From traditional regions of Hispanic settlements, such as the Northeast, Chicago, the West and Southwest, and South Florida, to less traditional regions, such as North Dakota, Alabama, and South Carolina; the Hispanic population is growing. It is a very diverse population originating from Spain, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America. More than six of every ten Hispanics in the U.S. were born in this country, so there are generational issues. It is a very young population with 33.9% under the age of 18 as of 2010.
It has been estimated that for the next two decades, 50,000 Hispanics will turn age 18 every month. On the other end of the scale, only 5.5% are age 65 or older. How can the church plan to meet the needs of this group? To accomplish this goal, the church needs to anticipate issues regarding who, where, and how to be a missional church among this population.
The church must anticipate both leadership selection and leadership development. Leadership is needed both from the community itself and from those outside the community who will learn to do mission in context. A long-term process of selecting and developing leadership is essential for a church to be fully contextual. However, these issues are not easy as a church must navigate a number of challenges.
One challenge is that denominations usually require very stringent training and examinations before they will recognize a person as a pastor. In 2010 the census compiled data on educational attainment for all those age 25 and older. For Hispanics 37.8% never finished high school and another 49.2% had high school but no bachelors degree. On the other side, only 13.0% had a bachelors degree or better. Since most denominations require MDiv graduate degrees, it means that most potential leaders from within the community would have to go through many years of expensive education to even be considered for the pastorate. Therefore, the missional church has to be creative in how it develops its leaders.
A second challenge is that there are men and women who were pastors in their home countries. How will they be treated by their denominations and church fellowship? And how can the missional church develop Spanish-speaking immigrant pastors to be relevant in the U.S.? Remember that approximately 60% of Hispanics in the U.S. were born here and are either not familiar with or do not want to comply with cultural mores of their home lands. Cultural training is needed for these immigrants.
The missional church must anticipate the selection of several types of mission sites. They need to look at stabilizing communities that have potential for growth. This includes sites that may have low numbers of Hispanics right now, but where demographic trends indicate large growth potential. What kind of leadership is needed for this type of work? A second possible site would be communities that have stabilized over the last decade but are still growing. Many smaller sized cities are beginning to fit into both of these site types.
Even as smaller cities continue to grow, we do understand that the majority of Hispanics live in major cities. Within major cities there are pockets of stabilizing or stabilized communities, but they are quite different from those in smaller cities. What kind of leadership is needed for this type of work?
Within each type of community it is important to recognize the size of the immigrant population versus the U.S.-born population. These groups may need different programs and different types of leaders. Another issue for the missional church to consider is the political, social, and economic nature of the mission site. Relationships within and between communities affect the placement of viable churches.
The missional church must anticipate contextualization of everything from the presentation of the gospel, to mission, to denominational structures, to leadership development, to justice issues. The questions to be answered are varied, from immigration issues to racism and even employment. Although most groups, especially new groups, prefer worshipping with their own kind, Hispanic leaders will have to do cross-cultural work, even among their own national group, and they are not necessarily prepared for that task.
A new church start in the heart of the Puerto Rican community in North Philadelphia brought a pastor from Puerto Rico. The denomination used a lot of money and time on this effort, but no church was ever started. What was the problem? The pastor from Puerto Rico had no U.S. inner city experience and no experience building a church that had to minister to both first generation and second generation and beyond populations. He was a man of the Word, had his educational credentials, but could not contextualize to meet the needs of Puerto Ricans in that setting.
How will we do church in a Hispanic community based on biblical norms for worship and preaching? We must have freedom where freedom is permitted, and we must have form where our ecclesiology prescribes. There should not be a cookie-cutter approach to church planting. We also must be aware that at times we have been too cultural and not sufficiently biblical. Contextualization is the tension of being faithful both to the Word and to the context in which we are serving. If we are ready to invest in this movement — time, leadership, training, and finances—and do not contextualize, the results will be discouraging.
The key word in planning to meet the needs of the U.S. Hispanic population is anticipation. If we look from the past to plan for the present, our churches will soon lose relevance or be inadequate to meet this growing population. If we look at the present, understand trends, and anticipate for the future, our churches will be more ready to effectively meet God’s call.
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