Ensconced in the suburbs amid two-story brick homes featuring white dormers and spacious decks, Good Shepherd Worship Center doesn't exactly look like the setting for a thriving ethnic ministry. Yet long before the ranks of Hispanics swelled their numbers to the largest of America's minority groups, DeWayne Sadler was seeking a pastor to start a congregation aimed at evangelizing Spanish-speaking people.
"I just thought it was a good opportunity to reach them," says the Pentecostal pastor, who first noticed the influx of immigrants to the suburbs southeast of Louisville, Ky., in the mid-1990s. Though his search for a Hispanic pastor took more than a year, in 1999 Iglesia Cristiana began meeting in Good Shepherd's multipurpose building. It gradually grew until it moved into the fellowship hall, which holds about 100 worshipers.
Since that time, Iglesia Cristiana has seen dozens of conversions and miracles. During a recent four-day revival worshipers were healed of breathing problems and a hernia, while others had cavities mysteriously filled. Many were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.
"God is doing something different," says Walter Sosa, Iglesia Cristiana's 38-year-old Guatemalan pastor. "The Holy Spirit is moving. People who didn't like to pray are hungry for God. My vision is that in a couple of years, we won't have room for all the people."
Similar growth is sparking interest in Hispanic churches among denominations and networks of all kinds. The nation's largest Protestant group, the Southern Baptist Convention, started nearly 1,600 Spanish-speaking churches over the last five years. The International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) says its Hispanic church count has increased 22 percent since 2002. And when it released its 2006 U.S. statistics this summer, the Assemblies of God (AG) reported more than 540,000 Hispanics, nearly 20 percent of its 2.8 million adherents.
"In 1971 we only had two Hispanic districts; now we have eight with over 1,800 churches," says Efraim Espinoza, the AG's director of Hispanic relations. "I was in North Carolina in April. We have 28 churches there and about five years ago we had eight or 10. It's just phenomenal growth."
Obviously, the Hispanic population surge isn't just within church walls. A 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimate placed Hispanic numbers at 44.3 million, or 14.8 percent of the population. In the past few years, Hispanic-Americans have been responsible for almost half of this country's population growth. Whether natives or immigrants, these people represent a fertile ground for charismatics and Pentecostals, according to a report issued this spring by the Pew Hispanic Center at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The study found that 68 percent of Hispanic-Americans are Roman Catholic, while 15 percent are born-again or evangelical Protestants. However, it also revealed that "renewalist Christianity," with its emphasis on God's intervention in human affairs through the Holy Spirit, has made major inroads among Hispanics. A majority of Latino Catholics describe themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal, compared to only 10 percent of non-Latino Catholics.
"They'll become the major ministry," says Peter DeJesus of the general Hispanic population. As campus pastor for The Oaks Fellowship in Dallas, DeJesus oversaw both Spanish- and English-speaking congregations. "You've got to embrace it. As pastors, we need to recognize these are souls."
Mike Brewer kept that perspective forefront when he helped birth a Hispanic church two years ago. The pastor of Bible Temple in Toledo, Ohio, says it was simply a response to the Great Commission.
"If there's a need, fill it," says Brewer, whose church sits in a neighborhood that is 60 percent African-American and 10 percent Hispanic. "We saw a need around us for Hispanic ministry, for those who only spoke Spanish. Mine was limited to taco, burrito and a few other words."
Searching for someone who could spearhead such a ministry, Brewer learned of Guadalupe Rios, an ordained pastor who was at the time leading a Bible study for Hispanics in his home. The church now meets on Sunday nights and draws an average of 35 to 45 people, with a dozen gathering at Rios' home for midweek Bible study.
"We have a very close relationship," Brewer says of Rios. "We try to have dinner every three months and spend time talking about his ministry and what we can do to help them. He always asks, 'What can we do for you?' They gave us $1,100 last year toward a parking lot at a school we are building in Thailand."
Other pastors reiterate the importance of an ongoing connection between leadership in a new fellowship and its host church. Ralph Holland launched a Hispanic church at Covenant Church in Carrollton, Texas, almost 16 years ago. Beginning with 30 people, that church, called Mundo de Fe, now numbers more than 2,000 members and five satellite churches. Yet Holland credits much of the success to a solid relationship established by a pastor willing to reach out and a host church that still allows them to use its facilities every Sunday afternoon for services.
"[Covenant] pastor Mike Hayes said, 'You are us,'" Holland recalls. "That goes a long way. The Hispanic people know that and they feel it. It's made all the difference in the world. For once, they realized they're not treated as inferior or second-class citizens.
"I preach that in God's kingdom there's no rich or poor, Jew or Greek—they can be leaders in the kingdom. We exist not because we're Hispanic, but for Spanish-language access. We have members whose kids attend Covenant because they prefer English. We're not segregated, so they are welcome at Covenant."
Holland also believes Anglo pastors who fail to make their facilities available to start new works are ignoring God's mandate. "We have got to minister to the community. If we're not, we're being selfish or inconsiderate."
DeJesus might not go as far in his assessment of leaders who fail to reach out to the growing Hispanic population, but he does attest to the need for a strong foundation. The Oaks Fellowship started its Spanish-language service nearly six years ago and topped the 200 attendance mark last Easter. DeJesus says access to the same facilities as the English-speaking church, periodic financial assistance and leadership-development training helped stimulate that growth. "It provided us with vision and a sense of direction. It gave us the sense of, 'You're not alone, you've got somebody with you.'"
Wanderers No More
That wasn't necessarily the case for Victor Higueros, pastor of Ministerios Bethania in suburban Dallas. Called by God to move to America in 1991, the Guatemalan pastor forged ahead on his own, starting with seven people who met in a north Dallas home. A month later they moved into a Baptist church that offered space, but when a financial pinch forced the Baptists to sell their building, Higueros' group had to move again.
Over the next decade they bounced from warehouses to churches and back again, and in 2003 acquired a 300,000-square-foot facility once occupied by a credit company. After extensive remodeling, it now includes a sanctuary that holds 5,000, a smaller venue with 1,000 seats and separate buildings for children and youth. Even though attendance averages 2,500 today, Higueros says there were many tough years en route to his church's current size. He and other pastors—both Hispanic and non—allude to several key factors churches must be aware of when launching a Hispanic church.
1. Pick a pastor—with mucha atención. Carefully consider the demographics when appointing a director for this new ministry or church. A leader trying to reach Hispanics without understanding their culture is doomed to fail, Higueros says. "They have to have somebody who knows the community," he says, adding that bilingual ability is a plus.
Brewer also suggests finding someone from within a local neighborhood with a burden for reaching Hispanics, but only after discussing it with senior leadership. The first step is understanding the need, he says. "In some cases you will need to talk with the congregation."
The jury's still out, however, on whether a pastor must have a Hispanic heritage. Holland, a former missionary, says more important is the leader's fluency in Spanish. He believes this is one of the main points to starting Hispanic churches in the first place: to accommodate a language group rather than an ethnic enclave. Indeed, Hispanic communities are their own melting pot, encompassing Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Guatemalans and Brazilians, to name a few.
IPHC church planter Aaron Helland sees things differently. If a church is near an area populated by Mexican immigrants but chooses a Hispanic pastor from a different region, it will be swimming upstream, Helland says, citing personal experience from his first church start in Oklahoma. Likewise, the sponsoring congregation will face problems if it hires a third-generation Hispanic with limited Spanish skills, which Helland says will sour relationships with first-generation immigrants.
"Hispanics aren't one community," says Helland, who now pastors the multicultural Ephesians 4 International Church just west of Chicago. "They all have different likes and dislikes and eat different foods. So your pastor is going to make a huge difference. I think [the sponsoring church] should look at somebody from the majority group."
2. Watch the dinero. Most pastors involved with catering to immigrant-dominated congregations recognize this community's fondness for handling transactions in cash—a trait that can create problems stateside. When initially guiding Good Shepherd's Hispanic church leaders, Sadler insisted they learn the banking system and standard procedures of bookkeeping and lawful accounting of finances.
"That's probably the most difficult thing we've had to do," Sadler says. "Very few have bank accounts and write checks. We've tried to help them learn to do things in a legal manner. We had [a bank representative] here twice to talk to them about checking and savings accounts, and how to do everything."
3. Define your vision. Unless the sponsor and Hispanic church agree on mutual concerns and goals, the latter will inevitably "spin off" and find its own space. "The goal was to coexist," DeJesus says of such arrangements. "The growing trend now is not to launch [a new church], but to have one site where many people can come."
Helland advises having a contract that spells out issues such as facilities that will be made available, cleaning responsibilities and what activities are permitted. A trusted leader who can communicate with both the host church and Hispanic churchgoers is important, as are regular meetings between both parties.
4. Mentor like you mean it. Without advice and input from the sponsoring pastor, sooner or later the Hispanic pastor's vision will diverge from the sponsor's, DeJesus says. "Teach leadership principles and life mentoring," he urges. "As the ministry grows, have mentoring done by different departments—education pastor, youth pastor, across the board. Strengthen ties and bring appreciation to the heart of Spanish pastors for their English covering."
5. Keep family first. Hispanic communities are built around the family. Period. Host pastors can't forget this as they seek to effectively minister to this culture. "If you want to reach the Hispanic community, you have to plan for the family, not just the individual," says Higueros. "You have to educate the children. We try to teach people how to be a better father, mother, son or daughter, and we teach each from the Bible. ... If we can win them for the Lord, we can make a big change in the Latin community. The church has a responsibility to teach them."
It's People, Not Politics
Not every church embraces this commission, a sentiment that was apparent in the contentious debate in Congress that stalled immigration reform this summer. However, those involved with Hispanic churches caution against confusing politics with evangelism.
DeJesus points to the numerous prophetic words given by such figures as Cindy Jacobs and Carlos Annacondia about God using Hispanics to bring revival to the United States. "The controversy is not a coincidence with what God is doing," the AG pastor says. "I would draw a parallel with the book of Esther. Haman tried to destroy the Jews but it was a divine time for them to be delivered. God's time for the Hispanic people is coming."
For some, like Mexican native Flavi Lugo, that time is already here. A 14-year resident of the United States, she cites the outreach of Iglesia Cristiana in the surrounding Louisville area for helping turn her life around. "When I came to church, I wasn't walking good," the factory worker says. "I got healed. It was like a miracle."
Echoes Jeremiah Castillo, a teen worker at Iglesia Cristiana: "Many people who are on drugs or alcohol have come to the church, received the Word and blessings from the church and converted to Christianity. That was a good thing." Indeed, it was—in any culture.
A freelance writer in Huntington, W.V., Ken Walker visited Good Shepherd Worship Center and Iglesia Cristiana while working on this story. He is a regular contributor to Ministry Today and Charisma.
What You Should Know About Us
By Sergio Scataglini
You are no longer a typical Argentine, you are not a typical American—you are an international."
With those words, God used my longtime friend and mentor, Ed Silvoso, to clarify a number of identity ambiguities and cross-cultural conflicts I had experienced since coming to live in the United States. I believe God is now saying to many traditional American churches, "You are not American, you are not foreign—you are international, with a global mission at your doorstep." There are more Spanish-speaking people living in North America than the entire population of my homeland, Argentina—and that doesn't even include the Hispanics who speak English only, particularly the younger generation. In a sense, we have an entire "nation" to disciple in our own backyard.
There are many ways that North American churches can reach out and be a positive influence to the Hispanic community in our midst:
• Mentor us in leadership. Many of us could benefit from systematic training, if we are regarded as colleagues in a spirit of mutual servanthood.
• Give us dreams of excellence. Help us pursue American ideals framed with kingdom concepts.
• Partner with us spiritually. Many of us are trying to find our place in a new country and society. Beyond a "contract" for use of your facilities, sign into a covenant relationship to journey together.
• Partner with us financially. Many of us who come to this land of abundance are doing entry-level jobs. Some Hispanic congregations struggle just to pay their electric bills every month. If you decide not to open a Hispanic congregation in your own church, consider adopting one in your city or region, and support them each month as they reach out to their community.
• Understand that family and cultural ties are most important to us. We are not individualists. We work best with our natural Hispanic network of family and friends, never against it. Help us win our immediate circle for Christ.
The bottom line is that we need your sense of structure, without stagnating our cultural spontaneity and identity.
I often smile as I remember the ad of the eager greeter for a large discount store, obviously a foreigner, saying with his thick Spanish accent, "How I can help you?" In a sense, this portrays the millions of Hispanics who want to integrate into this culture. They bring their enthusiasm and eagerness to work. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 tells us that God "loves the alien, giving him food and clothing" and that we "are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens." As the American church gets better at integrating Hispanics into their congregations, it pleases God, brings an infusion of new blood to the body of Christ and makes an eternal difference in the landscape of the American society. That, people of God, is a win-win situation.