasingly mobilizing and connecting churches that want to start new churches, strengthen existing churches and send out missionaries. “Ultimately, we’re building our movement and seeing lives changed,” he said.

“I believe,” Carlos said with that soft chuckle of his, “God is going to show us things beyond what we can ask or imagine.”

What God can provide, what people can do

Seed of Faith-Filipino began preview services for Seed of Faith-Español in 2020. But the pandemic stopped those services. Last August, Seed of the Faith-Filipino and Seed of Faith Español congregations began holding services again, in keeping with CDC and local government guidelines.

Right now, as Seed of Faith Ministries joins God at work, they’re already seeing wonderful things happening.

Seed of Faith-Filipino meets in the morning and Seed of Faith-Español meets in the afternoon. Filipino believers support the Hispanic church plant serving as ushers and volunteers and training the new church to lead their own church.

Also, although they don’t speak Spanish, Seed of Faith-Filipino worship leaders lead worship for the Hispanic congregation. The leaders are learning the worship songs in Spanish, a choice that amazes and blesses the Hispanic congregation.

Before COVID-19 required restrictions on group sizes and large gatherings, the congregations had lunch together every Sunday. Now, pastor Guerra is eager for those lunches to happen again, when it’s safe.

“That is one of the things we hope to do together as a way to bring both congregations together,” said Carlos. “Pastor Guerra mentioned the possibility to Seed of Faith-Español worshipers. And now Seed of Faith-Filipino members are asking, ‘Pastor when are we going to do the fellowship dinner?’”

That desire reflects again the unity of identity shared by Filipinos and Hispanics. What was initially a forced connection centuries ago is now, through time and the gospel, a source of peace and friendship.

“That’s how you break down the walls,” Cabrera said.

The Filipino believers went out of their culture to go into the Hispanic culture. They left their comfort zone, but “they get to gain the kingdom and go on the adventure of serving the Lord,” Cabrera said.

Breaking down the walls to build diversity

“There’s more power in a meal together than Hispanics and Filipinos may recognize,” Dr. Harold Lewis, Converge’s vice president of Biblical Diversity, said. “When we sit at the table together, we decontaminate the psychology that we’ve learned for years.”

Created in 2018, Converge’s Office of Biblical Diversity strives to break down walls between churches. Its mission: To reach people of all cultures, colors and classes with the gospel of Jesus Christ and to make him known throughout the world.

To help churches do this, the Office of Biblical Diversity is forming District Diversity Teams. These teams of 7-11 people are trained ambassadors and advocates. Churches in all 10 districts can turn to the teams to help form gospel-centered worship among people of every tribe, nation and tongue.

“We’re out for a combined, co-existing body of Christ that worships God collectively,” Lewis said.

Equipping a church to minister across cultures is a long-term process. But Converge invested three or four years in discovering its importance and determining a way forward. Those years of prayer and reflection led to the Office of Biblical Diversity.

So far, five of Converge’s 10 districts have taken the first step toward having a district diversity team. Next is pre-orientation, orientation and training sessions. Dr. Lewis’ goal is to have diversity teams in half of the districts by fall 2021.

“We’re hoping to empower and endow them with some of these strategies to help God’s will be done on earth,” he said. Even without the pandemic, “it’s a process, it’s methodical; it’s a journey.”

Qualified as both a psychologist and pastor, Lewis has more than 30 years’ experience helping diverse cultures find unity in the gospel. He said the beginning is recognizing racial (and cultural) conflict is a spiritual battle that requires personal change of everyone.

“It’s incumbent on all people to transform this world,” Lewis said. “It’s not one group that’s going to make this right. We’ve got to come together to collaborate.”

That collaboration on spiritual needs and realities is part of the conversation for Hispanics and Filipinos.

Five centuries ago, when the Spanish brought business interests and religious teachers to the islands, Islam was spreading rapidly. The Republic of the Philippines’ official government website indicates the island nation may have been predominantly Muslim, except for Spanish missionaries teaching Roman Catholicism. Over time, those beliefs mixed with indigenous polytheism and Islamic beliefs.

“I believe we’ve got a long way to go as far as reaching Miami for the gospel,” Carlos said. But the Roman Catholic influences and cultural kinship help. “As far as evangelism is concerned, they’re easier to evangelize than those who embrace other beliefs.”

Carlos understands being on a spiritual journey. He was raised Roman Catholic but didn’t know Christ as his Lord. He went to college and became an electrical engineer for a large telecommunications company. Eventually, through his wife’s influence, he became a Christ-follower.

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, with his entire family Catholic, required significant commitment and personal clarity for Carlos.

“People back in the Philippines who knew me before and see me now, I’m telling you, they’re not going to believe I have this life now,” he said.

When he retired in 1999, he and his wife and two daughters moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They got involved in a church, helping to lead worship. That church had planted a Filipino-American church in Miami.

Over time, Carlos’ pastor and friends in Fort Lauderdale encouraged him to be in full-time ministry.

“Are you guys mad at me?” he would ask his friends at Harvest Church in Fort Lauderdale. He knew how hard being a pastor was. “Why do you keep saying to me you can see I would be a good pastor?”

But the more Carlos resisted and wrestled, the more he saw God leading him.

“God said, ‘You can have it your way and go with your plan. Or go with my plan. I’m not promising you everything will be rosy. But I can promise you that I will be with you all the way.’”

Converge pastors, churches support one another

In Converge, though, Carlos finds many fellow supporters and friends to encourage one another. He is on the Filipino LEAD team so that pastors can Learn, Encourage, Achieve and Dream together.

“I could not imagine us as a church doing ministry without those supports,” Carlos said. “I believe we are better together because ministry becomes lonely. And at the same time, we definitely don’t know everything about ministry.”

So, Carlos said Converge is a community that offers training and friendship with other like-minded churches. This helps to plant churches and reach more people for Christ.

Seed of Faith’s Filipino congregation continues to grow in their eagerness for that same goal. Since becoming the church’s pastor in 2004, Carlos has seen the congregation’s spiritual maturity deepen and widen.

“Their passion for reaching people for Christ is very much evident in the sense that, even in their workplaces, they take every opportunity they get to tell people about Jesus.”

God is at work

Carlos has learned from the Lord, through his pastors, missions trips and the Scriptures that God is always at work.

Nothing can happen unless God allows, he said. So, 400 years of Spanish colonization in the Philippine islands was permitted by God. This convinces Carlos and other believers there is a great opportunity in Miami to share the gospel and start new churches.

“It’s always about the gospel,” he said. “It’s always about Jesus. It’s always about reaching people for Christ.”

Learn more about Converge church planting and biblical diversity efforts.

Ben Greene, Pastor & guest writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene