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Small Churches, Big Impact

A small group from Amigos de Jesús Covenant Church

When Cesar Buitrago heard God calling him to plant a church, he thought he had a clear picture of what that would look like. But three years later, the church looks nothing like he imagined it.

He thought it would be big.

He thought it would be local.

He thought it would be in person.

Instead, the church is composed of many small groups of three people. It has an international reach. And worship happens in a hybrid format, both virtual and in-person.

Amigos de Jesús Covenant Church, located in Patterson, California, was established in early 2019. It wasn’t the first church Cesar and his wife, Patty, had planted, so they were optimistic.

They rented a hotel, their services were experiencing energy and life. But the momentum disappeared with Covid. They lost people, and they felt forced to reconsider their efforts.

In desperation, Cesar reached out to a friend. They began to pray together on the phone every day for 30 minutes. “We started with Ephesians,” Cesar explains. “I would read one verse or two, he would read one, we would pray over the Scriptures, and then apply them to our lives. At the end of the week, I felt alive and more encouraged!”

That prayer relationship changed the whole trajectory of their church.

Act Where God Is Working

“I see God moving, and I want to join,” explains Cesar. He looks for clues of where he sees the energy of God stirring. “God provides, and you start moving where the Lord is leading.”

After a week of praying with his friend, Cesar wanted to share the encouragement with others. So he started another group. Cesar recalls, “The Lord impressed upon me, ‘I want you to start it at a time that people can meet.’”

That message was not exactly music to Cesar’s ears. The Buitragos serve in a commuting community, and residents drive extensive distances to work in the Bay Area. “I’m a good sleeper!” admits Cesar. But the call was clear. Members wake up at 4 a.m. to head to work. Their first prayer group began at 6:30 a.m., and other groups started earlier and earlier, one at 6 a.m., the next one at 5.

Despite the early hours, the prayer groups began to take root and multiplying. Members invited friends, neighbors, even relatives who lived in other countries. They began groups in Spanish and English.

Try and See

The Buitragos try out ideas and then adjust, rather than making long-term plans.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know people would be interested in meeting on a daily basis for thirty minutes,” says Cesar. “But they are!”

“Being a disciple of Jesus means we’re always learning,” he says. He sees challenges as “creativity in constraints.”

Patty shares her husband’s work ethic. While he started men’s groups, Patty began women’s prayer groups. At one point she was leading seven groups a day. Some attendees are young in their faith, and the time serves as formational discipleship.

“One group had two ladies who were not part of the church and were just beginning in their faith,” says Patty. “The Spirit is so versatile. These ladies just learned right away how to pray. They prayed whatever was in their hearts. They started to invite their own relatives to join us!”

As people come to Christ in the prayer groups, the Buitragos encourage them to join a local church.

The experimental approach has allowed the church to grow not only spiritually but also numerically. “We began to combine groups and they became house meetings,” says Cesar. Those groups then become the seeds of new churches.

Some of the prayer groups meet in person. The church had a gathering in the park that celebrated birthdays, and people shared what God was doing in the prayer groups.

“I learn through trial and error,” says Cesar, “trying new things, not being afraid.” While the world has changed, he says, “The principles don‘t change, but the methodology has to change.” Although planting a church has not gone the way he expected, “The principle is that we love Jesus and we build spiritual community. I’m willing to try new methodologies if they attract people to Jesus and to one another.”

Embrace the Small

Sometimes Cesar admits to being baffled by the twists and turns of their journey. He jokes that he is the planter of the smallest churches in the world. But he remains confident in his calling.

His vision was birthed 25 years ago when he sensed God telling him, “Pastor Cho [South Korean pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church] has planted the largest church in the world, but I want you to plant the smallest.” Cesar protested. “I was upset, saying ‘Lord, I want a big church!’”

But now he understands. “Sometimes, we underestimate the power of smallness and the one-on-one.” Jesus chose a small group of disciples and spent time with people others felt were a waste. Cesar now delights in focusing on the small. “These are the smallest churches; they are two to three people.”

He is aware of the danger of comparison. Pastors feel pressured to be successful but, he says, perhaps we need to redefine success to align with God’s view. “Success is not having a big church or a building. Success is having a life transformed by the power of Jesus.”

The power of small applies to raising leaders, one person at a time. The groups follow a simple structure of prayer, Scripture reading, and listening, and everybody takes a turn leading. Cesar’s practice is to teach everyone to lead the first week they join. “If you join a group, you’ll be leading in two days because it’s so simple.”

The church has created an app and a prayer manual. They created a website where groups can log in. These tools make it easier for the leaders.

He has found that anyone who can care for two to three others and invite their friends can serve as a leader. Being outward-focused helps them overcome their fear of praying; the transformative experiences in the prayer groups serve as a natural impetus for evangelism.

One 80-year-old member had never shared the gospel in 40 years of being in the church. He felt that God did not speak to him. But after joining a prayer group, he says his life was transformed. “Every day, he says, ‘I heard God; God spoke to me!’” Cesar says. The man’s excitement became contagious. “He took his car to the mechanic, shared his faith, and said, ‘Can I pray for you?’”

Some groups have come together to provide funds for a woman without money to buy food. The church collaborates with other churches to run a pantry that serves about 100 people weekly. The impact of these groups has reached around the world, and now a Ugandan resident connected to the church has begun 16 prayer groups with children in his country.

The Buitragos celebrate God’s presence in the groups, even while marveling at the irony of wanting to plant a large church and ending up with the smallest churches. Although their plans were interrupted, Cesar recognizes it all has been redirection from the Lord. He reflects, “Peter, John, and James experienced closeness with Jesus. Slowly, he revealed himself to them. That’s exactly what Jesus is doing with us.”

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