Latinos Differ On The Role Language, Culture Should Play In Church
As the ranks of Hispanic Pentecostals in the United States continue to swell, tensions have emerged over what is the best path for the minority group. Growing congregations that have adopted new methods to effectively reach the population often have left behind some of the traditions of the past, causing friction with some older foreign-born worshippers and their native-born offspring.
“There is a bit of disparity between the first generation and second and third generations,” says Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Sacramento, Calif. “It’s language, it’s culture, it’s generational, it’s educational, it’s economy. But there is nothing egregious enough to threaten the long-term sustainability of the Hispanic church movement.”
The divide is no more apparent than in language itself. Historically, Hispanic congregations in the United States have conducted services in Spanish. But in the 21st century, more and more thriving Hispanic Assemblies of God churches, including megachurches, are worshipping in English.
“The challenge is they want to keep the culture alive, yet they don’t think the methods — including language — are sacred,” says Efraim Espinoza, director of the AG Office of Hispanic Relations. “Churches are flourishing because they change.”
Daniel A. Rodriguez, 57-year-old author of A Future for the Latino Church
, says AG pastors Wilfredo de Jesús of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago and Isaac Canales of Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Carson, Calif., are among those who “lead their respective churches through moments of transition that successfully transformed Spanish-only churches into multigenerational, multilingual congregations where foreign-born Latinos who speak little or no English feel at ease and where native-born Latinos who speak little or no Spanish also feel welcomed and accepted.”
For the past dozen years, De Jesús has been senior pastor of New Life in Chicago, a span in which attendance has grown from 120 to 13,000. Before he agreed to assume the pastorate of the church where he accepted Christ as Savior as a 14-year-old boy, De Jesús told the elder board of changes he wanted to implement. For one, he said the church must incorporate English into all its programs and services to reach those in the community who primarily spoke English. For another, the church would be renamed New Life Covenant Church from the existing Templo Cristiano Palestina. Today, the 47-year-old De Jesús, a second-generation Puerto Rican, preaches five services on Sundays, four of them in English.
“The fears of older, Spanish-dominant members were addressed patiently, respectfully and directly,” Rodriguez writes in his book.
Another Hispanic minister that has done a masterful job of blending generations is Rubén A. Guajardo Jr., who 13 years ago took over as senior pastor of an Albuquerque, N.M., Assemblies of God congregation that his father had led.
Guajardo quickly renamed the church Casa del Rey and its English counterpart the King’s House to replace Aposento Alto (Upper Room). Guajardo notes that younger unchurched Hispanics could grasp the meaning of Casa del Rey easier than Aposento Alto.
Guajardo, now 51, didn’t want to reach out to younger native-born Latinos while excluding older Spanish-speaking immigrants that had settled in the area. He focused on keeping families together.
“A unique task for the church is to be able to meet the spiritual and social needs of different generations,” Guajardo told Pentecostal Evangel
. “A key component is understanding the life, culture and genealogies of Hispanics.”
The King’s House is meeting those needs, as 3,000 people attend church on a typical Sunday. Guajardo preaches at one contemporary English and two contemporary Spanish services. His 78-year-old father, Rubén A. Guajardo Sr., leads a traditional Spanish service Sunday afternoons. His 27-year-old son, Rubén A. Guajardo III, oversees a Sunday night English-speaking service geared to young adults. Once a month, Rubén A. Guajardo Jr. speaks at all five services.
“Even though a grandfather and grandson may be separated by language, culture and generations, they still can come to the same church and connect through events and activities,” Guajardo says. “We’ve made specific decisions on music, service time and messages to keep families a part of the fellowship, even if they are not worshipping at the same time.”
Although Albuquerque is 43 percent Hispanic — and nearly two-thirds of them speak Spanish in the home — Guajardo realized that third-generation Latinos often felt disconnected from the spiritual experiences of their elders. Guajardo wanted to make sure younger Hispanics knew they didn’t have to speak Spanish or honor parts of culture unimportant to them in order to feel welcome at church.
Guajardo has the additional challenge of trying to minister to natives from a dozen Central and South American countries.
“They may all speak the same language, but their cultures are extremely different,” Guajardo says.
Once inside a Hispanic service, the language differences are apparent, and it’s not just whether Spanish or English is being spoken. It’s also the language of technology — from PowerPoint to social networking.
“The greatest change is that the younger generation is very willing to adapt to changing technology — yet wanting a real experience of God in church,” says Espinoza, 65. “They don’t carry a Bible to church; they carry an iPad and iPhone.”
Hispanics are the nation’s largest majority group, comprising 16.3 percent of the population. The 2010 Census counted 50.5 million Latinos, up from 35.3 million a decade earlier.
Pew Research Center and the Barna Group report that roughly one in five Hispanics is an evangelical, and 85 percent of those are Pentecostal or charismatic.
Currently there are 2,400 AG Hispanic churches in the United States, nearly twice as many as in 1990.
Another strain — which also impacts many Anglo churches — is over the method of ministry. Espinoza says traditional Hispanic churches put great value in Sunday School, youth and women’s ministry programs, while Rodriguez notes that common preaching topics among the group are holiness, sanctification and the second coming of Christ.
Many contemporary Latino leaders are more focused on meeting needs such as serving the hungry, ministering to single adults and offering a variety of small groups, Espinoza says. Samuel Rodriguez, who is an ordained AG minister, concurs, noting that a holistic gospel presentation that includes justice is a main concern of the younger generation. Younger Hispanics commonly believe there is a biblical imperative to engage in the public square, rather than to eschew politics.
New Life Covenant Church in Chicago has found that focusing on the hurting in the community has led to growth. The Chicago Dream Center operated by the church ministers to the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes in tangible ways, from food and clothing to job training.
An additional difference is the length of service. For much of the 20th century, Hispanic services on Sunday morning would last three hours or more. Now 90 minutes is the norm. Part of that is because of the need for large churches to fit multiple services into a designated time frame.
“But it’s also reflective of Hispanics in the United States adapting to a more rapid pace of life,” Espinoza says. “Latin America is more laid back; time is not as measured.”
Perhaps the greatest area of conflict, Samuel Rodriguez says, involves education.
“The more Hispanic Christians embrace the academy, the greater the tension arises with the local church if the leadership hasn’t advanced,” says Rodriguez, 42. Even if a leader is anointed and righteous, some young Latinos with degrees find that they can’t answer their theological inquiries sufficiently.
Some in the older generation are fearful that education might negate the influence of faith in a person’s life, Espinoza says. Yet he says a growing number of older ministers are obtaining advanced degrees because they see the value in theological education.
Despite all the disparities, Espinoza says Hispanics are a tight-knit ethnic group where respect for faith, elders and family activities is still a priority.
Through it all, Samuel Rodriguez says Hispanics overall do a good job of connecting to God and to community.
“We are experiencing growing pains,” Rodriguez says. “But we will see a wonderful evolution to a more mature, holistic, well-balanced, biblically Christ-centered movement that speaks to the future of American Christianity.”