When AG ministers George and Rocio Carballo planted Vive Houston in September 2019, they started it off right having gone through Church Multiplication Network training, utilizing Matching Funds, and having the bonus blessing of having their school debt paid off at a special service at the 2019 General Council. The also did something a bit unusual when they launched the church — they offered both English and Spanish services from the start.
“We’re located in inner-city Houston, just six or seven minutes from downtown Houston,” says George, who has also served as district youth director (DYD) for the Texas-Louisiana Hispanic district for the last 11 years. “There’s a significant English-speaking population here and an underserved Spanish-speaking population here as well.”
Vive (rhymes with “tithe”) Houston seemed to quickly find its niche. Meeting in a YMCA on Sunday mornings, by January 2020, 40 people were attending regularly, making the goal of 100 people in the congregation by September seem very achievable.
That dream, however, came to a screeching stop when, after the March 15th service, a two-week closure by the YMCA in response to COVID-19 was announced . . . and then extended indefinitely.
Most ministers have come to understand that for a church to be effective, ministry has to also reach outside the walls of the church. For the Carballos, what they soon found was their ministry was about to go beyond the “walls” of Houston.
The Carballos and their relatively youthful congregation are tech savvy. With the closure of their YMCA, Vive Houston moved to an online-only format. George says they invested in cameras and video switchers in order to give viewers a great online experience. He also offered his help to those ministers not familiar with live streaming.
And that’s when the phone calls began.
“I was getting one or two calls a day for weeks from pastors across the country who needed help going online,” George says. “We helped with everything from cameras and setting up online giving to building landing pages.”
As the Carballos and some of their team joined in helping other ministers establish their online presence, they also had others turning to them for help.
“We helped with livestreaming funerals and assisted local businesses too,” George says. “Our small church had 382,000 visits to our Facebook page last year and viewed 69,000 minutes of our online services over a six-month period.”
What the church team was surprised to find was that people from across the United States and throughout Latin America were tuning in for services.
“As we still offered both English and Spanish services, we started getting comments and Messages from people throughout Latin America — Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina — on a weekly basis,” George says.
Rocio says the discovery of the reach of their ministry was a great encouragement to her and George.
“Knowing that people are tuning in from different countries was just phenomenal,” she says. “It just let us know that God is still working.”
COVID SILVER LININGS
For seven months, the new Vive Houston was online only, with the Carbollos working to mentor and pour into the lives of their congregation.
Rocio, however, who also leads children’s ministries (Vive Kids) for the church, admits at first she wasn’t sure how to engage the children and minister to them.
“It was trial and error,” she says. “At first, I put out some kids ministries videos with a Bible lesson and some songs. But then I would follow-up with the kids. Did they watch? No.”
As the kids videos effort didn’t gain any traction, Rocio realized she needed to do something different, so decided to do a Zoom version of Vive Kids. Parents and kids alike approved of the idea.
“The kids were excited to see each other and I kept them engaged with activities throughout the lesson,” Rocio says. “We had three salvations the first month!” Now Rocio uses the Bible Engagement Project curriculum, Listen (kids version) as it’s digital design fits with her Zoom Vive Kids ministry.
Also, throughout the virtual-only attendance, relocation to a hotel, and finally back into their familiar YMCA setting, the congregation remained faithful, missions-minded givers.
“We continued to support our 10 missionaries and Speed the Light, we never scaled back — we even ramped it up some more,” George says. “We also partnered with AG missionary Dave Amsler in Guatemala to provide 500 meals to people who didn’t have food due to the pandemic in Guatemala.”
George notes that another unexpected blessing of COVID has been how it has brought their team together.
“Yes, there have been moments of discouragement and learning how to quickly adapt to change of plans,” he says, “but the advantage of this entire pandemic for us is it has strengthened our team — it has brought us together as a family.”
After months without access to the YMCA, finally the Carballos were notified that they could return to the YMCA in September 2020. It was a great return, with more people attending the return services than prior to COVID. The momentum had shifted — or so it seemed.
“Two days later we got a call — the YMCA had made a mistake; they weren’t permitted to allow group meetings,” George says. “A short time later, they let me know that we couldn’t meet there again until at least next year.”
Realizing that online fatigue was setting in, the Carballos and their team searched for a new location, contacting every place from schools to party halls, but nothing worked out. Finally, they rented a hotel meeting room, which became the church’s new home for the next three-and-a-half months. The in-person services were accompanied by live-streaming of the services for online viewers.
After months of working around COVID exposures and diagnoses among the team and congregation, finally real hope arrived on Feb. 7 when Vive Houston was allowed back into the YMCA. George says about 90% of the congregation made it out for a powerful celebration service.
If it wasn’t so serious, one might even laugh in disbelief at what happened next. On Feb. 14, attendance fell to a handful as people scrambled to make preparation for a winter storm and perhaps even see the improbable — snow in Houston! By the 21st, after days of no power, freezing temperatures, burst water pipes, and people without drinkable water, one would imagine for most Houstonians if the mercury never dipped below 50 degrees again, that would be just fine.
“It’s been an interesting year for us,” George says with a bit of a laugh, “but we’re still pushing through and I believe we have some good momentum started.”
Rocio agrees, “We not only see new families, but people are still being discipled and we’re seeing a lot of our members grows,” she says.
Having made it through so much while so young, it’s evident that God has helped Vive Houston grow roots deep in Him, ready to start fulfilling what’s sure to be a God-sized responsibility in ministry.