Multiplication Center

Spanish Not Required – Preconceived Ideas May Create Roadblocks for Reaching Hispanics

November 19, 2012

Published on 11/19/2012

By Warren Bird

Pastors at a Hispanic forum preparing to compare their outreach models with each other.

The following pattern thrived in yesteryear, but today it’s not the only option:

– A church’s leadership notices more and more Hispanics in their community.

– They hire a Spanish-speaking staff member or invite a Spanish-language church to use their facilities.

– The two congregations or ministries rarely intersect.

In recent years a profound shift has occurred in this American people group: the majority of U.S. Hispanics are also proficient in English according to the U.S. Census Bureau (this and other stats in this article can be found at www.leadnet.org/hispanic). Churches are beginning to recognize this emerging paradigm as a wonderful opportunity for seeing Latinos come to Christ in increasing numbers.

The transition, which plays out with most immigrant groups, is called the three generation hypothesis:

   1st-generation immigrants: Speak only the original language and adjust minimally to the new culture.

   2nd-generation immigrants: Know the original language and are also likely to learn and even prefer the new language, but straddle both cultures.

   3rd-generation immigrants: Speak the new language almost exclusively and cling to very few of the old-world customs beyond certain cultural foods.

Pastor Wilfredo “Choco” de Jesus welcome pastors to a Leadership Network forum he hosted at New Life Covenant Church in Chicago.

Implications for North American Churches

Today English-speaking Latinos far outweigh those who prefer Spanish as their primary language. While only 7% of first-generation U.S. Hispanics adopt English as their dominant language, 44% of 2nd-generation U.S. Hispanics predominantly speak English. An astounding 80% of third-generation Hispanics speak English as their first language—and they also adopt many of the norms that go with English culture.

The three-generation dynamic of language and culture has vast implications for the American church, and U.S. pastors in every city would do well to understand this rapidly expanding people group and what it will take to reach them for Christ—or risk turning them away.

In fact, church leaders may be unknowingly buying into some pre-conceived notions about ministry to American Hispanics that could actually hinder their efforts and throw up roadblocks to Hispanic people and culture.

Large Church forum participants (top row, from left) author Warren Bird, Josh Canales, Sergio De La Mora, Wilfredo “Choco” de Jesus, Steve Coronado, Gabby Mejia; (bottom row, from left) Marc Rivera, Joshua Rodriguez, Robert Miranda, Jaime Loya, Daniel de Leon.

One Ministry Model Does Not Fit All Hispanics

I’ve been admonished more than once by church leaders who are Hispanic: Don’t assume you can build one form of ministry to Hispanics—a Spanish-speaking service with Latino-flavored music, for instance—and expect them to come. American Hispanics are too diverse for that approach to be effective.

I know some fast-growing, Hispanic-led churches that do everything in Spanish; others are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The nation’s largest-attendance Assemblies of God church, New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, has five services in English and two in Spanish. Solid Rock Church in Corpus Christi, TX, offers seven English services, with simultaneous Spanish translation available in two of the services.

At a recent forum of Hispanic pastors who all doing services in English, every church had a slightly different approach.

Hispanics to U.S. Church: Don’t Stereotype Me

Any cultural group would say they want to be understood as individuals, and not “boxed in” by unexplored stereotypes of what “those people” are like. That is especially true of a people as rich in passion and culture as American Hispanics who have had very different integration experiences in the U.S.

“I don’t want to be put in a box,” says Pastor Wilfredo “Choco” de Jesus of New Life in Chicago. “Instead of getting Latinos into our church, we focus on making Latino cool to the world. If you’re multiethnic in your heart, it will come across in how you worship.”

“The way you platform the new Hispanic church is very important,” says Pastor Sergio De La Mora of Cornerstone Church in San Diego. “We are rebranding who we are as a people, especially as we’re becoming more of a majority in this country. Don’t limit us to ‘Hispanic Ministries.’ ”

Ministry Challenges Are Ministry Challenges—in All Cultures

Realize that if you want to effectively reach Hispanics in your community, you will experience the same ministry issues for those reaching mostly Anglos: How to effectively reach into a secular or even “religious” culture, how to assimilate newcomers and develop leaders, how to marshal enough resources for viable ministry, etc.

Pastors pray together at a recent Hispanic pastors forum, joined by the author.

“It’s not a white problem, a black problem, an Asian or Hispanic problem,” says Pastor Joshua Rodriguez of The Cityline Church in Jersey City, NJ. “It’s a people problem. Our challenge and madate is to make disciples of everyone.”

Reaching Beyond Their Culture

Contrary to what you might think, Hispanic-led churches are driven increasingly by a desire to reach far beyond their own people group.

“We don’t want to reach only Hispanics,” says Jamie Loya of Valley International Christian Church in San Benito, TX. “I don’t see my church as being Hispanic or myself neccesarily as a Hispanic pastor. I’m just a pastor who happens to be Hispanic. We just want to reach people.”

With Latinos on pace to comprise 25% of the U.S. population by 2020, some Hispanic leaders wonder if God may choose to use American Hispanics to turn the nation to Christ. Effectively reaching this people group could lead to powerful results on that scale, as some see it.

“We’re developing people who think like Anglos and minister like Latinos,” Choco says. “We have the greatest crossover potential. This unique positioning makes us wonder: Is God saying to the Latino community that we will be used to bring this nation to Him?”

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

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