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Signs of Hope for Mexico City
by Paul Pretiz

Mexico City is, by some definitions, the largest city on the planet, making it per se an object of special attention. Its cultural influence upon an entire hemisphere makes it strategically important. Evangelical presence in Mexico City has been dampened by a number of factors, and Protestant churches are growing very slowly in comparison with other areas of the country. However, there are signs of hope for Mexico City.

Missionary Presence
Early in the century the Mexican Revolution, in reaction to Roman Catholic political dominance, led to the creation of a secular state. Measures to thwart hierarchical influence (including closing the country's doors to foreign religious workers) meant no legal entry for evangelical missionaries for about seventy years. This did not, however, discourage those entering under other classifications.

Given the lower missionary profile, dynamic autochthonous movements developed - those with no roots in foreign missionary efforts. Such Christian groups accounted for 57.4 percent of Mexico's Protestants in 1982. (1) Strong national leadership has developed.

Changes in church-state relationships now permit the entry of missionaries. Who will respond to Mexico City's call? Hopefully, those not only willing to be exposed to its smog and crime, but also willing to cooperate with the church already there.

Access to the Media
An extension of the "secular state" concept meant that, for many years, evangelicals had almost no access to radio and TV. Large segments of the population are still unaware of the gospel message. But these media restrictions also sheltered Mexico from the excesses of some programs.

When access to public stadia and the media opened up in Argentina after the "dirty war" there, God raised up evangelists to whom there was extraordinary response. The same could happen in Mexico as the media barriers come down.

One of the capital's largest evangelical churches, the Centro de Fe, Esperanza y Amor, exploded into existence a few years ago when the church broadcast its activities and message. The government then canceled the program. But the experience proves that Mexicans will respond to such strategies.

Christian media have another function: informing Christians about other parts of the body of Christ. Except for such efforts of MILAMEX (the PRISMA newspaper column, a news bulletin and a weekly radio report of evangelical events - now resumed after having been suspended under pressure), Mexican Christians have had little cross-denominational information. It is not easy to create a consciousness of evangelical identity when Christians, behind their denominational fences, do not know about other members of the body. Hopefully, Christian media can break down these fences.

Mexico's Dimensions
In smaller countries there may be a perception that one citizen's voice may be heard at the top. But the enormity of Mexico, the long-standing control by one dominant political party, and the shackled but still pervasive Catholic Church, together create a sense of powerlessness and fatalism among Mexicans. This powerlessness also infected much of the church with respect to the influence it might
have on society. In 1992, however, an unprecedented meeting of the country's president with 600 evangelical leaders began to change the atmosphere. Religious institutions were soon given more rights and recognition. But it has not been easy for evangelicals to create a united front to represent their cause.

The very physical dimensions of the capital make it difficult to gather leaders from the far corners of the city or to expect Christians to travel great distances for united events. Nevertheless, Christ for the City/ Evangelism-in-Depth efforts in Iztapalapa demonstrate that taking one delegación (large municipal area) at a time for a cooperative effort may be a pattern for the future.

Major Christian Institutions
There has never been a major centerpiece institution to establish an evangelical identity in Mexico City. In many Latin American cities, evangelicals can point to a Christian hospital, school, or radio station as a symbol of what they are or what they stand for.

In theory, Mexico's secular state proscribed church-run schools. Evangelical schools in Latin America have not usually produced great numbers of conversions, but they do create favorable public opinion on behalf of evangelicals, and graduates often carry Christian principles into public life. Some observers note the lack of such influence in Mexican society because Christian schools have been so few, yet the schools did make an impact before the revolution. The founding of the capital's first evangelical Christian university in 1995 is a ray of hope in this respect.

Many traditional denominations have a long history of ministry in Mexico City. Early believers suffered persecution and hardship. Many people of succeeding generations, even though they may have stopped attending church, will seldom disavow their identity as Protestants, in loyalty perhaps to their persecuted forebears. This nominalism is perhaps the explanation for the disparity between the number of people who are actually in church and the larger numbers who claim to be Protestants in the official census.

Interdenominational Activity
Despite the fact that large and well-established denominations make interdenominational activity an unfamiliar concept to many Mexican Christians, there are growing ministries that bring believers together for a common cause. MILAMEX has already been mentioned. VELA has engaged in urban research, published a series of six reports on evangelical growth in Mexico City, and now is developing its vision to encourage the formation of 10,000 cell groups in the city. Hopefully, these will become tomorrow's new churches. World Vision and a Mexican-born counterpart, AMEXTRA, have demonstrated evangelical social concern. And for years the Mexican Bible Society has been the evangelicals' traditional meeting place and rallying point. CONEMEX (Confraternidad Evangélica Mexicana), a local expression of CONELA (Confraternidad Evangélica Latinoamericana), a fellowship of Latin American evangelicals, has been increasingly successful in creating a united voice for Mexican evangelical churches.

A Question of Attitude
In many older churches there is still an atmosphere reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary period. These are churches that have been isolated from concepts which have given life since then to churches elsewhere - cell groups, body life, discipleship, etc. But there is a growing number of new churches with fresh life and enthusiasm. Some are pastored by new Christians who have been in business and went directly into ministry, bypassing the slow and tortuous route for the typical denomination's clergy.

Across the years, however, one concept (an attitude) has been promoted through countless workshops, congresses, and publications. For thirty years Juan Isdis of MILAMEX has been teaching Evangelism-in-Depth, the view that it is the privilege of every Christian (not just the clergy) to witness for Christ; that Christians have an obligation to work together in evangelism; and to believe that with God on their side, even a minority can make an impact on the larger society.

There may be an increase in evangelical activity as doors open for more missionaries, institutions, and evangelical broadcasts. In the final analysis, however, it is this attitude of every-believer witness, of unity, and of faith that gives hope for the city's evangelization.

Paul Pretiz is assistant to the president of Latin America Mission and resides in Costa Rica. While in Mexico, he was technical advisor for the first citywide study of Mexico City's evangelical churches. He is co-author (with Clayton L. Berg) of The Gospel People of Latin America (1992) and Spontaneous Combustion: Grass Roots Christianity, Latin American Style (1996).

From Urban Mission, published by Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, June 1997. Used by permission.

1. Derived from tables in the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett, ed.). The "non-white indigenous churches" (the encyclopedia's term for autochthonous churches) as a percent of the total evangelical membership, if such membership is the sum of the "nonwhite indigenous" plus the "Protestants."


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