For Layla de la Garza, worship music has been a way to draw nearer to Jesus and the Word.
Having grown up in a conservative traditional church, Layla was transformed by listening to Passion’s worship music as a teenager. Many years later, in 2015, she met CCM musician Christy Nockels, who became her mentor and invited her to participate in IF:Gathering. De la Garza has used her talents in this ministry to serve as a worship and teaching leader, multiplying IF’s reach among the international Spanish-speaking community.
Back in her hometown of Monterrey, a city of more than a million in northeastern Mexico, some still remain suspicious of contemporary worship, with its bright lights and big stages. But at VIDAIN church, where de la Garza and her husband, Diego, serve as part of the pastoral team, they’ve set out to show that high production value does not mean compromising on the truth of the gospel. She’s also the host of Notas con Dios, a podcast where she discusses finding God and hope in everyday life.
CT spoke with Layla about her vision for the church, the role of women in the church in Mexico, and her call to worship, ministry, and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. (This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.)
How would you describe the evangelical church in Mexico to people from other countries?
Latin Americans in general are very passionate. Relationships and building community are very important to us. Our relationships are very warm: We hug each other and create intimacy easily, even with people we have just met. These characteristics of Latin culture are very present in the evangelical church in Mexico.
It is beautiful because I believe we have the potential to be like the first church we see in the Book of Acts. We must see this potential and ask ourselves, How far can our Latin heart lead us to fight for the other, to love the other? How can we channel that passion and that desire to be together and to create community in the church? Because God himself is a community—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three in one in perfect community.
How can we take that need for community and convert it, for example, into daring to ask for help from other brothers and sisters? We see our Lord Jesus asking his disciples for help: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:38). We see that humility and that authenticity in Jesus, and I think it is something that the church in Mexico should look for.
As a woman, did you face difficulties in reaching a leadership position? How is women’s leadership perceived in the evangelical churches in Mexico?
I have been fortunate to be part of churches that value, honor, and uplift women. I have had the opportunity to learn, to ask questions, to teach, to create. When you surround yourself with people who have the same heart that Jesus has for women, you will inevitably experience respect and honor in a very special way. Sadly, this does not happen in many churches, and Mexico is no exception.
There is much room for growth in this area in Latin America. The church needs to see women, and we need to see ourselves, the way God sees us. I wish that as women we would believe and trust in that special and unique design that God created us with and [begin] investing our lives doing and being what we were called to do. I wish there were more men willing to see women the way Jesus sees them.
How did you feel God’s call to the ministry of praise and worship?
I am the youngest of five siblings, and I was born after my family had just gone through a major crisis and an encounter with the Lord that led them to decide to change and really follow Jesus. During my childhood my family was very much in love with Jesus. We prayed together around the bed every night. I also had a great example watching my parents reading and studying the Word together, and I grew up watching my siblings serving Jesus and seeking to really know Him.
My mom would always sing songs to God to me. I remember that I always connected with God through music and used to lock myself in my bedroom to sing to God because I didn’t want anyone to hear me. From the age of six, I was in the children’s choir and sang solos. As I grew older, I discovered the great power of praise and worship. And not only did I grow in my relationship with Jesus through music, but I learned that I can serve others through this ministry where I can declare God’s truths over the lives of the people who listen to me. I know I don’t have the best voice, but by positioning myself under God’s authority, even my weakness can serve his purposes.
How did you transition from the traditional worship style of your childhood church to the kind of worship you lead today?
In the Presbyterian church that I grew up in, I had a group of friends who felt a desire to praise and worship God in a different way. We wanted to be able to raise and clap our hands, to sing to God with a different kind of music, but that was not allowed in that church. There was a big gap between what our hearts desired and what we were able to experience. Eventually, the time came when a group of young people and our worship leader left that church and started another one. It was then that we began to experience on our own what it was like to sing to God freely. We would spend hours and hours praising God. If it was a morning meeting, we would stay up until the afternoon worshiping God. I was 21 at the time, and it was a period that transformed me deeply.
It is important to clarify that I am very grateful to that Presbyterian church, because I had the opportunity to be taught in the Word of God and to sing hymns that were very close to the Word of God. Hymns are sung theology. But I am also grateful for the freedom we have now to experience these intimate moments with God where I can really connect my spirit with his Spirit. It is very difficult to accomplish this when there is no freedom.
I love the idea that hymns are sung theology. Do you think there is a need today for Christian music that is better anchored in Scripture?
I think so. It is very important that we understand basic biblical concepts about who God is and who we are in him. Truths don’t depend on our moods or our feelings. I have heard songs that say “God, please don’t let me go,” when as believers we should know that he never lets us go. Jesus said, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Praise has a unique power. The moment our lips begin to speak aloud or sing, something happens in our spirits. That is why it is important to sing the Word, because it declares the truth and reminds us of the Truth. The Enemy bombards us with lies, and we need to replace those lies with the truth. God’s Word is the truth.
One thing I love about leading worship is being able to stand behind the Cross and minister through the authority God gives us. First Peter 2:9–10 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” So when I lead worship, I like to remember that we are priests of God and that we can sing over the people the truth about God. I position myself in an attitude of service to the people and simply let the Spirit of God do what music can’t do. When we understand our identity as priests of God, we no longer desire to sing anything that is not according to the Scriptures. The only thing we long for is to exalt Jesus.
The church that was formed by the youth group you were talking about—is it the same church where you currently serve?
No. But it was in that process that the Lord began to work in a very special way in my life. I remember the question constantly running through my head: This passion I feel for Jesus—how can I share it with other people? Then I met the man who is now my husband. He invited me to lead worship at a new church, and I loved his vision. He was dreaming of a church for the unchurched, for those who don’t like church: a church for outsiders.
He explained something to me that I hadn’t seen before. Churches naturally gravitate toward doing things for insiders, for those who already know Jesus or are active members of the church. Many times, we forget the people who don’t yet know Jesus. He challenged me not to live with an annual evangelism event but to live our lives taking the gospel to the unbelievers and to form a church with its eyes open to see that one who is coming for the first time. What about the one who is considering for the first time believing in God? What about the one who doesn’t know the Word and is wondering if God really exists or whether he should take his life tonight? My now husband and I started talking about that a lot, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who are not yet part of the church. And when God gave me that vision, I couldn’t turn back.
It can almost seem like our vision is crazy. There are those who go to our church and say, “It’s a crazy church. They probably don’t preach the Word because they have lights; they have screens.” If someone goes to our church for the first time, it may seem very superficial. Now, in churches in the United States, it is more common to have a good audio system, screens, lights, and so on. However, many churches in Mexico still don’t have that. So, the use of the most modern technology can confuse many and lead them to say that we are “watering down the Word of God.”
It is true that in certain circles some have a preconceived idea that a “modern” church that uses lights in the worship service does not have a solid biblical foundation. What would you say about this? What does your church do to balance both sides?
Look, we believe that nothing has to make people uncomfortable when they come to church except the gospel: that we are sinners who need to repent and need a Savior; that this Savior is Jesus, who is God himself and became a man to give his life for us; and that he is alive today. Anything else is peripheral; in everything else that surrounds that foundation of our faith, our goal is to remove as many obstacles as possible for people to come to Christ.
And those obstacles can be small or large. We pay attention to even the smallest details: the way we greet people at the door of the church, the temperature of the air conditioning, the lights. We even understand that in Sunday services we cannot sing for hours, because that is something for mature believers. Someone who doesn’t believe in God can’t be on his feet for a long time singing songs he has never heard before, to a God he possibly doesn’t even believe in yet. We want to get out of our comfort zone so that others can feel comfortable.
Church can be enjoyable, and many people have never had that experience. My dad used to tell me, “It was unimaginable that we could laugh or clap in church! At our church there was a plaque on the altar that said, ‘Let all the earth keep silence before Him.’ So, we didn’t even talk!” Now that my dad is with us, he tells me that he enjoys this freedom very much. So, we think there are definitely things that can add up to create irresistible environments where people can really connect with God. We try to remove as many obstacles as possible so that people can come closer with confidence.
We want to put ourselves in the place of others and offer a church that paves the way for many to come to Jesus. We want to think more about others and not just those at home. Can you imagine how much it is worth it if a soul is being saved?