Meet the New Hispanic Church of America
Published on 3/12/2013
By Warren Bird
Because Sergio De La Mora and his leaders understand the dynamics of both the "hood and the high rise," and they are developing a church culture that is empowering what they call the “Samaritan Generation,” Cornerstone Church in San Diego is becoming one of the nation’s best-known churches in reaching second-generation Hispanics.
Pastor Sergio, who founded Cornerstone in 1998 with his wife Georgina, along with seven other people, says, “We have doctors and ex-drug addicts in our church. We have ex-cons and lawyers in our church. Both groups have sought success that did not bring them true significance. I started the church because I had followed a similar path: I was a successful, second-generation Hispanic, but my success didn’t equate to a corresponding sense of significance.”
Sergio explains that many of the people being reached at Cornerstone are part of the Samaritan Generation—a reference to the man in Scripture who was an ethnic mix of Jew and Gentile, but who stopped to minister to a person in distress instead of passing by on the other side of the road.
“Being both American and Hispanic—I’m the Samaritan, just like many of the people in our church are the Samaritan,” says Sergio, who has written The Heart Revolution outlining principles that have shaped the megachurch. “We know what it’s like to be overlooked, rejected and left half-dead. And because of that reality, we are never going to forget where we came from. We’re going to get off our spiritual “high horse,” and use our resources to empower people.”
Spiritual Touch Points for the Samaritan Generation
Sergio points to multiple spiritual touch points that are making churches like Cornerstone successful in reaching the fastest-growing ethnic group in America—among them a deep desire to fill the void they’ve experienced as a result of traditional religions, changing family dynamics and relational brokenness.
“I am so thankful for the strong religious foundation my parents built into my life,” says Sergio. “But religion in itself is so sterile. And because I’m reaching an ethnic group that is so religious in its upbringing, I think the inability of religion to produce authentic relationship with Christ is the number one reason people have been drawn to our message at Cornerstone.”
Sergio adds that shifting and complex family issues are leading people to look for answers that “oftentimes cannot be found in traditional formats. Our church has learned to speak to those family dysfunctions in a way that has caused people to continue to bring more and more of their friends and family each week.”
Sergio also notes that the proliferation of social media has taken a toll on second-gen Hispanics as much as any other group. “I read an article recently that said Facebook has made us lonelier than it promised. It created a world that is information rich, but relationally poor. I believe social medias like this is only one of the major factors that have contributed to a sense of hopelessness and brokenness that is driving people to find us.”
Sound, Systems and Small Groups
Practically speaking, Sergio attributes Cornerstone’s rapid growth and health to following the model of the three quadrants of a pyramid found in the early church described in the Book of Acts: sound, systems and small group dynamics.
Sergio explains on the day of Pentecost, there was a distinct sound from heaven that drew the people. “They all heard a sound they could identify with because it was relevant to them, even though they were of different ethnicities,” he says, again pointing to similarities of the early church and the multi-ethnic mix found at Cornerstone. “What drew the first church to worship is what draws people still today. Everyone, regardless of language or ethnicity, desires to find a genuine relationship with God that speaks to them as an individual. The sound of our church has been able to attract a multi-ethnic group of people and transcend barriers commonly found in a Hispanic church.”
(Above) Cornerstone men’s ministry worshiping Jesus at a recent breakfast. The participants were encouraged to wear their favorite football team jersey.
Cornerstone’s celebration services reflect the sound of the top radio stations in its community, complete with a multimedia influence evident in the lights, video and “bass that rumbles the building.” Utilizing the principles of an “energy chart” similar to the model Disney Imagineers also use in their films, Cornerstone staff and leaders apply the same strategy “from curb to conversion.”
Church leaders track the energy level of an attendee experiences based on a 1-to-10 scale, following their initial steps at Cornerstone with the “Asphalt Angels” who welcome them in the parking lot, and every step in between leading them to the altar call, which the turning point where conversion begins. “Every component of the “Cornerstone Experience” is strategically designed so that every guest whether it be their first time or hundredth time with us, feels the love, acceptance, and sense of belonging that they simply have not experienced anywhere else,” Sergio expounds.
“My kids can be watching a Disney movie while I’m driving, and I respond emotionally without even seeing the screen because of the emotional journey Disney takes you on,” Sergio explains. “There are highs and lows, and they are strategic. The energy is managed so you’re constantly engaged. At Cornerstone, because we live, love and lead from our heart, we strive to do the same by engaging the heart of people from beginning to end.”
(Left) Cornerstone Covenant Classes (C3) is the discipleship process at Cornerstone Church of San Diego. This process is required of everyone who wants to become a leader at Cornerstone.
The middle quadrant of Cornerstone’s pyramid is its systems which develop the gifts and talents of people, primarily through the church’s discipleship process called Cornerstone Covenant Classes (C3). “Celebration services help people turn their hearts to Christ. Our C3 process helps them develop their God-given potential,” Sergio explains, “Our C3 process is designed to bring each person to a place where they will make a personal covenant with God to promote, provide, and protect the mission, vision, and culture of His House for the advancement of His Kingdom. Every class throughout the nine-month semester focuses on Spiritual Growth and Leadership Development. Through our system of C3, we are striving to equip our church by helping them discover three essentials: a strong Biblical foundation, values and purpose.”
Sergio attributes the sustained growth Cornerstone Church has continually experienced over the years to systems which have reduced the growth model he calls “swelling,” or fluctuated, inconsistent growth. “Our C3 process transfers Kingdom DNA into our church which creates a sense of ownership, belonging, and empowerment. When Kingdom DNA supersedes the social, economical, and cultural DNA of a person, they discover the spiritual skillset to win in every circumstance.”
Small group dynamics make up the top of Cornerstone’s pyramid. “The primary way we develop leaders is through small groups,” Sergio says. “Small group dynamics are the key, because that’s how we advance the Kingdom of God, first of all to our circles of influence, then to the nations abroad.” Sergio noted that churches started out of Cornerstone in California and Mexico all grew out of small groups.
“Small groups allow you to develop leaders that can advance the Kingdom of God,” he says. “Utilizing the same model as the beginning church found of Acts, these small groups create connection points, much like a family, where relationships are created, nurtured, and developed. Hispanic families are vibrant, loving, and warm with a strong loyalty and protection for one another. That same strength of family in our church has created an atmosphere where people believe they can grow in their relationship with God and personal leadership. For us, small group dynamics have become the incubator for leadership.”
Building God-given Potential
That pyramid structure has facilitated Cornerstone’s mission to “turn the hearts of youth and families to God and to each other,” and empower second-generation Hispanics to “develop their God-given potential in order to win in every area of their life and advance the kingdom of God.”.
“America was built on the backs of Hispanics—they are a driving force in America,” says Sergio. “But if all you do is access their hands, then you will miss the latent power in their hearts and minds.”
For that reason, Sergio believes it’s vital to build a culture of trust, love and respect that leads him to defer regularly to leaders at all levels, strategically “platform” developing leaders—especially up-and-coming Hispanic pastors—with up-front responsibilities, and initiate conversations with people at varying levels of involvement by asking key questions.
“I don’t care if you’ve been in my church for a week or for a decade, I’ll ask ’What series do you think I should preach?’ And I’ll ask that of a new believer,” he says. “I am daily asking big, strategic organizational questions from people who would normally not be able to access me or be brought into that conversation..”
That approach is helping a growing number of second-generation Hispanics develop their leadership identity, Sergio further explains.. “Start from a position of strength and confidence believe in their God-given potential, and do not marginalize them. Speak to their potential, not to their present circumstance. Hold them accountable for the standard of excellence you expect from everyone else in your church. Platform them, empower them and resource them—and watch what they can become.”
Are You a Second Gen Pastor Too?
Pastor Sergio is one of the participants in Leadership Network’s Large Church Hispanic Pastors Forum on October 9 in Chicago. If you too are (or know of) a Hispanic/Latino pastor leading a large church that’s reaching primarily a second generation population, please see http://www.leadnet.org/forum2013 and let us know of your interest.
Warren Bird, Ph.D., research director at Leadership Network, with background as pastor and seminary professor, is author or co-author of 24 books for ministry leaders including Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. His most recent title is Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller. Some of Warren’s recent online reports include “The Heartbeat of Rising Influence Churches,” “Pastors Who Are Shaping the Future” and “A New Decade of Megachurches.” Follow him on Twitter @warrenbird