I’ve been involved in Spanish-language ministry for the past seven years. In December 2014 I was called as a bi-vocational youth pastor at Enfoque, a Spanish-speaking congregation connected to Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. When I publicly announced that I was moving to Buffalo, New York, it took most people by surprise. Moving to la frontera (the border) should have placed me somewhere in the Southwest, not the Northeast.
Although it was an HR job that opened up the opportunity to move to Buffalo, it was the 40,000+ Hispanics and lack of an SBC-aligned Hispanic church in Buffalo that led our family to say goodbye to everything in Indiana to move here. I fully believe that God has brought us here to Buffalo to start a ministry with Spanish speakers.
Before I host a Bible study, rent some property, and put up a sign reading “Iglesia Bautista,” I should explain what I envision for ministry in Buffalo. I don’t necessarily want to start a Hispanic, Spanish-language church per se. I’d much rather see a church with both English and Spanish services. There are two main reasons why:
First, Spanish isn’t strong enough to keep a church together in the long run. In the U.S., Spanish is the primary language of immigrants and foreigners, not people who grew up here there whole lives. Depending on immigration trends, it may be that some areas of the country will always have a sufficient influx of Spanish speakers to keep a Hispanic church alive indefinitely. But every foreign language-based church I’ve heard of has the same problem—keeping the second and third generation.
With these later generations English becomes the dominant and preferred language. Many in the second generation are bilingual and can worship and serve in a Spanish-speaking church environment, but even then Spanish fluency tend to diminish with each successive child as they are raised with siblings who communicate with them in English. By the third generation Spanish fluency is usually so weak that a Spanish-language church feels more like an awkward cross-cultural trip than a serious encounter with God.
Most Spanish-language churches don’t offer a youth group experience that fully appreciates their place between two cultures. Many teenagers stop coming to church at all and their parents can’t or won’t force them to come. Those who manage to stick it out though high school find the Spanish church has nothing to offer them as adults and they leave. If language, such a fundamental aspect of a church, results in families being unable to worship together, something is wrong. There’s no reason why this has to happen.
As long as we have immigrants coming to the U.S., language-based ministries must exist. But a fully integrated church that can offer two services—English and Spanish—can benefit from having one common English-based children’s ministry, one common English-based youth group, and one place where parents and children can worship together, albeit not always in the same service, in a language they each understand.
Second, English-speaking churches need to be more culturally diverse. If you were to ask the average white pastor to identify an “ethnic” church in his community, he’d probably point out a black church, a Vietnamese church, a Korean church, or a Hispanic church, but he would never consider his own predominantly white church to be “ethnic.”
I once met a white pastor who had a decent number of black families attending his church. When I asked him about their music program, he was very proud to point out that his church didn’t “pander” to the musical styles of any particular cultural group in order to reach people. His church was “generic” and their music was “like what you hear on Christian radio.” In other words, they didn’t play gospel music or have a church choir in order to get blacks to attend. Now, I’m not saying they should have gospel music and a church choir—just because someone is black and Christian doesn’t mean they like those things. The point is, however, that this white pastor didn’t realize that much of what he considered “generic” was actually just indicative of white culture. After all, isn’t most of the worship music you hear on Christian radio written and/or performed by white people?
I believe that many “ethnic churches” (from a white-as-baseline point of view) exist precisely because whites expect minorities to adopt their “generic” church culture rather than try to understand and incorporate the cultural perspectives and values of the minorities in their midst. Perhaps there wouldn’t be as many black churches, Vietnamese churches, Korean churches, or even Hispanic churches if our white churches didn’t expect black, Vietnamese, Korean, and Hispanic Christians to check their cultures at the door.
My vision for ministry in Buffalo isn’t a white church that lets the Spanish-speakers use their building. It isn’t even a white church with a Spanish service. It’s for a church where Hispanics feel welcome, not as outsiders or minorities, but as full members who contribute to the life and culture of the whole church. I praise God that Paul established churches made up of Jews and Gentiles. This led to all kinds of cultural misunderstandings, tensions, and awkward moments, but it also led to churches to find unity, not in a common culture or language, but in one common Savior. Isn’t that the kind of church that Paul describes in Ephesians (particularly chapter 2)?
I believe this fits the picture of how God wants our churches to bring together people of different cultures into one body. It requires a lot of hard work, the blessing of God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit to see fruition. I’d love to see a church established on a cultural identity—white, black, Vietnamese, or other—work towards becoming a multicultural church. As I begin making contacts and trying to reach Spanish speakers with the gospel, I also want to partner with others who want to unite with believers from other cultural backgrounds as one body.
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” —Galatians 3:27-28