José María Silvestri, who founded the Iglesia Evangélica Misionera Argentina (IEMA) and promoted a small-group model for Christian growth in Latin America, died on September 23. The 73-year-old church leader had contracted the new coronavirus.
Silvestri and his wife, Mabel, founded IEMA (the Argentine Evangelical Missionary Church) in 1984. The church put an emphasis on grupos de crecimiento (“growth groups”): intimate weekly gatherings of about five people, which allowed for intense and sometimes transformative discipleship.
“It is in the growth group where people affirm their identity as children of God,” Silvestri wrote, “where they have a closer authority figure, the teacher whose authority was delegated by the pastors, and who can truly evaluate their spiritual growth.”
Today, the denomination has more than 2,000 ministers inside and outside Argentina. IEMA also has a radio station, a TV channel, several schools, and a medical clinic.
“He loved everything God allowed him to do,” said Andres Christian Scott, a childhood friend who became his right-hand man in church leadership. “Everything was special to him and required his full attention and effort. Pastor Silvestri had an outstanding work ethic and didn’t have a conversation topic that was not related to spreading the gospel by any means possible.”
Silvestri was born in 1947 in Rosario, the third-most populous city in the country. He began attending a Protestant church at age 12 and went into ministry in the Salvation Army. He was passionate about meeting not only the spiritual needs but the social and physical needs of his community.
IEMA’s first service was humble: A group of 25 met in Silvestri’s parents’ house. But the intimate gathering soon became a key part of IEMA’s ministry model. The growth groups provided extensive support for members who wanted to grow in their faith. Many people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction found the groups empowered them to change their lives.
Individual spiritual growth led to church growth, too.
“Back in the ’80s, the growth of the congregation was exponential. Entire families were reached through small home groups, and this had an impact on the city,” wrote Rubén Proietti, president of Alianza Cristiana de Iglesias Evangélicas de la República Argentina (The Alliance of Evangelical Churches of the Republic of Argentina). “The work with youth groups was remarkable. Lots of ‘metalheads’ quit drug addiction and later became church leaders.”
Silvestri’s small-group ministry never gained the same popularity as those of some of his contemporaries, such as Korean pastor David Yonggi Cho and Colombian pastor César Castellanos. But he was one of the main proponents of small-group discipleship in Argentina and the growth groups had a lasting impact on the thousands of people who joined them, said Juan Hector Herrera, a fellow pastor and frequent collaborator.
“He had like a little over 3,000 groups in the country [and] those groups continue to work in other countries as well,” said Herrera. “If you are a member of his congregation here in Argentina, in El Rosario, and you move to the United States, you don’t leave Pastor Silvestri’s church. In the new home that you have in the United States, you continue there with the ‘growth group’ and you start new ministries there.”
Despite the growth of the church and the success of the TV station—expanding to reach 10.5 million homes in 17 countries—Silvestri still seemed, in some ways, like any other minister. His greatest joy, according to his friend Scott, was to walk down the aisle in a church auditorium and greet as many people as possible. Silvestri leaves behind Mabel, whom he married at age 19, as well as 4 children, 17 grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren.