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I both participated in and observed the recent leadership transition of Iglesia del Pueblo, Wheaton Bible Church’s Spanish-speaking congregation. And while doing so, I caught glimpses and had feelings that something special, even miraculous, was taking place.
After interviewing Iglesia’s new leadership team—Hanibal Rodriguez, Sergio Villanueva, and Juan Marcos Gomez— and now capturing some of that conversation in print, I am truly overwhelmed and convinced of several truths. God has been preparing these men all their lives for this assignment. Their family backgrounds, life experiences, passions, faith walks, and even their shared friendship prior to coming here, all testify to God’s painstaking attention to detail as He goes about His Kingdom work. Even more astounding is the way God has sealed these men with a spirit of unity, humility, and unswerving commitment to His purposes.
So, if you have wondered about what is happening in Iglesia del Pueblo, I invite you into our recent conversation. Read for yourself some of the evidence of how God is at work in our Spanish-speaking congregation—how He is doing a new thing, and how He is using three faithful and amazing servants to lead the way through the next chapter of Iglesia del Pueblo.
—Dave Thomson, Director of Communication
In August of 2011, you three were a part of an Iglesia leadership meeting. After everyone had shared their vision for the year, Pastor Al Guerra announced that God was calling him to plant a church and that he was going to submit his resignation letter.
How did you respond to that?
How did God give you direction?
HANIBAL: For me, the next thoughts were, What are we going to do? Is God calling us to plant a church? Is God calling us to stay here? It was an automatic time to start thinking, and one of my main thoughts was that we had so many things to figure out.
JUAN MARCOS: It was definitely a time to just think and pray and to be by ourselves and seek the Lord as to what the next step would be personally, for our families, and for the congregation.
SERGIO: Each one of us didn’t want to talk to many people. I didn’t want to either influence or be influenced. I just needed to be with my wife and start praying. Coincidentally, during those days, some of us were taking vacations. So the three of us were never completely together.
After two weeks, when we finally got together, each came back with a decision already made. For me, I felt that the Lord was calling me to persevere. “Persevere where you are,” that’s what I got from that time of praying, going through the Word, and seeking the counsel of other people.
HANIBAL: For me it wasn’t so much talking or calling people. Our family went on vacation. It was a time between my wife, God, and me. It was us three talking. And what God brought to my heart basically was two things: Who’s going to shepherd these people? And the second was my family. These are the things that just kept popping up. And eventually I got this sense of conviction—I knew that I had to stay. Not knowing how long. Just knowing that we had to stay, because there were sheep that needed to be taken care of, especially now.
JUAN MARCOS: As we came back together and started talking, it was just pretty amazing to see how God had been working in our lives and preparing us for this. We came back with some of the same ideas as to how to go about this transition. We thought about the makeup of this pastoral team and saw our roles the same way. It was just so natural, kind of like fitting a puzzle together.
HANIBAL: There was no arguing about who was going to do what. None of that stuff. We just agreed. We all wanted the same things. Everything just fit. There were no confrontations; everything fit right.
Tell us about your first worship service.
HANIBAL: When I think about that first service, I remember the feeling of “not knowing.” Of being uncertain about what was going to happen. Not knowing who was going to stay.
You see, for a Hispanic community, it is a normal thing to follow the leader. Once they find a good leader, people will follow—that’s one of the reasons why many of our people travel so many miles just to come to church. That’s how it is. It’s our culture. So, since Pastor Al had been here for thirteen years, we were expecting something to change.
But the fact was, we didn’t know how many people were going to show up or, if they did, what their attitude might be. Some were already committed to staying with the ministry, but we knew some people might be here just to check how it was going.
Finally it is Sunday morning, and I’m sitting in the first row of the worship center, and I tell Sergio, “Man, this is going to be harder for you, because you’ll be the first person to see who’s actually there.” I told him that I was not going to look—I’m not going to turn around. I’m just going to let it be.
SERGIO: So we purposely had no idea how many would show up. It may have been a subconscious recall of the story of David doing the census, or because the Lord just gave us this sense of not counting people. It was as if He was saying, “Just count on Me. I’ll be there. And if you have five or ten people, that will be okay.”
HANIBAL: We also sensed something else earlier that morning—right when we started praying with our team at 10:30.
SERGIO: There was a group of about fifteen of us, including the worship team and the Elders. I remember that we said that even if only the fifteen of us were there, we’d be okay. And we all felt it. We had a tangible sense of joy.
HANIBAL: It is hard to explain why we were so joyful. For the three of us, part of it was being excited that we were starting a new chapter in the history of Iglesia and that God in His mercy and grace had brought us together. For some of our lay leaders, it was the excitement of new beginnings and wanting to serve.
What else was different about the morning?
SERGIO: Pastor Bugh came to show and describe his support, the English-speaking congregation’s support, and the Elders’ support. He said, “We love you.” He literally said that Wheaton Bible Church loves immigrants and that it was investing many resources into Puente del Pueblo, a ministry that serves a community of mostly immigrants. He told us about the MOVE initiative and reaching out to North African immigrants in France.
After he said that, people started clapping. People started rejoicing, because it was what they needed to hear from the leadership of the church, knowing that we are loved and that we have a place here.
“We love you.”
How much prayer has gone into the transition? What has been the role of prayer?
SERGIO: From the beginning, prayer has been very important. What came up for us out of one of our first prayer meetings was the encouragement that comes from praying together. We said that if we can bring this spirit to the church, we will be okay. It was a sense that God is good, God is in control, and God loves us. And in spite of our weaknesses and our failures, He has promised to build His church. So we were completely encouraged just to get the sense of that unity among us in those moments.
Right away, in September, we called the church to a month of prayer. We said we need to be in prayer the whole month, and we’re going to have a special night of prayer on Friday, the fifteenth. And on that night we had 60 or 70 people join together. It wasn’t a large number, but you could see that those were people who were committed to the church, that they loved the church, and that we could count on them.
After that the men of the church said, “We need to pray.” And they got together; then our women’s ministry got together—because they felt the need to pray. So all that month we emphasized prayer. And we saw the need to keep doing it.
As we’ve moved through this transition, we’ve continued to make prayer a priority. Before we start making plans and programs or begin anything, we say, “We need to pray.” When we get together with the two Elders who are part of our congregation [Martin Hernandez and José Luis Orta], the five of us start praying. When we meet in our houses, we pray.
One of the lessons we’ve been learning as we go through this transition is how God uses these hard times to bring us to Him—using those circumstances and working through them so that He can accomplish His will and His purpose in our lives. So our first reaction should be seeking Him and not trying to get out of an uncomfortable situation as soon as we can and as fast as we can.
In addition to prayer, what else have you been emphasizing?
HANIBAL: Because of our history we’ve always been a Bible-centered church, both congregations. And we’ve always been inclined to an emphasis on doctrine—holding the right doctrine and teaching the right doctrine. However, during this transition there were some people that just came and said, “What about the doctrine? What’s going to happen? Are we going to change it?”
So right away we wanted to be sure that the Bible is being taught and the right doctrine is being taught in the congregation. From our pulpit on Sunday mornings, from our teachings on Wednesday nights, from our teachings at ministry meetings and gatherings, everything has the same biblical line. This is one of our main priorities. We are really taking great care with that.
Has the vision for your congregation remained the same or changed?
SERGIO: It has been a bit of both. We needed consistency, but there also were some areas of ministry that needed change. For example, we felt that the congregation needed to grow closer together in terms of fellowship, love, and caring for one another. So we all began talking to people about that and other things. We did this from the start and have been very intentional. We’re inviting people over to our homes. We have been sending the message, “We want to be with you. We want to go to your house. We want to talk. We want to have coffee.” So for a period of several weeks, we were continually meeting with the people of our congregation.
Another area that we’ve been very intentional about is taking our mission into the community—beyond just the church building. Our congregation is made up of many people that live far away and travel to our church campus. So on Wednesday night, our plan is to continue our prayer and worship service here as a community group, but also to have a group meeting at Puente del Pueblo. In fact, by the time this story is published, that group, in the Timberlake Apartments in West Chicago, will already have begun to meet. And we hope to start another one before the end of the year in Bolingbrook or Melrose Park. And next year perhaps begin more in Schaumburg, Joliet, or Chicago.
We don’t want to be a church that only attracts people here. We need to go where the people are and be there and get into their lives. That’s our desire.
JUAN MARCOS: Another thing that we saw that was very important was just to start helping people get connected to the church. We want them to get to know some of the different ministries and the people here. So right away we began a class that is something like a combination of what the English-speaking congregation offers in their Begin and Alpha classes—a very relational and relationship-building gathering that does several things: It introduces some major themes of the Bible, describes what it means to have a relationship with the Lord, and begins to connect people to the flow of the church and the ministry here.
About 20 people, some new to our church and some who had been attending, came to our first class in October. That was a great response.
How have your Elders been involved in the transition?
HANIBAL: That’s another sign of God’s faithfulness and mercy to us. Up until last year in the history of Iglesia and Wheaton Bible Church, we’ve always had only one elder. Manny Favela served us faithfully for many years. Then recently, the number of Elders from Iglesia has increased to two as Jose and Martin became Elders. The way we see it, it is great not only that we have two Elders that are Hispanic, but also that they know the needs of our congregation, so they’re another voice.
These two guys are really involved in ministry. They have hearts for the sheep, and they have hearts for the congregation. That was one thing. And the other thing is, they have played a very important role. You could say emotional support for us and spiritual support for us, and spiritual and emotional support for the church.
They’re well known in the congregation, and they also have this ability to move between the two congregations. So their role, the way we see it, has been like the bridge that we needed for this time to be a voice on the Spanish-speaking side and to be a voice on the English-speaking side.
What has happened to your ministries?
JUAN MARCOS: We definitely have had to make adjustments. It’s a challenge for all of us on all the different levels. But the good thing is that we see that the people are excited. They are stepping up. People who are maybe not serving in the same capacity are just excited about doing something they hadn’t been doing. Yes, it’s more work for everybody, but at the same time, there is just a great spirit of cooperation and unity and wanting to be part of what God is doing.
HANIBAL: We didn’t have to change a lot of ministry things. In reality, everything kept on going. There’s a ministry or two that are on pause, but the church has kept on going the way it has been going.
SERGIO: Yes, and it so cool to hear people saying, “Tell us what we can do. Tell us how we can serve.” That has been the greatest. The congregation has responded very positively.
HANIBAL: It’s very positive. From the praise-and-worship team, to the community life, to the teaching and preaching, to ministries, people have responded. And the times that we have messed up in something, they’ve been gracious enough and said, “Well, okay. We’re going through a transition.”
Tell us about other evidences of God’s presence and His confirmation of your direction and vision.
HANIBAL: Prior to the transition we had gathered a group of men that we believed God brought together to oversee the church, and we were in the process of figuring out what roles these men would play. Now we are so thankful that this group was already in place—that many of them have stayed and have been here to walk with us. God had selected a group of men to sustain and support the church.
Another big sign was the way the English-speaking congregation and leadership, staff, and Elders, embraced us. That has been amazing. We were invited to join the weekly Staff Leadership Team by Pastor Rob. At an Elders meeting, the whole group laid hands on us and prayed for us. Wherever we went, people were saying, “We’re praying for you guys. We’ll be with you guys.” All these things were proof of God’s hand on our congregation.
SERGIO: For me, the all-church baptism celebration was a special confirmation. Near the end of the service, we stood in front of the congregation and the English-speaking staff and Elders came up to pray for us.
When we were doing that, I prayed for people that speak English or Spanish, and I said, “That in this place will be worship. We will worship God together in this church, people whose native language is English, Spanish, Chinese, or any other language.” Later, Executive Discipleship Pastor Jeff Walser told me that he and his wife had invited their new Chinese neighbor, who came that night. She said, “Oh, he said ‘Chinese.’” And that guest felt so validated, because when I was praying, I was praying a prophetic prayer that we want to see other languages being spoken and worshiped here from this place. We want to see that. And I know that we’ll see that in the future.
What has changed and what has stayed the same for you? Before the transition you were in support roles, now you play key roles. Were you prepared for that?
SERGIO: We are still doing what we believe we’ve been called to do. I mean, the calling hasn’t changed. It’s just the nature of the responsibilities and how they unfold week to week. You can say that the workload has been hard, but it’s a joyful challenge to have the responsibility of a people.
The Lord saw this happening. He called us to do what He called us to do—and His call preceded by far what has been happening.