the shape of leadership

Deep Roots in Small Towns

What pastors and churches can do to minister effectively

Dino Espinoza on January 19, 2022

When I became the pastor of Templo Emanuel (Assemblies of God) in Crystal City, Texas, I wasn’t looking for a long-term position. I already had 15 years of ministry experience — five years as a pastor and 10 years as a district youth director. I had planned to become a missionary in Mexico or Central America, but I agreed to fill the pulpit at Templo Emanuel for two years.

That was 36 years ago. I am still one of about 7,000 people living in this south Texas town. I am still serving the same congregation. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

People often ask me, “How have you managed to stay so long in such a small community?”

My answer comes entirely from hindsight. When the Lord brought me here, I just wanted to be faithful. I never imagined this long journey of steady progress in the same place.

God has given me great love for this church and community. He has also helped me learn some important ministry principles.

I have discovered six things pastors and churches can do to grow deep roots in small towns. The first three are primarily for church leaders, and the other three apply to the church as a whole. (Of course, there is some overlap since every member of the congregation should be involved in ministry inside and outside the church.)

The Pastor

First, be willing to change. Over the years, I have changed my personal plans. I have changed my patterns of thinking. I have changed my strategies. I have changed many of my preconceived ideas about life and ministry in a small town.

At the same time, God has allowed me to keep my passion for the pulpit, my love for lost souls, and my heart for missions. He has given me abundant opportunities to put them to use serving Him and others. With renewed vision and the support of a loving congregation, I am pursuing the Great Commission right where I am.

Second, know your community. Our Fellowship has nearly 13,000 churches across the U.S. Each church is in a community with a unique identity, culture, history, and set of challenges. This is true of small-town churches as well.

To minister to your community, you need to know and understand it. You also need to participate in it. What initiatives are the civic leaders planning? What problems and goals has the local school board identified? How can your congregation partner with them to serve people and meet needs?

As the community changes, the church must also adapt. That may mean creating a new format for church gatherings or developing new strategies for evangelism.

I am blessed to have an engaged, creative, and community-minded team of leaders. I have learned to listen to them and allow their visions to inform mine.

Third, build relationships through community involvement. Small communities revolve around relationships. Build connections not only with church families, but also with community members who aren’t part of your congregation. Attend high school football games. Get to know your neighbors. Recognize and honor those who serve the community. Join a civic organization. Participate in community events.

As pastor of Templo Emanuel, I have attended groundbreaking ceremonies, graduations, civic forums, city council meetings, school district conferences, and school programs. I have accepted invitations to speak, and I have accepted invitations simply to participate as a member of the audience.

To minister to your community, you
need to know and understand it.

I’ve served on the Zavala County Census committee, the City Airport Renovation Committee, and the District Drug-Free Committee. I have been the high school band booster club treasurer for 28 years and the president of the Crystal City Ministerial Alliance for 34 years. Every opportunity to serve is also an opportunity to invest in relationships.

The Congregation

First, be visible. More than 100 families consider Templo Emanuel their church home, but there are still many in our community who do not attend a church at all. Increasing our visibility is one way to connect with neighbors who need to hear a message of hope and love.

My older brother, Efraim Espinoza, was my predecessor in leading the church. In his 14 years as pastor, he placed this growing congregation on the map by constructing a new building, opening a Christian daycare center, and planning many community events.

We have endeavored to build on this foundation of visible, community-oriented ministry. Last year, for example, we partnered with more than 20 agencies and businesses to host a back-to-school event, where we distributed supplies to at least 500 students. It was an opportunity to share the love of Christ with people who have never attended one of our church services.

Second, minister to the entire community. We are the only Assemblies of God congregation in the city, but we not just here for those who subscribe to our theology. We believe God has called us to minister to the entire community.

Our singers and musicians have participated in county and civic celebrations. We have contributed tables, chairs, podiums and portable sound systems for community events.

We have developed relationships with government leaders, many of whom have expressed gratitude for our work in the community. Templo Emanuel is often the lead church in cooperative events that support our senior adults, law enforcement agencies, and schools.

Just as God gives favor to all who ask, we want to be available and generous in our community engagement. Living out our faith in this way not only strengthens us as a congregation, but it also attracts visitors to our Sunday services.

Third, remain Christ-centered. In every opportunity we have to serve our community, we never lose sight of our calling to represent Jesus. I frequently sit with elected leaders for breakfast meetings or roundtable discussions, but I will not stay when the subject or objectives become politically polarized.

Even as we forge ahead, we are mindful of our rich heritage. Fifty years ago, I was honored to serve as secretary of the San Antonio Section of the Assemblies of God with H.C. Ball leading us as sectional presbyter.

Our ministry exists because of the sacrifices of men and women who had a vision for a Spanish Pentecostal church in this city. I honor their faith, their silent mentoring, and the open doors they gave me. We stand on the shoulders of dedicated ministers who, despite experiencing persecution and criticism because of their Pentecostal beliefs, earned the respect of their neighbors by loving people and pointing to Jesus.

Crystal City is primarily a non-evangelical community. The people here know we have Pentecostal roots. Yet they seek our ministry and prayers. God continues to give us His grace to serve as faithful witnesses to our community.

I have changed over the years. Our church has grown and changed. Our community and our world have certainly changed. But the message of hope and truth for a community that has a lot of religion but needs to encounter Jesus is unwavering.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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