Inter-American Division Spearheads Efforts to Reach Urban and Secular Communities

Congregations do not follow a traditional model but are getting outstanding results.

Libna Stevens, Inter-American Division News
Inter-American Division Spearheads Efforts to Reach Urban and Secular Communities
A group from the Comunidad Oriente (Eastern Community) sit together for a group photo at their rented Hacienda in Medellin, Colombia, during a recent Sabbath afternoon. [Photo: courtesy of Kevin Mendoza]

New Seventh-day Adventist congregations are gaining recognition across the Inter-American Division (IAD). Congregants are gathering in spaces other than church buildings. The worship service does not follow the usual format of Sabbath School followed by a sermon. No church emblems or even the Seventh-day Adventist Church logo are visible. But there is music, there are Bible-centered messages, and specific activities and events on Saturday (Sabbath) and during the week.

Dubbed as Friendly Churches, the congregations follow a plan launched in 2021, when division leaders focused on reaching nonbelievers in specific locations across urban areas. The groups or small congregations are managed by the Adventist Church in the conference or mission where they serve.

Reaching the Secular Public

“We call them ‘Friendly Churches’ because these are friendly congregations for secular-minded people,” said Hiram Ruiz, IAD public campus ministries director, who oversees university students and young professionals. “It’s not to say that our Seventh-day Adventist churches aren’t friendly, but it’s a reference we use internally to describe a new space or place to share the message of hope to a specific audience the church has shied away from seriously pursuing.”

Friendly Churches seek out university students, business owners, professionals, and people who are not interested in visiting a church building or taking part in a formal church service. They are not interested in organized religion, Ruiz said. The initiative came about after the pandemic, and highlights the need to reach believers and nonbelievers who are uninterested in any kind of religious church, he added. “We saw the need to provide a comfortable place where they could speak and listen to spiritual things, without music being the main focus, a specific dress code, but with the opportunity for them to understand God in their lives.”

There are 10 full congregations of this kind across Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and El Salvador. Most have been running since early this year.

It Began As a Pilot Program

“The project started as a pilot program with unions, or major church regions, that wanted to create a more sensitive and comfortable space to the specific interests of the target audience, less structured worship services, and with ongoing activities and community projects,” Ruiz said.

Fifteen groups were established from 10 unions in the IAD. Each corresponding conference appointed a Friendly Church pastor who received yearlong training in a series of in-person and online sessions and enlisted a core group of approximately 20 interested church members in the project. The pastors designated to lead each Friendly Church later met to continue specific training, discuss progress and challenges in their new ministry, and to be laser-focused on the task of connecting secular-minded individuals to the gospel message.

Since November 2021, the four-module training sessions have been led by the General Conference’s Global Mission Center for Secular and Post-Christian Mission leaders, in partnership with the IAD.

A Different Approach

The IAD was the first region of the world church to participate in the new structured program, said Kleber Gonçalves, director of the Global Mission Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies at the General Conference.

“This has been a totally different approach from what pastors have been trained for normally in our church,” Gonçalves said. “The process of leading others to Christ could take longer than church leaders or members expect in a traditional Adventist Church setting but so far it has proven to be effective. We have seen how God has grown the ministry of seeking secular-minded people who are looking for answers and are interested in making a difference in the world throughout Inter-America,” he said.

In the North Mexican Union, three Friendly Churches have been gaining strength and expanding. One such established congregation is Hope Life — a congregation in the northeastern part of Monterrey, in Nuevo Leon. Misael Pedraza and his core group have been running different community outreach programs such as an art exhibits, health impact activities, and more since early this year in their multipurpose rented space.

Pedraza, like other pastors in the Friendly Church project, focuses on ministering to Hope Life congregants and his core group of church members. They have embraced the project’s long-term vision and understand how secular-minded people in the region think and act.

Working in Core Groups

The core group meets every Sabbath morning to study the Sabbath School lesson, pray, worship, and go over the Friendly Church’s vision and purpose in mission. Then the core group welcomes the congregants for the Sabbath afternoon service, which includes moments of praise, a spiritual message, and time to snack together. “It’s important to be inclusive — a congregation that has a fresh approach to engage individuals in serving the community through a ministry or project,” Pedraza said. The key has been providing different interest groups and ministries visitors can be part of. Several have been baptized and the group has grown to more than 100 people.

Not far from Hope Life is CREA, a Friendly Church congregation in the northwestern part of Monterrey. Alejandro Díaz leads CREA. He has seen the benefits of welcoming everyone who comes through the doors on Sabbath afternoons for worship. “We focus on connecting and making friends no matter how they look or what they do, without judgement,” Díaz said. “We give them a chance to take part in any of the ministries that they may want to be part of such as branding experts group, marathon runners, tech or engineers, women bringing awareness on issues of violence, and more.”

What has been key is keeping the mission of reaching the secular mind alive and clear, he said. The format has generated trust among groups of middle-aged and young people, some of whom had left the church. “We have worked hard at building a very open, friendly, cozy, and comfortable environment for anyone who wants to be part of CREA,” Díaz said.

Díaz served as a district pastor for more than 20 years and said leading the new format has opened so many opportunities to better understand the needs and concerns of each secular mind that approaches CREA. “The message of the gospel doesn’t change but the methods we are using to connect with this generation seems to be drawing many more young people, professionals, and business owners who are searching for something greater than what they have,” Díaz said. There are more than 60 people meeting at CREA every week.

An Ongoing Discipleship Program

Each of the established Friendly Churches is in a large city populated with at least 1 million people. The churches have been designed to be a different kind of Adventist church, with an ongoing discipleship approach, Ruiz said. “It has been wonderful to see the spiritual impact these congregations are making in the lives of so many living in large cities,” he said.

Since early 2023, Ruiz has been making his rounds to visit each of the Friendly Churches across Inter-America.

“Many of our young generations and secular individuals can’t understand the rituals our Adventist churches do each Sabbath. They have a difficult time sometimes feeling comfortable with heavy church liturgy that seems foreign to them,” he said. It’s a different approach, but after months, they have been able to see positive results. “Many have decided to join the groups through baptism and continue active in mission initiatives and projects,” Ruiz said.

In Panama, Conexión 7 opened last year with a group of business professionals who reside in upper-class communities in Panama City. From the start, Demetrio Aguilar was clear about their goal. “It’s been all about establishing a friendship, a connection with business owners and professionals,” Aguilar said. “We seek to offer them an encouraging spiritual message, to draw them to engagement and growth.”

More than 150 people meet every week, and many have shared their interest and call to mission, said Aguilar, who has been regularly visiting the individuals and families who have joined the group this year. The group saw the first business owner get baptized. He, in turn, has brought colleagues, friends, and family members to the growing group. Conexión 7 has also taken part in health initiatives for the community, walks and runs across the city, and other activities. So far, five people have been baptized.

The initiative has convinced Jose De Gracia, president of the Panama Union, of the effectiveness of the Friendly Church’s format. “It has been such a blessing,” De Gracia said.

Years before, the Panama Union had overseen a church of Adventist professionals in Panama City, but it did not survive, he said. “I believe the purpose and the mission were perhaps not well understood and followed,” De Gracia said. The union wants to establish a Friendly Church in each of the six conferences and missions across Panama in the coming years. “The potential of reaching so many for the Lord in the packed secular environment across our cities is great, and we must take a hold of this opportunity to reach more,” De Gracia said.

Kevin Mendoza worked for months to reach a group of property owners in the eastern outskirts of Medellin, Colombia. The group, called Comunidad Oriente (Eastern Community), gathers more than 50 business owners in a rented estate not far from the city every Sabbath. During social gatherings and activities, they take time to plan. The group continues to bring friends and acquaintances to engage in their weekly gatherings.

It’s Not About Numbers

The Friendly Church project’s success is not being measured by the number of baptisms, visitors, and regular visitors, Ruiz said. “The connections, the spiritual growth of the group works through a contextualized discipleship program, not your traditional Adventist evangelism format,” he said. Yet, the groups at Friendly Churches understand the principles of stewardship, give their tithes and offerings, and contribute to the Adventist Church organization that they fall under, Ruiz said.

Pastors leading the 10 Friendly Churches continue taking part in a group and one-on-one mentoring program once a month. “This special program requires close attention to manage any challenges and continue strengthening these unique congregations,” Ruiz said.

The project has been such a learning experience and shown such steady growth that the Global Mission Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies at the General Conference, in collaboration with the IAD, have been working on putting together a handbook. The volume will cover the how-to process, recommendations, and results obtained from established Friendly Churches across the territory.

“The manual will be an important resource to follow in the rest of the IAD territory,” Ruiz said. It is expected to be available before the end of 2024.

Ruiz also shared that there are people interested in restarting some of the Friendly Churches in several unions that, for some reason, were not able to establish the core groups successfully. The next training session will take place in Panama. The Panama Union will host training for selected pastors who will begin the process of establishing core groups in the region’s six conferences and missions. “It will be an opportunity for unions who want to get jumpstarted with a Friendly Church format,” Ruiz said.

Module training during the past two years has included sessions with Kleber Gonçalves; Johnathan Contero, who until recently was pastor at Iglesia Cero in Madrid, Spain; Bledi Leno, director of the Global Mission Urban Center; and Gerson Santos, associate secretary of the General Conference.

Established Friendly Churches in Inter-America currently include two in Monterrey and one in Guadalajara, in the North Mexican Union; one in Puebla, in the Inter-Oceanic Mexican Union; one in Tabasco, in the Southeast Mexican Union; two in Bogota, in the South Colombia Union; one in Medellin, in the North Colombia Union; one in San Salvador, in the El Salvador Union; and one in Panama City, in the Panama Union.

The original version of this story was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.

Libna Stevens, Inter-American Division News