If you were asked to list the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, you would probably name nations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. But I doubt you would include Mexico.
Last year the Pew Forum released a report indicating that social hostilities had remained low in the Americas (even below the global median), but increased from “moderate” to “high” in Mexico. In fact, for the first time in three years, Mexico returned at 38 to the World Watch List, an annual survey of the persecution of Christians around the world:
Mexico’s appearance . . . is explained mainly by the progression of organized crime in the country and the recording of more violent incidents targeting Christians. Criminal organizations and drug cartels have targeted Christians because they view churches as revenue centers (extortions) and because churches support programs for the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics. Local communities in the southern states of Mexico are led by the indigenous traditional law of “uses and customs” to force all community members into a homogenous lifestyle. As soon as community members accept a different religion, the law of “uses and customs” becomes the noose that threatens their very existence.
Continuing our series on the gospel in Latin America, I corresponded with Carlos Contreras, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Gracia Soberana (Sovereign Grace Christian Church) in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Pastor Carlos is familiar with the unique challenges facing the church in Mexico. As recently as 2012 their city of Juárez was named the most violent city in the world; at the height of the drug violence the government estimated there was a murder every half an hour. (For those who are able to read in Spanish, Carlos has written about that experience in his life and church community here, here, and here.)
In this interview we learn about the new work of grace in Mexico, the need for a culture of biblical leadership among pastors, and more. Below is a translated and slightly edited version from the original interview in Spanish.
How would you describe the state of the church in Mexico?
Although it has several problems and shortcomings, the church in Mexico is generally situated in a good place. The church has grown numerically over the past 30 years and has the potential to continue being used by God as witness to the transforming power of the gospel. I have been able to see in many places that an atmosphere of enthusiastic faith. There is evidence of a possible new work of grace—similar to the “stirrings of revival” elsewhere throughout Latin America. This is a time of great possibility, great opportunity, and great anticipation of a new stage of development.
What most encourages you about the evangelical church in your country?
It definitely encourages me to see a new generation of young people who are embracing the gospel with great passion and zeal. I know of many young church leaders with great hunger for sound doctrine and a great desire to be used by God in thier generation, which is similar to what happened in the 70s where many young people were converted and many churches were planted. For someone of my generation it is exciting to see this new generation to which we can entrust what God has built over the past 40 years.
What is the biggest challenge facing the evangelical church in Mexico?
Two main things concern me. The first are churches being established without the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a lot of moral and religious teaching, but there is not a sense of the supremacy of Christ and his work in the life of the church. There hasn’t been an abandondment of the Bible per se, but it is noticeable that many churches appear more like Jewish congregations than distinctively Christian congregations. The second concern I have is regarding the absence of a culture of biblical leadership. A kind of despotism prevails in many churches where the pastor assumes a role of absolute control over the church; and this, combined with a lack of biblical preparation, makes the church vulnerable.
What do you think distinguishes the church in Latin America from the church in the United States?
The main distinction is that Mexican church and possibly the larger Latin American church consists of first-generation Christians. In other words, there is not an established, historic presence of evangelical believers in our countries. That means that our church is immature in many aspects. In addition, the rapid growth of the evangelical church in Mexico in recent decades has produced a generation of leaders without adequate preparation for their role. Moreover, I believe that the religious influence of many centuries under Roman Catholicism and the historical reality of our pre-colonial days have produced a church culture of religiosity, emotionalism, and mysticism.
With the increase of persecution of believers in Mexico, particularly in the southern region, how would you encourage and help Christians in your country think about these events?
The persecution of believers in the indigenous southern Mexico is real and serious, and many have been displaced by local bosses (“caciques”). However, the testimony of these brothers should encourage all of us who are not in that situation to be even more zealous in our evangelism. With regard to believers who have been victims of organized crime, we must remember that the general population has borne the brunt of this violence. Our brave and sanctified response, which is being observed by the community around us, will be a powerful witness to our faith and trust in our sovereign God.
What word of encouragement would you give to pastors and church leaders in the Spanish-speaking world?
First, I would call them to return to the expositional preaching of the Scriptures. The Word of God that must reign supreme in building up the church, and this Word must be preached, with integrity and fullness, by true servants of Christ.
Second, I would call them to the primary task of equipping the next generation of young pastors, so that they would be commissioned to plant new churches and serve the next generation.
Third, I would urge us to unite in prayer for a real awakening in the gospel of the cross of Christ—an awakening that would bring a new reform to the Latin American church, a return to a sincere faith based on the Word of God, and with the ultimate goal of truly exalting Christ.