“Is ministry worth it?” Car ride puts Converge pastor at a crossroads
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
During a car ride to Georgia, Walter Angelica asked his mentor, Dr. Charles Travis, a pointed, skeptical question.
The road trip out of north Florida, crossing the state line so Dr. Travis could preach somewhere, happened long ago, at a time before smartphones meant hours without notifications or the urge to scroll and scroll. Chances are an FM station wouldn’t broadcast all the way to their destination. While driving an old black Mercedes for Dr. Travis, Angelica doubted the man’s wisdom to work so hard for so long.
Dr. Travis labored 20 years in Argentina, where he first met Angelica as a boy.
“Why did you invest so much in one place when there’s no fruit after so many years?” asked Angelica.
Dr. Travis served at a spiritual retreat center and orphanage in Argentina. He had helped Angelica leave Argentina to attend a university in Florida. Perhaps there was a reason yet for two decades of work in the Mendoza region of the South American country.
“He gave me this look,” Angelica said.
“There was one fruit from 20 years in ministry,” Dr. Travis told Angelica. “You are the only fruit that we got out of two decades of investing in that province.”
The man’s answer dissolved the young Argentine’s skepticism about Christian service. Dr. Travis’ answer hit Angelica like a parable: he was the reason, the fruit of the very labor he doubted.
From that moment, Angelica saw himself, his worth and purpose so differently. Dr. Travis’ response nudged Angelica’s life path in a new direction.
Can questioning others reveal your own answers?
Like many in their twenties, Angelica was reflective and unsure of his future. He’d already been to college, paying his own way just to prove he could. Even so, moving internationally and leaving behind significant personal challenges and family struggles left him with plenty to discover and decide.
Angelica is musical, playing saxophone and piano in a jazz style. He studied music and ministry at a school operated by a large church in Buenos Aires.
“My plan was to be a cool jazz musician,” he quips.
When Angelica arrived in America, he wanted to attend the University of North Florida and be a music student. He auditioned but failed horribly, he said, because it was too competitive.
Not that he minds how life turned out. God illuminated his path that day in the car driving across Georgia.
“It was a defining moment for me,” he said. “I felt the responsibility not only to be faithful but to be fruitful. That is something that drives me daily to do what I do.”
How does God want Angelica to bear fruit?
Many years after Dr. Travis’ surprising answer, Angelica started Iglesia Ciudad to reach Latinos in Jacksonville, Florida. The church plant has also started another church. That success came after a struggle. As the first church grew, the leaders discovered a surprising obstacle for a second campus: the longest river in Florida.
The St. Johns River is, Angelica said, a spiritual or psychological hindrance when people must cross the bridge. People make excuses about crossing the bridge, even though you can get anywhere in about 25 minutes by using it.
There was also a small group of Orange Park residents eager for a church in their community. They already had a place, Maranatha Church. However, they needed a pastor, ideally one who had started a church before. But Angelica and his wife Patricia were focused on Iglesia Ciudad and the ministry there.
How does God overcome a new church’s obstacles?
At the time, Edgar Ruano and his wife Nancy were living in Los Angeles. They were ready to leave behind the big city and find somewhere with a slower pace and a village mindset. Some friends mentioned Jacksonville, and ultimately all the pieces came together for the cross-country move in 2018.
Once they arrived in Jacksonville, the Ruanos connected with Iglesia Ciudad and Angelica. They attended services regularly and became closer in friendships with their new church.
The Ruanos had planted churches in Los Angeles, California, but didn’t expect to continue church planting in Florida. However, God was slowly confirming it was his will they should start a new church.
So, about two years ago, Ruano led a core team to start the second Iglesia Ciudad campus in Orange Park, Florida. His core team included people from Iglesia Ciudad in Jacksonville.
There are still more people who need Jesus
Angelica is starting the third Iglesia Ciudad campus in Florida because there is such a large Latino population in Orlando, especially when compared to Jacksonville.
“The task is so much greater [in Orlando], and the potential is so much greater,” he said.
That difficulty and dividend in Orlando don’t discourage the resilient Angelica and his team. They compete with the idolatry of entertainment, driven especially by Universal Studios and Walt Disney World being in the area.
“A baby shower is more exciting than Sunday morning,” he said, only half-kidding. “People are distracted, busy all the time, idolizing. Unfortunately, what was working in Jacksonville doesn’t work in Orlando.”
Still, he preaches three services at Iglesia Ciudad in Jacksonville before driving two hours south on I-95 to Orlando.
He said the church’s core team of people driving to Orlando are humbled, learning how to accomplish the same mission in a new place. Finding the right location and building relationships with people two or three hours away has made starting a church even tougher.
“We have to come up with a new strategy, we have to fight new idols and we have to do it remotely,” he said.
God has prepared them through past lessons
This time, though, the Ruanos applied their wisdom from starting other churches to the Orange Park community. Instead of starting a church alone, the Ruanos joined the core team of people from Orange Park and Iglesia Ciudad in Jacksonville.
“I take the model of Jesus in Matthew 4,” Ruano said. “During the launching of his ministry, he built a team. He built his 12, and he built more circles. That was the first thing he did.”
That means the team came first, not a building or planning Sunday services. There were no efforts to set up lights or spend money on facilities before having a group of people ready to start a church as a team.
Such an approach is something Angelica is doing now with the Orlando church plant. He meets three weeks out of the month with a small group to disciple them and establish a core team. They meet to worship only once a month for a celebration service of how God is growing their faith.
At first, the Orlando church had a weekly service after completing the pre-launch phase. However, that service is paused since Angelica said many wanted to be entertained by a powerful worship experience. There wasn’t a desire by the attendees to be disciples, make disciples or join small groups.
“We have the nerve to fail, so we’re going to stick with that and see what happens,” Angelica said. “We want more and better disciples. We cannot create a culture of discipleship if we don’t create a culture of evangelism. The best way to evangelize is to plant new churches.”
History and research show new churches are one of the best ways more people become disciples of Christ. Across Converge’s 10 districts, leaders are committed to starting 312 churches by 2026. A significant part of this goal is seeing churches of all cultures reach people from every tribe, nation and tongue on earth.
Latino believers are strong church planters
Applying that passion for new churches is a particular strength among Latino Christians, Ruano said.
“The strength of [Latino culture] is that we are risk-takers, we are almost fearless,” Ruano said. “The faith factor, it’s very strong, and we go and do it.”
Angelica shares such a passion ever since the ride with his mentor, Dr. Travis.
“I’m the first Christian from my family, and I believe that’s why I’m a church planter,” he said. “I have the first-generation passion.”
Angelica believes Latino Christians in America can help reverse the decline many Christians lament. COVID-19 revealed many churches haven’t been making disciples, he said. Further, he understands the sadness as people show an increasingly weakened commitment to Christ.
“You lose the zeal when you go from one generation to the next. The zeal is not there like it’s supposed to be,” Angelica said. “You have a diaspora of people coming to this country. I think the immigrants coming into this country, which includes first-generation Christians, are one of the hopes we have.”
At the same time, Ruano said there is a weakness common among Latino churches eager to plant churches. Logistics and needs aren’t always addressed due to a lack of planning.
“We go, and then we find out, oh my goodness, we didn’t think about parking,” he said.
However, Iglesia Ciudad’s two campuses have a strong foundation. Ruano said Angelica served at suburban churches and learned how others do ministry, especially planning.
“There’s a lot of planning, a lot of talk, a lot of meetings,” Ruano said of suburban churches compared to urban or Latino churches. “[There’s] a lot of what if, what if not, strategies and techniques” when a suburban church faces choices, changes and challenges.
That training complements the passion of the Latino church world. The different leadership styles of Ruano and Angelica formed a solid foundation for a church plant in Orange Park.
“We’re doing a much better job now of thinking more and planning,” he said. “The biggest path that has helped in our campus is a team concept. It’s not the church planter or the campus that starts it but the team.”
Anticipating what God will do in Orlando
Angelica is humble about the early state of a new church in Orlando. More than once, he said he’s not sure what God will do. But he’s also optimistic that being involved in people’s lives will bear fruit. He often thinks of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, where Paul said he shared not only the gospel but also his life with people in the Aegean Sea town.
“The gospel is teaching us something simpler,” he said. “You attract who you love, not who you are.”
Angelica regularly tells church leaders that mono-cultural or mono-generational churches won’t work, no matter their ethnicity or culture. He strongly believes this, based on his decades in ministry among different cultures and locations. Churches that don’t love those around them don’t have a bright future. Moreover, he said churches that don’t have diversity in their ages and races will ultimately decline in faithfulness and vitality.
Dr. Harold Lewis leads Converge’s Office of Biblical Diversity to specifically create teams of pastors and church leaders who will stimulate such love in every district.
Angelica is thankful people from 21 nations lead on the stage and behind the scenes at Iglesia Ciudad. They speak different languages and come from different generations. But, even so, they worship one God and grow in one faith by the same Spirit.
As Angelica pursued a master’s degree in leadership, he shared his vision for such a diverse church with a professor. The professor told him such a mission for diversity was certain to fail.
“My professor was being completely honest,” he said. “But I believe this is something all the churches should attempt.”
That’s because Angelica remembered how Christ himself lived and died.
“He came knowing that it would cost him everything, even his life,” he said. “I think I’m in the right pattern. Christ is still the hope of the world, and the gospel transforms people, families and cities.”
That’s why, even if Angelica isn’t sure of the exact method for starting the Orlando church, he knows God will use his efforts to bear fruit, and it will be worth it. Just like Dr. Travis shared in that car ride long ago.
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.