by Nancy Reed
Case study from Mexico City shows how it was done.
The multiplication of women’s home Bible studies was a significant factor in the planting of new Covenant churches in Mexico City. This was not our plan, but, as is often the case, God took a simple incident and turned it into something great. One day in 1974, a number of women got together to say good-bye to a single woman missionary who had worked in Mexico City for a year. One thing led to another and before long three or four women decided to meet weekly with another missionary.
The outcome of that incident? By 1985 there were 35 women’s home Bible studies and five churches. The growth curve for the churches and the women’s Bible studies shows an amazing correspondence. Certainly there were other factors involved in growth: discipleship training, couple’s Bible studies, theological education by extension (TEE), starting new churches—but women reaching women and families was a significant one.
Two couples helped begin the ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church in the northwest suburbs of Mexico City, Marlan and Fern Enns (1974) and Jerry and Nancy Reed (1975). Both couples had previous missionary experience in Ecuador. Marlan and Jerry had studied church growth at the School of World Mission at Fuller Seminary.
The Enns started cold. A Latin America survey team, with the help of John Huegel (co-author with Donald MacGavran of Church Growth in Mexico) chose the northwest suburbs of Mexico City. There were 1 million people and only one small Baptist church. Knocking on doors and selling books, with the help of Operation Mobilization, provided the first contacts. The Bible studies which began with these contacts grew into five churches by 1985 with a regular attendance of 675 people.
PHILOSOPHY OF MINISTRY
From the beginning the philosophy of ministry was to work with the middle class, establish home Bible studies as a basis for church planting, and promote lay leadership. The middle class was an “unreached” group in the Satellite City area in 1974. Most evangelical missionary work in Mexico City had been done among the poor. Homes were an important part of the ministry. People were afraid of the evangelical church in the beginning. They were thrilled to study the Bible, and a home provided a safe place. We did not call ourselves “Protestant,” since that was a negative in Mexico, and we were not protesting. “Evangelical” was also an offensive word. So we called ourselves “Christian.” Our job was to provide people with a change in “relationship,” to grow closer to God through Jesus Christ, not a change in “religion.”
The vision was to encourage and train lay leadership, a tradition in the early Covenant Church. Since the work began from scratch, there were no leaders and we had no seminary. Having seen the “one-man band” variety of pastors in Latin America, we knew we didn’t want that. Discipleship and TEE formed the basis of training.
We had to strongly emphasize male leadership at the beginning, since popular tradition in Mexico limits church attendance to women and children. But Fern and I found an open and receptive door in ministry with women.
Part of a macho society, the Mexican middle class women were natural leaders. They were accustomed to taking responsibility and following through. Contact with God’s word, new life in Christ, and a moving of the Holy Spirit kindled a vibrant women’s work.
In the ’70s and ’80s, missionaries could not obtain resident visas and had to live in Mexico on tourist visas. There was a law aimed at the Catholic Church prohibiting foreigners from performing the sacraments. While the popular religion often ignored it, we took it very seriously. What better way to do church growth than to encourage Mexican lay people in ministry? “Don’t do anything that you can get a Mexican to do” became a byword. The law did us a favor, making us put good church growth principles to work. We pushed Mexican leaders, men and women, to the fore and worked behind the scenes. The leaders felt it was their work, and if they didn’t do it, who would?
During the 1974 to 1985 period, the career missionary staff working in Mexico City fluctuated between one and three couples—the Enns and the Reeds, and then Jerry and Vicky Love in 1977. In 1984 there were five short-term missionaries, some of whom were effective in helping with discipleship training and Bible studies. The limited number of missionary staff also worked in our favor.
It was not possible for one missionary woman to attend more than three or four studies in a week, so in order for the ministry to grow and flourish we had to let it go. Mexican women leaders took over.
We talked about multiplication instead of division as the women’s Bible studies grew. The first multiplication from one to two studies in 1975 (Figure 1) was difficult, but manageable because of transportation problems between the two areas. Moving from two studies to four was painful and took much longer. We enjoyed such wonderful fellowship together. But this set the pattern for the future. Studies that grew and multiplied continued to grow and multiply. Those that could not bear to multiply eventually leveled off as women dropped out.
From the beginning our target group was new people (non-believers). Growth was primarily through conversions. We were not interested in people moving around from one church to another. As other church planters can verify, people from other churches were often problem makers. They wanted a traditional pastor and were not content to let lay people “do the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:12). “We’ve never done it that way before” were not words from the newly converted. They were willing to be innovative.
Mexicans are a “fiesta” people, and fiestas provided natural opportunities for witness. We jokingly laughed that we would have a party to celebrate and then another to celebrate the two-week anniversary of the celebration. These were held in homes until sheer numbers made it impossible.
We found that there were distinct windows of time when we could work: in the fall after school started and before Christmas activities began in early December; between the Day of the Kings (January 6) and Holy Week; and after Holy Week and before summer vacation. That is the rhythm of life in the middle class of Mexico City.
HOW IT WORKED
Bible studies met once a week, during the day or in the late afternoon to accommodate women who worked. They lasted about two to two and a half hours and included Bible study, prayer, and fellowship, which often included testimonies and refreshments. The studies rotated from home to home every month or two. When they stayed in one place for very long they became “Nancy’s study” or “Vicky’s study.” Moving was an important part of including new people, as a new home provided networking for friends and family.
Sometimes it was difficult to find a new home, but generally women vied for the privilege of having the Bible study. It was no secret that God blessed the home where the studies were held. On more than one occasion while the study was going on downstairs, young adults or husbands were converted upstairs while “listening in.” Whole families ended up coming to church.
“Aren’t you going to your Bible study today?” husbands asked. A curled lip and sneer to the name “Christian” soon changed to a smile. God made a significant difference in women’s lives and this was felt at home.
Some studies developed a children’s class. A monthly breakfast outreach ministry called “Women of Decision” started. I would have never thought of a breakfast, but this was culturally correct for this area of Mexico City. Other areas adapted the “Women of Decision” idea to their context. Attendance grew to over 100. Women who attended the breakfasts were encouraged to join one of the home Bible studies. We organized three joint women’s events a year to promote fellowship between the growing number of churches. Eventually a women’s organization developed.
As we began we used topical studies and books of the Bible for the home Bible studies. As the number of groups multiplied, westumbled on some materials that made a significant difference. We had one copy of what turned out to be the Neighborhood Bible Studies, Inc. (Box 222, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. 10522) materials on Luke in Spanish. We passed the copy around. Then we got a few more and finally enough for one copy for each Bible study. The question-and-answer discovery format was just what we needed. The Bible spoke for itself, and there was no need for an expert to expound for an hour on a particular passage (although one study tried that). It was much easier to adapt or shorten the study than develop it from scratch.
“I used to have my eyes open, but my mind was asleep,” said one older woman. Now she participated in inductive Bible study and applied God’s word to her everyday life. The women were excited to dig into the Bible for themselves.
Each study had two leaders who worked together. New leaders developed by working as co-leaders, who then helped start new studies. The Bible study leaders met together on a monthly basis to talk over their groups and the Bible passages. It took a long time to get through the book of Luke, but it was a time of great blessing and growth. We discovered there were other Bible studies in the same series in Spanish.
The growth of the Bible studies was not without problems. One or two groups decided to go their own way. As new ones started some of the older ones died down. There were struggles and personality clashes—all a part of being human. One charismatic Mexican evangelist in our area siphoned women off for a large traditional study that he led and then took “pot shots” at women’s leadership in our church.
It was a small but encouraging beginning. What a comfort to read that God nearly had to knock Paul Yonggi Cho over the head for him to use women as leaders in the Bible studies in Korea. They make up the majority of the leaders in the now 50,000-plus house groups in the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea.
In spite of everything, women’s leaders were raised up and the Bible studies grew and multiplied in the northwest suburbs of Mexico City. Women reaching women was and is a significant factor in the growth of the churches. Although not everyone became a part of the church, their lives were changed. Many did become active participants. They found new life in Christ and a new family.
By 1993 there were 10 churches in the Mexico City area led by lay people with a regular attendance of 1,040. There were seven TEE centers.
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