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SERGIO, WE KNOW THAT THE PEOPLE OF IGLESIA DEL PUEBLO COME FROM MANY DIFFERENT PLACES— PRIMARILY IN CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA. WHERE WERE YOU BORN?
I was born in Monterrey, Mexico, an industrial city, just two hours from the border. My dad was an engineer. My mom became a believer early in life, and my parents met when she was evangelizing in her neighborhood. My dad admits that he came to church because he wanted to get to know my mom.
Not long after, they were married, and when I was three years old, because of my dad’s work, our family moved about four hours away to a city called Torreón. Over the last five years, Torreón has been hit very hard by violence, and today it is one of the most dangerous and troubled cities in the world. But it wasn’t like that at all when I grew up.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAMILY LIKE?
My mom was a strong believer. At one point when my parents were having struggles in their marriage, my dad would take the car and go off on Sundays to play soccer. My mom would take me and my siblings to church every Sunday on public transportation. I am the oldest of four kids—the first three close in age—and you can imagine what it was like for her to have three young children on the buses. But I don’t remember ever missing a Sunday.
I was twelve or thirteen when my dad had an encounter with the Lord, and everything changed in our house. After that, both my parents were involved in church; my dad became a leader and eventually pastor of that congregation. So all through my teenage years, I was helping my parents at church.
Those were the years when music came into my life in a big way. I had loved music since I was a kid, especially the popular music of the 1980s. Of course, we were not “allowed” to listen to music that wasn’t Christian music, so I didn’t own albums, but I still managed to listen here and there.
PEOPLE MAY NOT KNOW THAT IN ADDITION TO BEING IGLESIA DEL PUEBLO’S WORSHIP PASTOR, YOU ARE KNOWN THROUGHOUT THE LATINO WORLD AS A MUSICIAN AND SONGWRITER. WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WERE A MUSICIAN?
One day when I was young, my dad brought me a small keyboard, and I started learning to play some chords.
With a hundred and fifty to two hundred people in our church, there were plenty of musicians for the service on Sunday. But in the middle of the week, everybody was working. So on Wednesday nights, my brother, who was learning to play drums, and I, on my little keyboard, would play five or six songs. I had learned three chords—G, C, and D—and with those three chords, I played. Later on I learned those same three chords on the guitar.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOU CAME TO FAITH IN CHRIST?
I was eleven years old, attending the Baptist church in Mexico where my mom took us every Sunday morning. We didn’t have a way to get there on Sunday evenings, but one Sunday night when we weren’t at church, they showed a movie about hell that made the kids in the church super scared. I heard all about it. Not long after that, the pastor started preaching on Revelation and about where you’re going to spend eternity.
One Sunday he invited people to come forward and pray if they wanted to be saved. I went forward and made sure I knew that I would spend eternity with God. I was baptized on Father’s Day of 1982.
WHAT KIND OF KID WERE YOU?
Very quiet, what you would call a “good” kid.
In fact, because I never made any trouble, I experienced a faith crisis when I was eighteen. People would come to our church and give their testimonies. It seemed like the more spectacular your testimony, the more the people wanted to hear you. Ex-cartel members and people who had been in prison would tell their salvation stories. When I heard them, they really made me wonder what my testimony was.
About that time I read a book that said Jesus gave everything for us and He deserves 100 percent from us. That rang true to me, but when I looked at my life, I knew I wasn’t giving 100 percent. So I kind of gave up.
I was neglecting my time with God and Scripture and even lost the joy I had found in music. So I told my dad, who was our pastor by then, that I needed to stop leading worship for a while. I kept going to church because my dad was the pastor, but I didn’t feel God’s presence.
One night I came home from church and went into my room. The lights were out, and I dropped a cassette into the player. I didn’t know which cassette it was, but it turned out to be Michael W. Smith’s i 2 (Eye).
The last song of side A is called “I Miss the Way.” Michael W. Smith was singing, “Once you were a true believer. Once there was a fire in your soul. . . .” And then the chorus: “I miss the way His love would dance within your eyes. I miss the way His heart was the soul of your life.” But here’s the part that really got to me: “Somewhere in the saddest part of heaven’s room, our Father sheds a tear for you. He’s missing you, too.”
When I pictured God weeping for me—missing me—I felt so selfish, so focused on my little doubts and neglecting Him. A conviction came to me that moment that I was not going to follow God out of feelings. I was going to follow God out of conviction.
At the same time, I imagined the enemy laughing at my doubts. And that made me very angry.
So I got on my knees and said, “God, forgive my selfishness, my coldheartedness. From now on I’m going to follow you regardless of how I feel.” It’s a walk of faith, not of feelings, and I told the enemy “You’re never going to laugh like that in my life, because I’m going to hold on to the Lord.”
I think that experience is part of what drives me when I lead worship today. I often tell the worship team, “I want you to be mad when you lead worship—because we’re mad about what the enemy’s doing in people’s lives.”
DID YOU GO TO COLLEGE IN MEXICO?
Yes. After high school I went to a college in Torreón and started studying graphic design. But I realized I didn’t want to spend my life at a desk; I wanted to be with people and to be in ministry. So I decided to go to a Bible school in Guadalajara, Mexico, called Cristo al Mundo—Christ to the World.
While I was studying there, my dad was invited to come to preach to a church in Melrose Park, here in the Chicago area. It was 1991, and the pastor encouraged my dad to bring his whole family to visit the city. So we all came along; my dad preached, and I taught some songs and led worship.
After that, the pastor invited me to come back for the summer and lead a youth retreat for a group of sixty or seventy kids.
The person who was organizing all the logistics for that retreat was a young woman named Rosie. That’s how I met the girl I would marry.
I went back to Mexico to continue in Bible school, and our whole courtship was through letters. I proposed to Rosie in Mexico while she was there with her pastor and his wife on
a mission trip.
We got married in that church in Melrose Park in 1993. Our sons were born there and were dedicated to the Lord in that church.
DID YOU STAY IN THE U.S. AT THAT POINT?
Yes, but that wasn’t my original plan. I thought we would have a wedding in Chicago and then live in Mexico. I had been fascinated with American culture since early childhood, but I had seen the reality of what it was like for immigrants here when I spent that summer in Chicago as a student. I saw how hard immigrants have to work, not the same as my life growing up in Mexico. Yes, people work, but not two jobs and always working overtime.
Another thing for me was that there was an awakening in Mexico at that time in terms of praise and worship in the church, and I wanted to be part of it. The Latino churches here in the States were still very behind in all of that. You didn’t have the Internet back then, so things didn’t travel as fast as today. So when I came here, I was feeling, I want to be in Mexico. That’s where the action is.
But our pastor in Melrose Park warned us that this would involve a lot of change for Rosie: she was going to become a wife, leave her church, leave her family, leave her job, and leave her country—all in the first year of marriage.
“Why don’t you guys get married and stay here,” the pastor told us. “I need some help.” It was a small church, and he was the only pastor. “I need an associate pastor that will help me with the worship and youth and everything. So you have a job. You guys can live here and grow in your marriage. And when you want, you can go to Mexico—whether it’s in six months, one year, or two years.” We thought about it and decided that was really wise.
So we were married here and stayed in the US for one year. It really helped us as a couple. All of my family was in Mexico, and all her family was in Florida. So it was just the two of us, and we did everything together. We learned the rhythm of life together. And the church was our family.
THEN YOU RETURNED TO MEXICO?
Yes. We bought a little van, put all our stuff in it, and moved to Mexico.
When I think about it, I realize it was a little crazy, because I had never been a missionary, and I didn’t know anything about the process they go through to raise support. I only knew that I was going to serve in my dad’s church. I never even asked him if I would have a job or if I would be doing volunteer work.
Even so, God took care of us. People here helped us, so although we never officially raised support, I was working as a missionary in Mexico. My dad and I didn’t have an official conversation about salary, but I always knew my parents wouldhelp us if we needed it.
God always provided enough to pay for our apartment, but beyond that we had very little. Then the time came when our finances were going down. I wondered about calling my dad, but I had read about missionaries who trusted God and He provided, and I wanted to learn to trust God like that. So I prayed, Lord, I don’t want to depend on my earthly father. I want to lean on you. So I decided not to tell my dad that we were struggling.
One night I told Rosie, “I want a cheeseburger.”
“We don’t have money,” she said, “and there’s food at home.”
But I wanted a cheeseburger. So I said, “Let’s just go. Just trust in God.”
A family from church had a cart outside a store, and they sold burgers. When we went, we always paid for our food. But that day we were eating burgers but had no money. I was thinking, The worst that could happen is that I say, “I don’t have money. Can I pay you later?” But I didn’t have a plan. When we finished, I walked over like I was going to pay—I even moved my hand toward my wallet—and asked, “How much do I owe you?”
He just looked at me and said, “They’re on me.” I couldn’t believe it.
I realize that when you’re young, you can be a little presumptuous in your faith. I really think it was partly that—but it was also me learning that I could trust God to be there with us.
Our money issues continued, and over the next weeks, even the food supply at home was going down. If I’d asked my dad, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But still I said, “God, I want to trust. I want to learn to depend on You.” Eventually it got to a point when there was no money and no food.
We used to sit around at night, and I would play the guitar and sing. I wrote a song in those days that said
One night it was just Rosie and me, and we were worshiping the Lord. I remember the feeling in my stomach as I thought, What do I do now? We have nothing. So I told her, “Let’s pray.”
We got on our knees in the living room of that apartment, and the first thing I prayed was, “Lord, what am I supposed to do? I’ve never been in this situation before.”
While we were still on our knees, there was a knock on the door. We opened the door, and a young couple from our church stood there holding a box.
They said, “When we went shopping for groceries, we thought of you guys, and we wanted to bring you this.” In the box was everything—ham and eggs and milk and bread—everything. When we wept, our friends asked what was wrong.
I said, “God just used you to bless us and to provide for us.”
From that moment everything changed, and we have never been in that position again. I told my dad the story later, and he understood why I didn’t want to ask him for help. He respected my desire to learn from the Lord.
A year or two later, Hosanna/Integrity Music was recording an album in Spanish and included the song I had written. That was the first of my songs ever professionally recorded and released, and for the rest of the time we were in Mexico, we were blessed to receive some royalties. So that song itself became a real blessing.
WHAT CAME NEXT?
Rosie and I served in Mexico for almost three years, but in the summers we’d come back to Chicago. The company in Chicago where Rosie had done accounting work loved her and told her, “Anytime you’re in Chicago, we’ll have work for you.” So I would preach, and she would work.
One of those summers we talked with some people from YWAM (Youth With A Mission) about a year-long program they offered. It sounded like something that would help us keep learning about doing ministry and outreach, but when they told us that we would need to raise ten thousand dollars to cover the training and travel,
we said, “Maybe next year.”
Meanwhile, back in Mexico, someone had given us a piece of land, so our plan was to go back and finish building the house we had started. But we started praying about the YWAM trip, and God started bringing us all the money we would need. Suddenly we weren’t thinking, Maybe next year about the YWAM training.
When I asked my dad what he thought, he said, “If God is calling you, we’ll support you.”
I asked Rosie, “What about the house?” It was almost finished. It was small, but it was very pretty. I’ll never forget her words: “If we never live in that house, it will be sad to me, but it would sadden me more to know that we’re not doing God’s will.” That’s what I needed to hear. God provided everything, and we went with YWAM for that year.
We moved to Puerto Rico and spent a year traveling and doing missionary work. We went to the Amazon and lived in Colombia for two months. We saw much poverty but were able to share the Gospel with orphans there.
We also went to Nicaragua, and during that year we found out that Rosie was pregnant with our first son. At the time, YWAM was inviting us to join their staff, and my dad in Mexico also said there was work there if we wanted to come. Then the pastor in Chicago said, “Why don’t you guys come and have the baby here?” After weighing all the options, we thought it was a good idea to have the baby in the States, so Gabriel Sebastian was born in December of 1997.
DID YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO BE STAYING IN THE STATES AT THAT POINT?
No. But when our son was less than a month old, I had a feeling that I needed to fast and seek God’s guidance over the first three days of 1998. What I heard in my spirit was God telling us to stay in the States one more year. Most of our things were in Mexico. All we had brought with us from our time with YWAM were our clothes and some books. But we rented a small apartment, and the people in that church gave us a table, a sofa, a baby crib—the Lord provided everything.
Not too long after that, we understood why, because by February, Rosie was pregnant again. Our son Daniel was born the following November.
WHAT WAS YOUR MINISTRY THEN?
I plugged back into the church’s youth ministry. That’s when I started to see the identity struggles of Latino kids born in the US but whose parents were from Mexico and all over Central and South America: Am I American? Am I Latino? Am I neither? Am I both?
Watching them struggle, I began reading the Bible through that lens and saw how God has used bicultural people throughout history. Joseph, who was sold into slavery, became a blessing to his family later because he was then in a different culture. The Old Testament talks about Daniel and Esther and Nehemiah and others, and in the New Testament, Paul reaches the Jews but also the Greeks and the Romans.
I was seeing what a richness there is in being part of two cultures. But in the lives of those Latino kids, I saw the enemy using that blessing—which God gave them—against them, and I got mad.So I started teaching those young people, This is a good thing. This is an asset in your life. You can serve God with this.
My heart was burning for these Latinos, and I didn’t want to leave. There was so much to do here. So we prayed and felt that God was telling us, “I brought you here for a purpose. Don’t leave halfway through.”
So I said, “Okay, Lord. I am going to plan to live here until I die. If you have another plan for me, you let me know. But I don’t want to live in one place with my heart and my mind in another.”
WAS THAT A DIFFICULT TRANSITION?
Yes, because even though I knew God wanted us here, I was reluctant to become a US citizen. Mexicans can be very nationalistic. But Rosie felt it might be better for us in the future if I became a US citizen, because if I was a resident only and then had to be outside the US for more than a year, I would lose my residency.
I also remembered a conversation I’d had with a pastor in Colombia. He said, “It is good to know that above our nationalities, we’re part of the Kingdom of God. That’s our nationality.” When I thought of those words, it was like God was saying to me, What if part of My call to you requires you to say no to your nationality? Would that be too much for you to do for me? In that moment I realized that my first citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, far more than Mexico or the United States. So I told Rosie, “Okay, let’s do it.”
Interestingly, at that time, Mexico allowed dual citizenship, so I was able to keep my Mexican citizenship, but we have been here since 2000 and plan to keep serving Latinos in the United States until the Lord tells us otherwise.
WHEN DID YOU MAKE THE TRANSITION FROM YOUTH PASTOR TO WORSHIP PASTOR?
It was while I was fully involved in youth work at the church in Melrose Park that I began to feel God reminding me that music and worship were also important.
Eventually I spoke to the church leaders and said, “I feel that God is prompting me to not neglect this part of my ministry, and I would like to do more worship ministry, both in our church and in other churches.” They did not agree, but I felt so passionately about it, that I decided to resign as youth pastor.
At that point, we had a band, called Antena, that performed electronic Christian music, and we traveled and did some concerts. We were making plans with some other musicians to move to Nashville to start a Christian music company—writing songs for other people and also making albums. But we weren’t going to move until summer, so we had another six months in the Chicago area. We saw this as an opportunity to visit other churches.
Over the years in Chicago, I had become friends with Juan Marcos Gomez, who was working at Moody Radio at the time and also served at Iglesia del Pueblo/Wheaton Bible Church. We had been friends because of music, and he introduced me to the church here and invited me to lead worship for a couple of services while I was free.
On the first Sunday of 2005, a friend was going to pick us up to visit Harvest Bible Chapel, but he never came. Rosie said, “Let’s go back to Wheaton Bible Church.” So we did.
Marcos was leading worship, and Pastor Al Guerra preached. Afterward Pastor Al came over to say hello. When we told him we were just there to visit, he invited us to lunch, where he asked us about our plans. After we told him about the move to Nashville, he asked, “Why don’t you come here? I’ll find a way. I want you on our staff.”
I said, “Well, thank you, Pastor, but I really feel like God wants me to travel.” He didn’t think that would be a problem. “In fact,” he said, “if you’re going to travel, you need to leave your family somewhere. Leave them here. We have a great Sunday school and great programs for kids, like Awana and more.”
When he learned that we had six months until we were due to go to Nashville, he said, “Stay with us for six months, and then we’ll pray for you and send you off to Nashville.”
So I prayed about it. The invitation was just to lead worship, not to do youth work. And it would allow me time to travel. I almost felt God telling me, You’re being invited to do what you love and what you want to do, and you’re going to be compensated for that. So I said yes.
February was my official start with the church. Our friends in Nashville started to have a change of plans too. Some of my travel plans didn’t work out, and there were some closed doors—some disappointments, and even some frustration. And that was exactly when Pastor Guerra was preaching about the idols of our own hearts and the longings of our souls. God ministered to us through the preaching and the fellowship. Six months became a year, and that year became years, and we’ve never left.
HOW LONG AGO WAS THAT?
In February of 2015 I marked ten years here. I’m still focusing on worship. Some of my friends in worship ministry have now moved on the pastoring their own churches, and there are times when I’ve thought, Maybe I should be a pastor now.
But Rosie has said, “You bless me when you preach, but no one blesses me like you do when you lead worship.” Friends say the same thing. “God made you to do this,” they tell me.
I’m not saying that I haven’t struggled with wanting to do other things, but I feel that this is what God created me for. I’ve said to the Lord, “If you want me to do this forever and this is coming from You—not just from my own desires—I’ll do it.” So I’m here.
YOU’RE A SONGWRITER IN ADDITION TO YOUR ROLE AS WORSHIP PASTOR. TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THAT.
Songwriting has been part of my life since I wrote that first song in our apartment in Mexico. Our local church in Mexico sang and embraced that song, and God used it to bless other people. After that I was always writing. Through friends, those songs made it onto albums by different recording artists; in fact, there’s one song in particular that I’m sure is being sung in at least one church in Latin America every Sunday, because it really caught on after it was recorded by a well-known singer.
WHAT’S THE NAME OF THAT SONG?
“La Casa del Dios”—“The House of God.” One of the megachurches of Latin America—a church of thirty thousand people in Guatemala—is called Casa del Dios. They have a weekly television program, and they always open the program with that song. I didn’t write it for that church; I wrote it for worship in the church in Melrose Park. But that church in Guatemala uses a recording of it sung by a famous worship leader, Danilo Montero, so that song has traveled many, many places. Recently I found it on YouTube, translated into English by someone at a church in Pennsylvania.
DID ANYONE REQUEST PERMISSION FOR THAT?
Things like that are kind of loose in Latin America. Last summer when I was in Bolivia to teach at a worship conference there, I was listening to the radio and heard one of my songs that I have never recorded—and as far as I can remember, I’ve never given it to anyone. I went to Google, and it turns out it’s been recorded by a singer based in Florida.
IF YOU HAD TO GUESS AT THE NUMBER OF SONGS YOU’VE WRITTEN SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED WRITING MUSIC, WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT NUMBER WOULD BE?
I think it would be about two hundred. Not as many as some of the writers of old hymns, like Fanny Crosby, and the Wesleys—who wrote something like five or six thousand songs in their lives. But I’m still writing.
WHAT IS THE TRIGGER FOR WRITING A SONG?
Lately it’s been moving away from a need to express my personal voice. Now I see God calling me to write in response to the question What is it the church needs to sing? I think in that sense, my song-writing is becoming a little more pastoral.
I think that a lot of worship music today is being written to record—not written with the church in mind. But the ones that really resonate with the church are the songs that have been written for the church—not for the next concert tour or for a music video. As I’ve been writing with that approach, thinking of the congregation, those are the lyrics that another church identifies with and embraces.
Not long ago we were in a series on the Holy Spirit, and I was struggling to find good songs about the Holy Spirit—something meaningful that had good theology behind it. Sometimes you write out of inspiration, but other times you write out of the discipline of writing. That’s where I’ve been lately—the discipline. I get my study notes and start writing and trust God for the other part—the inspiration.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF BEING A PASTOR AT WHEATON BIBLE CHURCH/IGLESIA DEL PUEBLO?
The best part of being a pastor at Iglesia del Pueblo is that as a staff we really love one another, and we also deeply love our people. We’re here because this is more than a job.
I also love that we are such a mixture of people from different countries. We’re really well mixed. We have more Mexican than anything, but it’s not like other Latino churches, where one country’s people predominate.
I also love that we are part of a larger church that understands the importance of being one church but with each congregation having its own space to worship God in their own language. They value and love immigrants and missions.
From Iglesia del Pueblo Lead Pastor Hanibal Rodriguez
I have known Sergio for almost twenty years. I have seen him to be a man who truly loves the Lord, loves his wife and boys, and loves people. If you really want to see what it means to love your neighbor, you have to see Sergio. He has loved me and my family all of these years. He has been my friend, pastor, partner, and brother.
One thing I especially admire about him is his humble heart. He has an amazing gift. He is a worshiper who leads and invites others to worship. In that role, God has given him the opportunity to compose many songs for His glory. And yet I have never seen Sergio boast about any of that. When I “grow up,” I want to be like him.
From Wheaton Bible Church Worship Pastor Brian Hogan
Sergio consistently demonstrates what it means to be a worshiper and a worship leader. He is humble and passionate and has a deeply sincere love for God’s Word and His people. Sergio’s selflessness and integrity are an example for anyone who desires to lead God’s people to worship.
From Iglesia del Pueblo Mission Pastor J. Marcos Gomez
Sergio has shown himself to be a thoughtful and sensitive friend. A memorable example occurred a number of years ago, when my wife, Becky, and I experienced a pregnancy that ended in a stillbirth. Sergio wrote a song for us that really blessed us and gave us comfort in the midst of our pain.
From Sergio’s Wife, Rosie
People should know that Sergio is simply transparent. What you see is what you get.
He’s passionate for the Gospel, and that passion is transmitted to us at home. He’s been blessed with great wisdom, but also with a bright mind—known by his peers at school as the brain of the classroom. God has blessed him with an amazing memory for the Scriptures and, needless to say, with much talent to share it. He’s truly a man after God’s own heart.
When I married him, I didn’t know what a true gift I was getting. Thanks for asking me to share about the man I think of most highly.