Bare-Bones Youth Ministry in Toluca, Mexico
- Cheryl Miller YouthWorker Journal
- 2006 25 May
The missionary call of Tim and Annette Gulick, who have been missionaries in Toluca, Mexico, for the past 10 years, was found in a statistic. “We read in YouthWorker Journal in the late ’80s that 96 percent of the trained youth workers in the world are in the United States, where only a small percentage of the youth live; and we thought, Hey, we can do something about that.”
Toluca is less than an hour away from Mexico City, home to 26 million people and the second-most-populated city in the world. The opportunity for youth ministry is staggering because 41 percent of the population in Mexico is between the ages of 13 and 26.
“The percentage of youth within the community of the church, both Protestant and Catholic, is much smaller—only about 22 percent,” Annette said. “Only about half of those are actively involved in the youth ministry of their churches.1 All of that shows the formidable task facing the Mexican church of reaching the many youth outside their communities of faith with the Good News.”
Most churches are often hard pressed to pay the pastor’s salary and the operating budget for the church building. “This often leaves the youth ministry with no budget, no resources, and very little guidance or support,” Annette said. “In the United States, the fantastic programs, amazing events, and big budgets can easily obscure the truth that the only thing that transforms a person’s life is God’s love. The most important tools God uses to communicate that love are the life of another person and His Word.”
Since 97 percent of Mexican youth workers are volunteers, they are doing the ministry in their free time on top of studies, jobs, and family responsibilities. This can take its toll on the family life of dedicated leaders.
One valuable resource available to the Mexican church is the stability of the community. “Most people in Mexico have a large extended family that meets together much more regularly than American families do,” Annette said. “This network of relationships provides natural opportunities for evangelism. My goal as a leader is to motivate believers to be salt and light in those relationships. I want to help youth understand what is so great about the Good News so they want to share it with others. Additionally, I strive to create environments where those relatives and friends can experience a community that shows them what being a Christian is all about.”
One of these environments provided by the church the Gulicks attend in Toluca is a youth retreat called EJE. “We host a pre-evangelistic youth encounter that focuses on providing a safe place for participants and strengthening the family unit. This event has been a phenomenal way for our youth group to form a community that reflects the ethos of following Christ,” Annette said.
Maria, a vibrant college student with dreams of writing award-winning novels and who had been coming to the church with her parents for about six years, exemplifies how this works in a student’s life. “Maria attended the ‘youth church’ meetings most Sundays and even attended a Christmas camp,” Annette said. “But once she got to high school and her friends and school work took a higher priority in her life, Maria hardly ever came to anything. Despite this, we continued to have a good relationship with her. Maria always caught us up on her life the few times a year she came to church. But nothing we tried worked to get her involved.”
The youth encounter was coming up, and Maria’s parents signed her up to attend. “Maria had some important school projects, and she wasn’t very enthusiastic about spending the entire weekend with the youth group,” Annette recalled. “But she came—and she was hooked. After the retreat Maria began to focus her considerable relational energy and leadership ability into the youth group, organizing informal get-togethers and making sure people stayed connected. As she began to grow spiritually, she talked through her doubts and questions with some of the leaders.
“When the next EJE came around, Maria invited Rose, an unchurched friend of hers from school who was having a lot of family problems. The weekend had a significant impact on Rose and her family; and although they don’t attend our church, they are one step closer to each other and to knowing God. Rose has a new group of friends who seek her out and pray for her, and her friendship with Maria has deepened,” Annette said.
Since most people in Latin America live with their families until they get married, and frequently even after marriage, the sharp divisions between life stages we have in the States, such as high school or moving away to college, are less pronounced. People stay in the same communities and continue to be dependent on their parents in many ways. As a result, youth ministry in a Mexican church encompasses everyone between puberty and marriage, roughly between 13 and 26 years of age.
“Because of this we can’t call it ‘student’ ministry in Mexico because many of them are not students. We wouldn’t want to highlight the difference between those who are pursuing a ‘professional’ career and those who don’t go to college. If a church does divide the youth group, it will be between adolescentes (roughly from 13-18) and jovenes (18 and up),” Annette said.
There are distinct benefits to youth ministry in heterogeneous groups, as opposed to the American church’s highly sectored, age-specific style. According to Annette, here are three of the benefits:
1. Strength of Numbers: It is encouraging and empowering for youth to feel like they are part of a group with critical mass.
2. Youth Attract Youth: It is not un-common for a teen to see a youth group out talking, playing a game, hanging out, etc. and engage in conversation with them because he or she wants to have what the group radiates.
3. Mutual Enrichment: Each age group has something positive to share with the others. For example, college students might have lost some of the enthusiasm and silliness that junior highers have, while the high school and college students are motivated when they see young adults modeling a lifestyle of serving God with their time and talents and being His ambassadors at work.
One of the benefits of having stripped-down budgets and resources available to you is the focus on God’s sufficiency. “Bare-bones youth ministry can be so refreshing,” Annette concluded, “because it forces you to remember that God is living and active, especially when He shows up in people’s lives and does amazing things.”
For the past 10 years Tim & Annette Gulick have lived in Toluca, Mexico, providing resources and training for youth workers throughout the Spanish-speaking world through OC International (www.oci.org).
Over 18,000 pages of resources are available free of charge at www.ParaLideres.org. A full course on youth ministry created by the Gulick’s team is available at the Escuela de Capacitación Cristiana en Linea (www.eccel.org).
Cheryl Miller lives on a lake in Georgia with her seven sons and husband, Steve Miller, a youth ministry resource writer. More information on student ministry in other countries can be found at www.youth-ministry.info.
Copyright 2006, YouthWorker Journal. Used with Permission.