Latin America

The primary focus of our Latin America missions team is Academia Cristo. Academia Cristo is a multi-faceted effort which seeks to 1) make disciples in Latin America by sharing the message of God’s grace with as many people as possible, 2) identify and train potential leaders, and 3) encourage those leaders to make disciples who plant churches. The Latin America missions team uses social media to promote the Academia Cristo mobile app and website throughout Latin America.

The Academia Cristo training program is divided into three tiers:

  1. The mobile app: The Academia Cristo app offers four self-led courses at the Bible Information Class level of study. The last course in this tier focuses on training students to share what they’ve learned with others. Students must complete all four courses before they are able to sign up for live classes.
  2. Discipleship 1: Students work through 13 Bible Institute level classes that are taught live online by a WELS missionary or national partner. At this level, a large emphasis is placed on gathering a group of people to share the gospel message. The goal is that students who finish Discipleship 1 are in doctrinal agreement with WELS.
  3. Discipleship 2: Students who complete the Discipleship 1 tier then move onto Discipleship 2 where they take advanced Bible institute level classes, still taught live online by a WELS missionary or national partner. Students at this level are actively sharing the gospel message with a group of people and are in doctrinal agreement with WELS. They are also matched with a WELS missionary or national partner mission counselor and receive face-to-face visits.

Fast Facts

  • 1.8 million followers on Facebook
  • Academia Cristo manages over 20 million engagements every month through their various communication platforms
  • 900,000+ people have downloaded the Academia Cristo mobile app that launched in February 2020
  • 1,936+ people have completed the self-led courses on the mobile app since March 2020 and are signed up for live courses
  • 630+ people have completed one live course since March 2020 with a WELS missionary or national partner
  • 79 students in the Academia Cristo program have gone through a doctrinal agreement process designed for leaders and church planters
  • There are 21 Academia Cristo leaders who have taken a group through at least 7 lessons of a two-year program of worship and study

Latest videos

Do you have Spanish-speaking family members or friends who would be interested in learning more about the program? Share the Spanish version of the Academia Cristo video from their YouTube page

Support mission work in Latin America. Your gift will support online outreach through Academia Cristo, church planting, and the sister synods that work closely with the Latin America missions team. Select “Latin America Special Projects” (for a more general gift) or a specific Latin American country or ministry you’d like to support from the drop-down menu.

Meet the Missionaries

Missionary Andrew Johnston is currently called as a missionary on the Latin American mission team. The team’s primary work is Academia Cristo, an online training program that trains many people in every country in Latin America so that they can reach many more with the gospel. Missionary Johnston teaches online courses and follows up with those who have advanced in the courses and are planting churches. In addition to this work, he is the team integrator, which means that he organizes the team to make sure that, with God’s help, the team takes advantage of the many opportunities God is giving us.

Missionary Johnston has been on the Latin America mission team since 2016. He began this work by being based in the city of Leon, Mexico, for three years before moving to Doral, Fla. Prior to this, Missionary Johnston served for ten years on the island of Antigua as pastor/missionary as well as principal and administrator of the school. Before graduating Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2006, he was a vicar in Torreon, Mexico, for a year and served for eight months as an English teacher in the Dominican Republic.

Missionary Johnston has been married to his wife, Cindy, since 2002. They have five children: three girls and two boys. The oldest four were born while they lived and served on the island of Antigua. The last one was born during their time in Mexico. The Johnston family currently lives in Doral, Fla., just outside of Miami.

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Missionary Matt Behmer serves on the Latin America mission team. In this role, he teaches online classes and makes on-the-ground visits to Academia Cristo students. Missionary Behmer works especially with the Latin America mission team’s multiplication efforts. The missionaries work to identify students who love Biblical truth and want to share that truth with others. Then, they meet one-on-one with those students to help them gather a group around God’s Word. The long-term goal is that these group multiply so that many more throughout Latin America can hear the good news of eternal life through Christ.

Prior to serving on the Latin America mission team, Missionary Behmer served as a pastor in Los Angeles, Calif., in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS). He also served on the ELS’s Board for World Outreach. He has taught English in Lima, Peru, and participated in an ethnographic research project on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. He has a Master of Divinity from Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Global Technology and Development from the University of Arizona.

Missionary Behmer is married to Elizabeth, and they have been blessed with three children: Emmalyn (Emma) who is six, Nora who is four, and Raymond who is one. The Behmer family lives in Quito, Ecuador. Emma and Nora love their school in Quito, are involved in some extracurricular activities, and can often be found playing with their neighbors. The Behmer family is grateful to God and to WELS for the opportunity to live and serve in South America!

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Missionary Nathan Schulte has lived in Quito, Ecuador, for almost four years. He lived in Mexico for 10 months while the Latin America mission team was preparing to launch a new mission location in Ecuador. Missionary Schulte graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2017 and was assigned to serve the Latin American mission team. He previously served as a vicar at Grace Lutheran Church in Falls Church, Va.

Missionary Schulte’s work is divided into three categories. He teaches classes online to students who are learning and preparing to start groups and congregations where they live, mentors advanced students who have taken steps to start groups, and also serves as the Academic Dean of Academia Cristo to make sure students are getting the classes they need and are signing up regularly for them.

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Missionary Elise Gross serves on the Latin America mission team as the Director of Women’s Ministries for Academia Cristo, an online training program that equips people throughout Latin America to reach others in their own communities with the gospel. Elise teaches online courses, advises women Christian leaders, and is overseeing the development of a Women’s Ministry in Latin America together with the Academia Cristo multiplication team.

Elise joined the Latin America mission team in 2021. Previously she served with Kingdom Workers in Linares, Chile, from 2015-2021. Prior to that, she taught at St. Marcus Lutheran School and Hope High School in Milwaukee, Wis., for a combined four years after graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran College with degrees in Secondary Education, History, and Social Sciences.

Elise has been married to her husband, Jon, since 2012. Jon currently serves as the Multi-Language Productions Producer with the Latin America mission team. The Gross’ have one child, Moses, and recently moved to Quito, Ecuador, to join the rest of the Latin America mission team that resides there.

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Missionary Abe Degner is a member of the Latin America mission team. He and Missionary Joel Sutton are stationed in Asunción, Paraguay. Before joining the Latin America team, Missionary Degner served as a tutor at Martin Luther College from 2010-2012, where he taught Old Testament classes. He was then called to serve as pastor of Christ the Lord/Cristo el Señor, a bilingual church in Houston, Tex., where he served for seven years. He accepted the call to serve as Latin American missionary in 2019 and has been living in Asunción ever since.

Missionary Degner serves on the team as a multiplication missionary. He teaches online classes in Academia Cristo but focuses especially on counseling students who are trying to plant churches. He travels a lot to meet with those students and their groups, especially students in southern South America (Perú, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay).

Missionary Degner is the son of Charles and Linda Degner and has five siblings. He is single but loves being a good uncle to his seven nieces and nephews. In his free time, Abe enjoys outdoor sports like hiking, hunting, and fishing. He also likes to experiment with cooking and is a regular runner.

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Since December 2015, Missionary Sutton has worked with the WELS Latin America mission team as a missionary, and he now also serves as Theological Director of Academia Cristo. Previously, Missionary Sutton served for over seven years on the Native American mission field in Arizona.

Missionary Sutton and his wife, Priscila, have three boys: Mateo, Moises and Abram. After four years in central Mexico, the Suttons moved to Asunción, Paraguay, in December 2019.

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Missionary Carl Leyrer was the first vicar to Puerto Rico in 1971. It was there that he met his wife, Connie Rodriguez. They have three grown children: Synia who works for the special forces, Synara who runs her own business, and Carlos who is a pastor and president of Divine Savior Ministries headquartered in Doral, Fla. They also have six grandchildren.

From Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Missionary Leyrer was assigned to start a Hispanic ministry in Corpus Christi, Tex. From there, he served overseas in Bogota, Colombia. Upon return, he taught for three years before accepting a call to Miami to establish a Hispanic ministry. Missionary Leyrer retired from Divine Savior in Doral, Fla., after 20 years. Upon retirement, he began working part-time for Multi-Language Productions and worked with the Latin America mission team on the development of the Academia Cristo program. After three years of part-time work with Academia Cristo, he was called to full-time work as pilot project director for Hispanic outreach in the United States. As part of this pilot project, they will apply what they have learned in Latin America to the U.S. in order to attract and educate people in God’s Word and prepare men and women for specific areas of leadership.

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Missionary Luke Beilke has been married to Rachel (Steinbrenner) for 11 years. They have two children, Mabel (5) and Otis (3).

Missionary Beilke’s current call is to serve as Dean of Students for Academia Cristo. Academia Cristo is an online academy that teaches God’s Word to adult students throughout Latin America. As the students learn more about God’s Word, they are encouraged to start their own Bible studies and share God’s Word with family and friends. It is through this effort and the work of the Holy Spirit that we seek to plant groups of believers (churches) throughout Latin America. Missionary Beilke’s call covers three areas: 1) teaching Bible classes online, 2) mentoring leaders throughout Latin America and encouraging them as they start their own Bible study groups, and 3) taking care of the Academia Cristo student body by building connections with the students and making sure students have mentors and are progressing through classes.

The Beilke family arrived in Quito, Ecuador, after serving in various locations over the last 11 years. They spent their first year of marriage teaching English at a WELS-affiliated school in Bogotá, Colombia. He was then assigned to teach at St. Marcus in Milwaukee, Wis., and served there for 3 ½ years. While there, Rachel subbed at Luther Preparatory School, served as a teacher’s assistant at Risen Savior, and then was the English as a Second Language (ESL) Director at Christ-St. Peter. From Milwaukee, Missionary Beilke took a call to be principal and teacher at Ascension in Sarasota, Fla., and they were blessed to spend seven years serving there. Rachel served in various capacities at Ascension over the years including serving as a teacher, school music coordinator, and in church music. Both of their children were born in Florida, and they are now transitioning to life in Quito.

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Missionary Luis Acosta was born in Colombia and lived there for nine years before his family moved to Venezuela. He lived in Venezuela for 32 years and met his wife Carolina at high school in Venezuela. They were married in December 2008 and moved to Miami, Fla., in January 2009. Missionary Acosta used to work in the advertising/marketing industry as a market manager for Jack Daniel’s across several countries in Latin America. In Miami he was connected with WELS through Pastor Carl Leyrer as he was starting the mission that would become Divine Savior Lutheran Church in Doral, Fla.

In 2003, Missionary Acosta completed the Congregational Assistant program studies and began his pastoral training trough Cristo Palabra de Vida, a program through the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI). He served at Divine Savior from 2003 to 2007 as Staff Minister and in 2007 moved with his family to Milwaukee, Wis., to enroll at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.

From 2007-2011, he served as Deacon at Christ Lutheran Church in Milwaukee and served as Vicar at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Milwaukee from 2011-2012. He graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2013 and was assigned to Risen Savior Lutheran Church to lead their Hispanic ministry. Missionary Acosta served at Risen Savior, a multicultural congregation, for nine years. He took the call to serve the northern portion of Latin America as a Multiplication Missionary for the Latin America mission team in 2022. In his current call he provides theological training and support to people that are connected to WELS through Academia Cristo and want to establish house churches.

His wife Carolina has a degree in medicine from Venezuela and a PhD in psychiatry. She currently works for Christian Family Solutions as a Mental Health Counselor. They have been blessed with two children. Andrea graduated from Luther Preparatory School in Watertown, Wis., in 2022 and enrolled in Wisconsin Lutheran College’s pre-med program. She loves to dance and share her faith. Caleb is a sophomore at Luther Preparatory School and loves to play basketball and football.

Academia Cristo students

This map shows current Academia Cristo students who are currently taking Bible Institute level classes with a WELS missionary or national partner.

1-2 courses = Gray
3-4 courses = Blue
5-6 courses = Green
7-8 courses = Yellow

9-10 courses= Orange
11-12 courses = Red
13+ courses = Violet

Get the latest resources and materials from Latin America at

Praying for Latin America

Please pray for the efforts of Academia Cristo, that students continue to download the app, enroll in live classes, and take steps to plant groups. Pray for missionaries and national partners as they work one-on-one with group leaders. Pray for group leaders as they share God’s Word with others.  

WELS Missions also partners with sister synods and independent churches throughout Peru and Chile. Synods in both of these countries are directly supported by our mission partners in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) and are thereby in fellowship with WELS through the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC), a worldwide fellowship of confessional Lutherans. Visit ELS world outreach page to learn more about work in Peru and Chile. To learn more about the CELC and other mission partners, visit

Mission Partners


Browse through and share pictures of Latin America, taken by WELS missionaries and national workers.