When Oscar and Perla Alvarado were studying at Christ Mission College (CMC), they never knew how relevant their experiences at the San Antonio school would prove to be five years after graduation.
Last January, the CMC graduates moved to the north Denver suburb of Westminster, Colorado to start an Assembly of God church. While Oscar prepared for hosting home-based Bible studies, Perla joined the staff of a mental health clinic.
However, in March those plans came to a screeching halt amid coronavirus lockdowns. The Alvarados hope to soon start home groups, followed by the launch of worship services in 2021. Alvarado says making this pivot reflects one of the most valuable aspects of his time at CMC: its emphasis on hands-on ministry.
“We were plugged in with various churches across the San Antonio area,” says the 30-year-old church planter. “I served in a lot of capacities during my four years there. I was part of a launch plant and in leadership schools in other churches. Those experiences prepare you well for what you feel the Lord is calling you to do.”
The perseverance this couple is showing in the midst of the pandemic illustrates how CMC is helping empower the next generation of leaders to spread the gospel, says President Monte Madsen.
Although its roots are in the AG church and the Hispanic community, the school intends to expand to other denominations and ethnicities while redefining missions from a primarily pastoral role to one that affects all walks of life.
“We’re ‘missionalizing’ a generation to answer the call,” says Madsen, 59, a 1985 CMC graduate who returned in 2003 to lead the charge.
“I’ve been here 17 years, and it’s taken a long time to get the school to move on the things God has guided us to do. So we’ve prepared ourselves for a great change to take place, and great things have happened as a result.”
Among those great things is the inclusion of self-funded student mission trips every semester. That may include trips to downtown San Antonio, a Walmart in Alabama, or other nations—Haiti, Honduras and Costa Rica, to name a few.
Such missions endeavors can be eye-opening for students from rural backgrounds like Evelyn Arias, who grew up in a town of 8,900 in southwestern Colorado. Her visit to Haiti in 2016 marked the first time the accounting major had set foot on the mission field.
At one time, 23-year-old Arias had her heart set on enrolling at Liberty University. However, the Virginia school put her admission on hold because they had run out of dormitory space.
She learned about CMC through staff members Arturo and Alicia Carrasco, formerly her children’s church pastors in Delta, Colorado. Arias had developed a taste for missions in high school, although all she knew about missionaries was that they traveled to other countries to share the gospel.
Before leaving for Haiti with a mixed group of ages, races and backgrounds assembled by a professor from Pennsylvania, someone told Arias the trip would change her life.
“Really?” she thought, but that statement came true.
While staying with missionaries in Port au Prince, the volunteers worked in a mountain village two hours away. That meant arising at 4 a.m. for breakfast so they could be on the road an hour later.
“It was so worth it with the people we got to meet,” says Arias, who has returned to Haiti twice. “I saw how little they had, but they were so content and happy with what they did have.
“These were families living in huts. On the way back I thought, We’re so snotty and take for granted what we have. Yet we desire more, when what we have is so much.”
Even though bilingual (English and Spanish), Arias still faced a language barrier—residents spoke Creole, a language influenced by French. That’s when she learned the gospel can be shared in more ways than speech.
While they could deliver a simple “Jesus loves you” message in Creole, what made the difference was the affection they shared and the time they gave to villagers.
“It wasn’t necessarily sharing my testimony but being there with them,” says Arias, who plans to make missions an ongoing part of life no matter what her post-graduation pursuits. “Asking them questions, hugging them, and telling them I loved them is what mattered.
“As I was growing up, I thought being a missionary meant you had to go to different countries. But if we’re Christ’s followers, we’re called to be missionaries right where we’re at.”
CMC may be positioned on the cutting edge of missions, but its roots are sunk in nearly century-deep soil. Founded in 1926 by H.C. Ball, the organizational leader of the Hispanic Assemblies of God (AG), for many years it was known as the Latin American Bible Institute.
Started to train pastors and missionaries, after initiating operations in a Sunday school room in San Antonio, it moved to two other cities before returning to San Antonio in 1981.
Now ensconced on an 82-acre campus once owned by a Nazarene seminary, the school has adopted a new name and a new outlook. When Madsen was in school, administrators used to separate pastors and missionaries into two separate groups. But when he returned as president, half of returning alumni had worked in such occupations as teacher, judge, counselor or race track chaplain.
“The students here are not just pastors and missionaries,” Madsen says.
Another key shift occurred when leaders decided to emphasize discipleship after several attended a World Missions Summit in early January of 2017. Hosted by AG World Missions and its college ministry, Chi Alpha, the conference in Houston attracted 6,000 college and university students, many from secular campuses. Two thousand answered the altar call to commit their lives to missions.
Struck by the students’ fervent response and its reflection of the discipleship they had received, during the event a classmate of Madsen’s at Southwestern University commented, “Did you know we weren’t discipled in Bible college?”
“That was a reality check,” Madsen recalls. “We began to incorporate discipleship. We were graduating more diplomas than disciples.
“One recent article (published by discipleship.org) said only five percent of churches nationwide disciple people. This generation has not been discipled and so has not answered the call to missions. I see Christ Mission College answering that high call.”
Reva Madsen, vice president of student services, says the emphasis took shape quickly, with every Tuesday soon designated for small groups. Initially, staff members led, but the following semester student leaders took over, using These Things: A Reference Manual for Discipleship, by W.K. Volmer.
The book included discussion questions and such material as how to talk with others about their walk with God and the deeper meaning of being filled with the Holy Spirit. To solidify students’ journey with Christ, CMC started baptizing those who had never been baptized in their home churches.
“We just started being more intentional with one’s call and purpose and helping them understand we’re all called, but that may look different for each person,” says Reva, who also oversees the missions program.
“It may look like a youth pastor, a Sunday school teacher, behind the pulpit, or it may look like the marketplace. It was all about helping them understand God has a call and a purpose for our lives.”
The vice president says these discipleship sessions helped students develop closer bonds outside of class, including fellowship and evangelism opportunities.
The latter includes Street Ministry. Students may make the 30-minute drive downtown to strike up faith-oriented conversations along the popular River Walk area, or may travel three states away to chat with folks at major discount stores.
When CMC started making these forays into the community, they followed up with post-trip sharing about these experiences. The discussions prompted excitement among the students, who learned better how to deal with troublesome situations or encounters.
“If a student felt uncomfortable, a staff member would have the student go with them,” Reva says. “Once a person prays with someone, they’re excited about doing that again.”
Among those who benefited from such trips was December 2019 graduate Sammy Hernandez, who last spring became the youth pastor at a church in northwest Texas.
Hernandez particularly enjoyed a trip to Huntsville, Alabama, where the CMC mission group spoke with people in stores, parking lots, apartments, streets and other settings. This experience translated to later ventures in San Antonio and other parts of Texas.
In one small town in the northern tip of the state, Hernandez encountered an eight-year-old boy from Mexico. After spending some time playing, the boy opened up about his family struggles. That led to Hernandez sharing the gospel in a way the youth could understand.
“I shared about a God who is real and wants a relationship with all of us,” Hernandez says. “I asked him if he would want to have that relationship and if he would make a decision to follow Christ. With tears in his eyes, his response was, ‘Yes.’ We prayed together, and in that moment, an eight-year-old gave his life to the Lord.”
Nor did the experience end there. The youth pastor has continued to stay in touch and believes God has something special for the boy in the future.
Monte Madsen wants to see more evangelizing and ministry preparation of young adults. He notes one survey shows only two percent of all AG youth go on to study at AG colleges; only two percent of all AG credential ministers who are Hispanic are under 40.
These daunting odds are why the president sees CMC’s role as providing a type of special-forces training, preparing young adults to take the gospel into all the world, not just church pulpits. That’s why they ask for “commitments,” not just “enrollments.”
To help further this goal, the school recently completed a multiple-years-long accreditation process with the Association of Biblical Higher Education. This national agency is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
In addition to the bleak five percent discipleship figure among America’s churches, Madsen sees high rates of unchurched youth, some of whom wind up on the San Antonio campus.
“We take students and help them understand what their call is all about,” he says. “Now they’re leaving prepared for ministry, the marketplace, and missions.”
Another example of a recent graduate embracing this call is Tony Reyes. Only two years after earning his degree, the Mexican native is pastoring a Spanish AG church, Primera Eglesia (Christ is Coming) in Russellville, Arkansas. The town of 29,000 is located nearly 80 miles northwest of Little Rock, where Reyes’ migrating family settled when he was nine.
Prior to Reyes’ arrival in 2019, the church had gone without a pastor for a year. Attendance had slipped the previous four years from 215 to 60. Under Reyes’ leadership it recovered to 90, until coronavirus hit. Although in-person services later resumed, a second flare-up among several families forced services back online for a time.
Despite these problems, Reyes has been seeking to shift the congregation’s attention to the community. Ironically, this focus received new life during the pandemic. Two weeks after lockdowns started, Primera Eglesia opened its parking lot for a drive-through food bank on Wednesday evenings. Recipients can also visit a nearby booth to share prayer requests.
“People in the church have gotten involved and we’ve seen a change in the community,” says Reyes, 26. “People are more open to us going to them.
“In the beginning, it was hard to get ahold of people or go out and try to pass out lunches—they wouldn’t open their doors or talk to us. But we were persistent and now they’re asking us to pray for them, or asking when they can come to church, and talking with us.”
During one-on-one talks last summer, half a dozen visitors who came for a food box confided in the pastor their desire to draw closer to God or renew their walk with Christ.
“A lot of times it’s about trying to build relationships,” Reyes says. “We would focus on that. It’s the same with community outreach now. It’s to let people know there is a church that cares for them and wants to help them.”
Alvarado is seeking to impart that same message to the new faces he encounters in Colorado, grateful for the mentoring and education he received in Texas.
“CMC is doing a great job of preparing young people for ministry,” Alvarado says. “They deserve praise.”
Missions Without Fundraising?
The concept of missions is undergoing seismic shifts, according to a newly-released report from the Barna Group. The Future of Missions chronicles a key finding by the California research firm and an international missions agency: millennial Christians are almost twice as likely as their elders to believe that missionaries should never use donations as their primary source of income.
In addition, young generations support the blending of business and social good. Many show significant enthusiasm for nontraditional missionary roles, such as entrepreneurs, artists, and business leaders.
Monte Madsen says these results reflect what he hears from current and prospective students. Many tell CMC’s administrators of parents discouraging them from enrolling in a Bible college because they’re afraid they won’t make much money after they graduate.
“We are starting to move to a bivocational emphasis,” CMC’s president says. “In the future, missions will not be just a fulltime calling to conventional missions. Among millennials and others it’s going to the marketplace.”
Their reason to be in a country, whether closed to Christians or not, will be a career, Madsen says. This is partially due to changing conditions, with fewer career missionaries able to itinerate and raise funds in church circles.
This redefining of missions will mean more bivocational missionaries, mixed with short- and long-term trips, he says.
Young people are seeing the legitimacy of missions,” Madsen says. “At CMC we do both. We want some kind of community emphasis as part of students’ preparation to spread the gospel. You can’t go out internationally if you’re not doing something at home.”
The Discipled Leader
Though he grew up just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, Mexican native Jaime Moreno had significant cultural adjustments when he arrived at Christ Mission College in 2002. He didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand how Americans could be so comfortable in carpeted, air-conditioned churches with all the problems surrounding them.
CMC President Monte Madsen helped the newcomer learn to speak English, develop work skills, and prepare for ministry by developing his faith in different settings.
These lessons would prove invaluable after graduation. Several years later, Moreno wound up in Salt Lake City, where only 7 percent of the population is evangelical.
While the 44-year-old Moreno came to pastor Hispanics at Mount Calvary Family Worship Center in 2010, three years later the church asked him to pastor its newly-combined Hispanic and white congregations.
The bilingual church averages about 150 on a Sunday. In addition to overseeing the church, Moreno is men’s director for the Assembly of God’s Central District.
He still appreciates President Madsen helping him learn to preach in English, an essential tool for sharing the gospel in a place often alien to traditional faith.
Because Salt Lake is such a stronghold for Mormons, many of whom are middle or upper income, the pastor says one way Latter Day Saints share their faith is by offering to help newcomers with food, an apartment, or a job.
It’s a challenge when people show up for services at Mount Calvary and want to know what the congregation will give them. Replies Moreno: “We don’t have dollars or riches, but we have the Holy Spirit.”
“We believe the only way we have to reach people in Salt Lake City is the power of the Holy Spirit and miracles,” the pastor says. “When the Lord does miracles, it’s easier to disciple them because they already have had an experience with the living God.”
That’s one of the lessons Moreno learned at CMC.
The Fun of Missions
Christ Mission College believes students should enjoy themselves. On weekends it enlists student leaders to design activities that can include everything from card games and basketball to bowling, movie nights or cookouts. Yet the real joy many experience comes on the mission field.
Reva Madsen, the vice president of student services who oversees CMC’s missions program, says on trips to places like Haiti and India students whose Latin background had already exposed them to poverty still come back with a blessing.
“The exposure we give them on a mission trip is getting them outside their comfort zone and letting them see life outside their community,” she says. “They realize we’re all in this together and we can make a difference.”
President Monte Madsen thinks engaging students in life outside the school is what distinguishes CMC from larger, better-known institutions.
“We’re as much about calling and ministry and missions outside as inside the classroom,” Madsen says. “We have weekly internships that are required for graduation.
“One time we had an evaluation by the Assemblies of God and one guy asked, ‘When are you going to let the students have fun?’ I said, ‘We let them have fun answering the call.’”
He says this approach is particularly suited to millennials and their younger, Generation Z counterparts, both who are seeking authentic faith experiences. Constantly taking students on mission trips helps them catch fire on their own and develop a passion for their purpose and calling, the president adds.
“When they get the feeling of participating in the harvest, everything changes,” Madsen says. “This is the way we do things. When you talk about the kind of people, our ethos and environment, this is who we are. It’s our DNA.”
Meeting the Pandemic Challenge
No institutions have been hit harder by coronavirus than higher education.
Like everyone else, last March CMC was facing the same budgetary shortfall that portended enrollment declines and staff cutbacks anticipated among colleges and universities nationwide.
After sending students and staff home because of COVID-19 shutdowns, CMC staffers began meeting daily via Facebook Messenger for mutual support, discipleship, and prayer.
“We needed to do what we had been facilitating our students to do,” says President Monte Madsen. “It was then that God began to speak messages through each of us about trust, purity of heart, and a resolve to still see Christ’s mission fulfilled through us.”
In late July, CMC finished its fiscal year in the black despite never cutting staff or salary levels. When the school year began Aug. 12—with appropriate on-campus safety measures—the college was anticipating enrollment similar to last year’s. That compares to projected 20 percent declines nationwide.
Madsen says 2020 will go down in the college’s history books as the season when God miraculously intervened.
Not just with the administration, either. When students went home to finish the semester and could no longer attend weekly chapels or discipleship groups, they decided to organize virtual meetings to continue.
The discipleship sessions that started out at once a week went to two and sometimes three because students were still hungry for community. After the semester finished, they decided to keep meeting through the summer until this fall, which Madsen says was unheard of previously.
“Students are going beyond the transactional application process to reach out to their friends and disciple them into a relationship with Christ and Christ Mission College,” the president says. “It has changed the way we recruit, and we plan to continue to do this all year round.”
This article was extracted from Issue 3 (Fall 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
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