When William Rojas was introduced six years ago as pastor of the Elgin Maranatha Hispanic Church, Lake Region Conference, located some 40 miles west of Chicago, he knew he had to do something radical to jumpstart the fledgling church. A deeply spiritual and determined man with 38 years of pastoral ministry experience, he was no rookie to the job.
At the onset, he aimed to duplicate his previous efforts in Indianapolis where he served by getting members more actively engaged in the mission of the church. It was at this juncture that Rojas brought the idea of small groups to Elgin Maranatha. “This is what Jesus did,” he said in a pleasant and easy-going manner. “He got 12 apostles and the church grew from there.”
However, to his dismay, the idea did not gain any traction. Undeterred, Rojas reintroduced the idea at the beginning of 2013. However, the result was the same.
Eric Portillo, a member of Elgin Maranatha witnessed the failed outcome each year and attributed it to the fact that small groups represented something different. “It is human nature to resist change,” he explained. Portillo further added that he feels the busy schedules of many of the members didn’t help matters either.
Year after year, the pastor kept sowing seeds for small groups; year after year, it yielded the same fruitless result. That is, until this year when the idea took root.
In his Columbian accent, Rojas said the breakthrough came about because of several factors. After six months of deep prayer, he decided to take a multi-phase approach. First, he asked for volunteers willing to spearhead a small group. Several people raised their hand. He then met with that group for two months and they prayed earnestly for God to show them the next step. A decision was made that the six team leaders would invite eight to twelve members to join their group. It was an exciting time as interest slowly began to grow. Groups hashed out meeting logistics, chose team colors and names — Alpha & Omega, Roca Eterna, Hadai, Salem, Selah and Everest. In addition to the six groups, a young adults group meets each Wednesday with the Pathfinders for Bible studies, activities and community outings.
Luz Resendiz, who has been attending the church since 2007 and is a member of Alpha & Omega, gives credit to the Holy Spirit for causing “an awakening” among the congregation. “I don’t know what else it could be,” she surmised. She has noticed how much things have improved among members, acknowledging that, “People are getting together more often.” Each group meets weekly outside of church, giving the groups a chance to share a meal together, fellowship and study the Bible. According to Rojas, church attendance has jumped from 75 to 125 each week.
Ellen White notes that the formation of small groups within a large church not only benefits the members, but non-believers, as well. “The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err” (“The Work of Soul Saving,” Review and Herald, August 12, 1902). In an age when people crave personal connections, small groups, although far from a new concept, are proving to be a viable solution.
Rojas believes involvement within the church is at an all-time high. Every Sabbath, the groups are in charge of different aspects of the worship service, from Sabbath School to providing lunch after church, to song service. The groups also meet on Sabbath simply to check in on one another and uplift each other in prayer. Furthermore, Rojas meets monthly with leaders of the small groups for fellowship, prayer, a meal and encouragement of each other.
On the last Sabbath in July, Elgin Maranatha had its first small groups festival. Each group came outfitted in matching t-shirts adorned with their respective logos. Rojas compared the festival to the celebration of David and the Israelites. Members Resendiz and Portillo both agreed the festival did much to increase a spirit of cooperation among the members.
Now that the small groups launch is complete, phase two is now in motion. In September, Elgin Maranatha hosted a campaign where each group met at a designated member’s house for a service. Carpentersville, Illinois, is now the site of a small groups initiative emerging from the church’s missionary work.
With six people baptized so far this year, Rojas is grateful, but refuses to remain content. Going forward, he hopes to increase their visibility through community service, knocking on doors and praying with people. “Right now, they don’t know that we exist,” he says. “I want to let them know that we exist and are here to serve them.”
With the small groups now in action, he believes it won’t take another six years.
Picture 1: Elgin Maranatha pastor William Rojas (far left), and Lake Region Vice President and Multicultural Director, Eddie Allen (far right), pictured with Elgin Maranatha Church small group leaders Antonio Realzola, Artemio Resendiz, Pablo Salinas and Roberto Montesinos.
Picture 2: A few members of the Shalem group: Wendy Flynn, Angelita and Antonio Realzola.
Picture 3: Alpha and Omega group members: Nebella, Luz and Artemio Resendiz, Demetrio Pineda, Dylan Hernández, Ethan Hernández, Diana Ju´´arez, Maria Elena Pineda.
Photography by Jean-Ires Michel