Reinventing The Ville
HIGHLANDVILLE, Missouri — Joe Contreras has enjoyed a multifarious career, working as a magazine editor for Assemblies of God World Missions, teaching high school English on the Mexican border, and serving in Spain as an AGWM missionary before his wife, Joy, received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, prompting them to leave the field.
Contreras then spent 21 years as senior pastor of First Assembly of God in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The bivocational Contreras taught in public schools most of those years. Joe and Joy met at Evangel University and have been married 46 years. Upon Joe’s retirement from teaching at 65, the couple moved to Springfield, Missouri, to be closer to their daughter, Angela Brooks.
“I thought perhaps I could still be preaching,” says Contreras. He grew up in a family of migrant workers who lived in Harlingen, Texas, near the Mexican border. At 5 years of age, he lay near death from pneumonia when workers holding a Pentecostal tent crusade knocked on the door of the family home and asked if anyone needed prayer. Prayers healed him, and his parents helped start a Hispanic Assemblies of God church in the city.
For the past four years, Contreras, now 69, has been lead pastor at Highlandville Assembly of God. Highlandville, located between the AG’s national office in Springfield and the tourist destination of Branson, has a population of around 1,000.
Contreras and a team from the small church recently wrapped up attending quarterly seminars of the Acts 2 Journey sponsored by AGTrust. The four two-day sessions, led by AG Assistant General Superintendent Alton Garrison, are designed to help local church leaders better impact their vicinity.
As a result, Contreras has amended his ministry philosophy of reach, teach, and launch.
“We launched, but we didn’t keep enough and the church got smaller,” Contreras says. “People go elsewhere for bigger opportunities. We’re switching visions to be a local church rather than a sending agency. We want to make a difference in the community.”
One way to accomplish that is a decision by the church to begin allocating $500 per semester to pay for delinquent lunch bills of pupils at the local elementary school.
Among other changes planned as a result of the Acts 2 Journey are starting a Friday or Saturday evening service for those who work on Sundays and adding more millennials to the worship team in an effort to reach younger residents.
The first Sunday in January, Highlandville Assembly of God will be rebranded The Ville Worship Center, in a nod to the church’s youth group, known as The Ville among local high school students.
Contreras is working on his doctorate of ministry through Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and he occasionally refers to Greek texts during his animated preaching. He also teaches homiletics and hermeneutics courses at the newly formed Hispanic Bible institute in the Southern Missouri District office.
Joy has had MS for 28 years and daughter Angela Brooks received the same diagnosis a couple of years ago, although she’s had symptoms much longer. Despite the disease forcing her to use a walker, the 42-year-old Brooks radiates joy.
“The Lord will renew my strength,” says Brooks, who teaches a children’s Sunday School class. She also is a firm believer in her father.
“He’s the most qualified man I’ve ever met,” Brooks says. “If a church doesn’t have enough people to keep the doors open, he’s the man you want. It’s hard to flap my dad.”
Monica A. Montalvo, 40, started going to the church about the time Contreras arrived — when almost no one under 60 attended. She started the youth group with her daughter Faith, now 14. Today 10 attend the youth gathering regularly.
“God called me into an area I never thought I would be,” says Montalvo, who works as Cloud collaboration analyst at the AG national office. “Because we are so small and don’t have a great amount of funds or manpower, we have to be creative. I appreciate the pastor’s flexibility.”
Montalvo, who is a volunteer at the church, obtained her ministerial credentials this summer.