El Paso, TX

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

Divine Savior Presbyterian Church is small. But that doesn’t mean its pastor doesn’t have a big vision. 

Linda Martinez was called to be the Commissioned Lay Pastor for Divine Savior in August 2006.

“For my first sermon, there were 17 people in the pews,” she said.

Martinez realized early on that, in a sense, she had three strikes against her — she was a woman (Divine Savior had never had a woman pastor), she was not an ordained minister and she knew no one at the church.

So she set out getting to know the church’s members, one family at a time.

“I took the church directory and made calls to make appointments to visit the families,” she said.

And visit she did — she met with each family seven times. 

“I wanted to establish relationships with them,” said Martinez, who is fluent in both Spanish and English.

This allowed the congregation to get to know her and allowed her to get to know them — including the gifts and skills they might put in service of the church.

Divine Savior is hardly a wealthy church — most in the congregation would be considered lower-middle class economically — but that did not mean members had nothing to give. 

“Once I knew what they liked to do, I started having them participate,” Martinez said.

This participation includes reading scripture and lighting candles in worship, as well as participating in leadership, serving on session and even preaching.

That participation also reaches beyond the worship hour. Martinez has a vision to open the church up to the community as a whole.

“If we don’t start doing things at the church, then the community around us will not see that we are alive,” she said.

Divine Savior sits on a large piece of land that Martinez sees as the perfect location for a volleyball or basketball court to draw in youth from the community.

But her real vision is for a wall. Another church asked Martinez for a list of what Divine Savior might want or need done on the property. On the list, she included a basketball court, carpet in the sanctuary and the wall.

“Just one wall would allow us to extend the fellowship hall, give another room to work with children and connect my office to the church building,” Martinez said.

A wall might not sound like much, but it would allow Divine Savior to expand to accommodate the growing numbers who are attending worship.

“We have over 100 coming to church, but on any given Sunday there are about 50-80 in worship,” Martinez said. “When 80 people do come, the fellowship hall cannot contain them.”

Much of the church’s growth has come from attracting youth and young adults, who cannot financially contribute to the work of the church but are vital to its future.

Once a quarter, youth and children lead the entire worship service, with 21 year-old Renee, who wants to become a minister, preaching. Having the youth and young adults participate fully in the congregation “means you have a future that your church will continue,” Martinez said.

One Divine Savior youth has been selected as a Tres Rios Presbytery’s Youth Advisory Delegate to next summer’s PC(USA) General Assembly. Another has been chosen as the youth representative on the presbytery council, and a third is on a youth task force for an upcoming conference.

“This is going to be a blessing for them to be around other kids, to learn what they are doing in their own locations, then come back and apply it here,” Martinez said.

Martinez herself sensed her calling to ministry during her teenage years.

“I’ve always worked at the church — my mom was very involved and I come from a family of nine, so our ‘going out’ was the church,” Martinez said. “I look at church as a way of life — I love church.”

It was during those teenage years that Martinez had the opportunity to attend a national youth event in Denver.

“That was the first time I had seen thousands of Presbyterian kids and I said to myself ‘Wow, there are a lot of us out there.’”

That’s an experience she hopes to give to the youth and the adults of Divine Savior as well.

“You have to go out — this is the opportunity that the Presbyterian Church has given to me,” Martinez said. “It’s changing the mindset of knowing that by learning from others you can come back and teach those in your own church.”

This idea of being equipped, sent out and then returning to pass on the learning permeates Martinez’s vision for herself and the church. It is through that cycle of fresh vision and understanding that the church becomes the church.

“When we do that we are opening new doors and new horizons for our church, giving of ourselves to somebody that might be in need,” she said. “If a church does not spend at least 50 percent of their budget doing mission, then are they really a church?” Martinez asked.

She remembered that her first mission trip — to Colombia — opened up compassion in her for those to whom she ministered.

“I wish that all of our congregation could go on a trip like that to experience the blessing that comes from being a blessing to others,” she said.

That doesn’t mean change, growth, or vision always comes easily.

“There is a lot of work to be done here,” Martinez said.

In the meantime, she asks for prayers for Divine Savior that the church might continue to be a transforming impact on its community and the lives of its members.

“How many other churches out there are like Divine Savior? With just a little hope and a little encouragement, they could let God use them?” she said.

And she continues to pray for that wall.

The Rev. Erin Dunigan is a free-lance writer and photographer in Newport Beach, Calif., and a newly ordained minister member of Los Ranchos Presbytery.