How Latino Immigrants Are Evangelizing America

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First-generation immigrants are leading the Latino evangelical expansion in the US—drawing in more unchurched believers and new converts than the average church plant, despite having smaller congregations, less funding, and tensions surrounding US immigration policy.

The study—sponsored by the Send Institute at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, funded by 12 denominations, and fielded by LifeWay Research—surveyed 218 Hispanic church plants along with “new ministry expressions” such as added campuses or church mergers. It found that 80 percent of their founding or lead pastors were born outside the US, as were two-thirds of their members on average.

The research was presented to 120 church planters and ministry leaders—half Hispanics—from 65 denominations at a summit at Wheaton College on Tuesday. It comes as the increasing flow of Latino immigrants to the US has sparked heated policy debate. (Note: In this article, Hispanic refers to the churches surveyed by LifeWay, while Latino refers people of Latin American descent, including from Brazil and Haiti.)

The Latino population is growing, especially in the South, where 59 percent of the 218 new congregations surveyed are located (half are Southern Baptist). And the evangelical faith is growing with it.

New Hispanic ministries saw an average of 53 first-time professions of faith over their first four years, according to the survey. Though they are typically smaller than the average church plant, they have about the same number of new converts per year, making them “evangelistically more effective per capita,” said LifeWay Research executive director Scott McConnell.

A quarter of attendees in new Hispanic congregations were previously “completely unchurched” (26%), and almost another quarter previously attended a Catholic church (22%). Only 29 percent were previously members of other Protestant churches.

Image: LifeWay Research

This contributes to Latinos now making up a bigger portion of US evangelicals. The Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of US evangelicals that identify as Latino grew from 7 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2014.

Investing time instead of planning events

Latino pastors who have worked inside and outside Hispanic ministry contexts can attest to the differences reflected in the data. Comparing the Hispanic church plants and new ministries surveyed in 2019 with overall church plants surveyed by LifeWay in 2015:

  • New Hispanic congregations were more than twice as likely to keep up evangelistic visits and door-to-door outreach beyond the initial launch of the ministry.
  • New Hispanic congregations were less likely, however, to engage in local politics or use “fun social events” to meet people in the community.

Image: LifeWay Research

For the Latino community, structured, scheduled events aren’t necessarily a good fit with their time-intensive approach to building relationships, said Marco DeLeon, pastor of Storehouse McAllen, an Acts 29 church in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

The 33-year-old pastor, a Mexican American citizen born in the US, works with churches reaching out to Latino communities in Texas, Nevada, and Georgia. He presses pastors to focus less on Latino names in their roles, service calendars, and event registrations. Look instead, he said, at how much time has been invested in the relationship.

“They were more worried about trying to figure them out than getting to know them,” DeLeon said, and they were trying to do so in church contexts where the Latino people were not comfortable. To build trust, DeLeon explained, “You need a table with food on it and you need a lot of time.”

Alejandro Aguilar, pastor of Iglesia Oasis in Crystal Lake, Illinois, also wanted to see more time invested and less of a focus on numbers as a measure of success (half of surveyed pastors agree). Since the Latino community faces more marginalization than the average evangelical congregation in the US, their churches have unique needs and assets in ministry.

“The Anglo churches are not always ready for the stories Latinos bring to their doors,” said Aguilar, who emigrated from Mexico. When asked by other pastors how to reach Latino people, he advises, “Listen to the stories. Take your time.”

Waiting for growth

When Aguilar began his ministry career at Willow Creek Community Church, a multisite megachurch in the Chicago area, he saw the size of the church as a sign he was ministering as powerfully as possible.

While white church leaders expect ministries to grow quickly, many Latino ministers—brought up under American and Latin American megachurch pastors—expect them to grow large. Nearly half (49%) of the Hispanic church plants and other new ministries surveyed are within the largest US denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has over 500 congregations with 1,000 or more people.

Though they know that recent immigrants and Spanish speakers will be more difficult to reach, many Latino ministers still measure success by the numbers, Aguilar said. The church planting movement, which involves starting from scratch in strategic locations, is a “totally and completely different language for many (Latino leaders),” he explained.

At Iglesia Oasis, he prioritizes going deeper with his congregation to understand the challenges they’re facing, including poverty, domestic violence, anxiety, or depression.

LifeWay names mentoring and financial support from denominations or “parent” churches as ways to help Latino leaders sustain new plants.

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Source: Christianity Today