WACO—Palpable energy characterizes worship services during Congreso—an annual gathering of Hispanic Texas Baptist teenagers and young adults—as adrenaline-pumping, ground-shaking music echoes through an arena and students raise their hands and voices to the sky.
However, the event’s most important moments happen in near silence when each student considers his or her relationship with God. In quiet prayerful moments, tears fall and lives are changed.
“We just let the Spirit take over the students and the place,” said Frank Palos, director of Texas Baptists’ Hispanic evangelism office. “We ask the music guys to get it going and then let the students take a moment to stop and pray and think and reflect.”
That’s the heart of Congreso, made possible gifts to missions through the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program that support the Hispanic evangelism office, assistance from Baylor University and support from Hispanic Baptist churches who send their youth to the gathering.
At least 625 students were “fearless”—building on Congreso’s theme—as they publicly demonstrated they had made a decision Christ the weekend leading up to Easter.
Youth groups embraced new believers. Mothers and fathers prayed with their children. Hurts were healed. Lives started fresh.
“Be fearless in your witness,” Palos said of the message of Congreso. “Be fearless in your love. Be fearless in your service. Don’t say, ‘I don’t have it.’ Don’t worry about it. God has it for you. Don’t say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ God has the words.”
Students received the message loud and clear, church leaders said.
“We had a great experience,” reported Benito Villarreal Jr., youth minister at Genesis Church in Hereford. “This is our third year in a row to take a group down there. Each time, we get a little closer as a group and to the Lord.”
The experience helps students understand a vast group of other young people also are following God daily, said Jorge Zapata, pastor of New Wine Church in Harlingen. Each year, at least one member of the congregation’s youth group returns from Congreso feeling called to ministry.
“Congreso is one of the areas where we see the movement of God in their lives,” he said. “They see other kids like them, and they see God moving in their lives.”
For many students in the crowd, Congreso is the culmination of a year of planning, praying and preparing.
As soon as one Congreso ends, young people begin looking forward to the next one. They pray about going, attend regional Congreso rallies and participate in fund-raising efforts. They talk to their friends and classmates about Congreso and invite them to attend.
They choose to be fearless at their schools and in their communities, Palos said. When their friends arrive at Congreso, God does the rest.
That approach is similar to the one a teacher took regarding Afshin Ziafat, who was born in Iran to Muslim parents and came to the United States during the Iran hostage crisis. Hostilities toward Iranians were high in United States, but one person gave him a Bible.
“One teacher decided to be fearless,” Ziafat noted during a Congreso worship session. “She said: ‘I don’t care that he’s from Iran. I’m going to love him.’”
Ten years later, he began reading that Bible secretly, sometimes hidden beneath his bed sheets so his parents wouldn’t know.
As a result of reading Scripture and visiting with friends, Ziafat committed his life to Christ and felt called to ministry. His parents later disowned him because of his new faith.
Although his parents didn’t support him, God did, Ziafat said. God guided him to people who helped him go to seminary and mentored him as he grew in his faith. Today, he is the lead pastor of Providence Church in Frisco and regularly takes trips to the Middle East, where he trains Iranian pastors.
Following Christ carries a cost, Ziafat reminded young people at Congreso. Doing what Christ demands sometimes leads to mocking, ridicule and worse. Christ’s life exemplifies the cost of following God. Yet that cost pales in comparison to the rewards.
“There’s a cost to following him, to laying your life down for him—and it’s worth it,” Ziafat said.
Juan Valenzuela, pastor of Community Bible Church in San Antonio, also spoke during Congreso. Next year, Congreso will celebrate its 50th anniversary. For more information, click here.