There is a mistake many American church planters among Hispanics make. They assume that our cultures aren’t all that different (we simply speak different languages). So the common approach to church planting among Hispanics has been to hire a Spanish-speaking pastor. Shortly thereafter, a Spanish service is underway. To be sure, this is done by well-meaning people who want to reach the Spanish-speaking communities in their city.
But church planting among Hispanics requires much more than offering a Spanish-speaking service on Sunday. We must be thoughtful and attentive if we are to reach the Hispanic communities around us with the gospel.
Church planting among Hispanics requires much more than putting on a Spanish-speaking service on Sunday.
Consider the Differences
Sometimes it helps just to point out the differences, allowing us to broaden our understanding of Hispanics.
Hispanics are not one monolithic culture. Here is a helpful visual comparison that demonstrates the differences from one country to another. Imagine someone saying that the Deep South is essentially the same as downtown Manhattan. We’re talking about differences of that scale, if not greater.
This may seem obvious, but Hispanics born in the United States have different experiences compared to Hispanics born elsewhere who migrate to the States later in life. Sometimes these two people exist within the same nuclear family. The younger generation may prefer English to Spanish, and the culture of America to the culture of their parents.
The ability to speak English makes one’s experience in the United States entirely different. I was on a plane last week speaking to Mario, a Guatemalan farmer on his way back home. He came to the States on a tourist visa with the intent to work, but ended up staying beyond his visa limits to continue working, due to his family’s urgent economic needs. He mentioned that he spoke no English as he arrived. The company owner threatened to fire him if he did not learn English quickly.
Those who’ve arrived in the United States on a work visa are in a completely different situation from those who arrive without a visa. Speaking with Mario, he mentioned the difference in pay between Guatemala and the United States. In Guatemala he earned $6 per day; in the States he was able to earn $100 per day. Despite the fact that he earned this money without a work visa, you can understand why people would be willing to face immense hardship to merely arrive in the United States in hope of better work.
Think About Your Model
Most church-planting models are culturally situated. If they aren’t, we’re missing out on what it means to be a local church. Church-planting models serve the city best when they’ve spent time listening to their neighbors in order to more clearly present the gospel.
For example, starting a Hispanic church inside your own facilities is relatively cheap and easy. For the Hispanic who has no trouble visiting an unfamiliar building—where there may be lots of “gringos” and where everyone speaks English—this could be an easy fit. This model will be effective at reaching Hispanics who are highly assimilated to American culture.
Folks in this particular subculture, however, often already attend a church. This approach fails to account for the many thousands of Hispanics, like Mario, who are not culturally assimilated to the United States.
Rather than write an exhaustive explanation of church-planting models that may or may not work, my plea is for careful contextualization. Many pastors begin to think about church planting among Hispanics when they become aware of a Hispanic community nearby. So rather than putting on a Spanish-speaking service (though that may be appropriate), I want to suggest first doing the hard work of getting to know people.
Spend time in the community. Listen to people’s stories. Learn about their cultural heritage. Ask if they need anything. Invite them into your home. Strategize ways to be intentionally hospitable. Listen to the struggles faced by those who have immigrated to the States. So often they are greater than we imagine.
Our preferences and comforts must take a backseat. We must consider others more significant than ourselves. This will be costly. But isn’t this exactly what our Savior did?
Ultimately, this approach requires that we die to ourselves. We must be willing to swallow our pride and let go of the church-planting paradigm “we’ve always used.” Oscar (with whom I pastor in Guatemala) and I were speaking with a pastor of a well-known church-planting network in the States. This pastor explained how hard the network had worked on developing a paradigm versatile enough to work in any city. Without skipping a beat, Oscar responded that would “never work in Guatemala.”
As we discussed further, we discovered that much of the paradigm’s language—though clear and compelling for white Americans—would be an enormous barrier for Hispanics in the States. For example, since many Hispanics have left Roman Catholic traditions, much of the language we use (liturgy, parish, sacrament), though rich in its description, could be a confusing barrier to Hispanics. Instead of pushing forward with “our paradigm,” we must have the humility and flexibility to adjust.
We must be willing to do things differently, whether it be hiring, searching for leaders, or even sacrificing the processes and programs we’ve worked hard to create. Good contextualization—no matter how we define it—requires profound humility.
Call to Humility
Whenever possible, we should strive to give Hispanics seats at the leadership table. After all, no one can better explain the experience of Hispanics than a Hispanic. Again, this will mean dying to ourselves and seeking to diversify our leadership in order to deepen and broaden our approach to Hispanic ministry.
We should consider renting spaces in Hispanic communities rather than asking those communities to come to us. The “if you build it they will come” mentality simply won’t work for Hispanics, especially those like Mario. It’s sad that, in many cases, people like him are overlooked by our church-planting efforts.
Good contextualization—no matter how we define it—requires profound humility.
For a time after college, I worked at a church—which was primarily white and wealthy—in the suburbs of Chicago. They wanted to plant a church in a nearby city with a large Hispanic population. They had the budget for it. But they couldn’t find a Hispanic leader for the church plant, so they decided that as long as they hired someone who wasn’t white, they’d be able to reach the Hispanic population in the city.
One can appreciate the desire for diversity, but the strategy didn’t work. It sounds silly to have to say it, but not being white is not the same as being Hispanic. And not being white is not a straightforward path to reaching Hispanics.
The task of church planting among Hispanics is urgent, but urgency is never an excuse for thoughtlessness. May we carefully contexualize not only our programs and sermons, but our very lives—for the glory of God and the good of our Hispanic neighbors.