Q&A With Samuel Rodriguez
by Lisa Cannon Green
Hispanics make up nearly half the foreign-born population in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Facts & Trends talked with Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, about what Latino immigration means for U.S. churches.
What do you see happening to the church today as a result of immigration?
Immigration in the past 20 to 30 years has served as the de facto lifeblood of American evangelicalism. The largest denominations in America will attest that their largest growth extends out of their immigrant community.
How will the church look in the future because of the trend we’re seeing?
By 2050 you will be hard-pressed to find an exclusively white church in America. The number one change will be multiethnic participation and diversity—churches that really reflect the mosaic of God’s kingdom.
The second thing you will see is a hybrid synergy. Rather than an exclusively Pentecostal presentation of the gospel here and an exclusively Baptist presentation there, you’re going to see more ‘Bapticostals.’ The majority of Latinos are charismatic, but there is a strong push toward biblical orthodoxy.
The third part will be reconciliation of what I call Billy Graham’s message and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march. You’ll see churches saying, “What about the people around us who are suffering? Why not quench the thirst and feed the hungry and welcome the stranger?” And because of that, you’re going to see a healthier church.
How does a church reach out to this community?
Make the church leadership aware of the Latino culture. It’s a family culture, so it’s not unique to have mom and dad, grandma, grandpa, aunts, and uncles living in the same house, because they’re very committed to la familia.
Music and food are critical ingredients of the culture. Put out carne asada [grilled meat] and have some music and you can attract a community that really loves to celebrate life and family around food and music.
Any presentation of the gospel should address the head, the hand, and the heart. The head means a faith that engages them intellectually. The hand means a faith that is practical—how is God going to help me deal with the challenges I currently have? And the heart means the spiritual and eternal questions. Latinos are head and hand, and we are very much heart—the emotion, the love, the passion. So speak to the heart, and everything else will follow.
What are churches doing wrong when they try to reach immigrants?
You cannot reach what you do not reflect. We say we want Latinos in our church, but there’s not one person of Latino descent on the worship team or in the church leadership. People want to come in and say, “Yeah, that person looks like me. If that person feels comfortable here, I can feel comfortable here.”
The second thing we do wrong is adopting a paternalistic, patronizing spirit: “We’ll do this activity for the Latino community once a year.” That does not work, because the Latino community wants a church committed to reflecting the entire community it serves.
What are churches doing right?
They’re getting to know the Latino community personally. That coffee date, that caramel macchiato conversation, has the power to shift things.
Number two is a significant, continual commitment to Latino outreach—not just “Hey, you can rent our facilities Sundays at 3 o’clock.” We’re going beyond that, creating space and providing resources for long-term, intentional outreach.
And the third great thing is churches going beyond the politics. They’re embracing the unity found in John 17.
What should church leaders do in response to immigration?
One is pray. Every immigrant as well as every person in this nation is created in God’s image. So pray for the saving grace of Jesus Christ to reach every immigrant in America. Pray for the Holy Spirit to convict us of any myopia or prejudice that impedes us from recognizing the image of God in the immigrant community.
Number two is critical—make sure there is a measurable commitment, plan, and strategy for reaching out to the immigrant community.
Number three, establish a relationship with a Latino pastor in your city. And I mean beyond “Hello, my name is John—follow me on Facebook.” Establish a relationship that can be nurtured.
What makes ministering to immigrants different from ministering to non-immigrants?
The number one barrier is language. Create space for a Spanish service under the canopy of your collective ministry.
How does the immigrant community change over time?
When you’re a first-generation Latino immigrant, you have one major objective—self-preservation. That’s where the storefront churches in our cities arise. It’s about cultural affirmation. I want my local church to be an extension of El Salvador or Mexico or Guatemala—a micro-presentation of the native country.
Second generation says I am Latino but I’m American, and I want my Christianity to be both Latino and American. So I want my services to be both in English and Spanish.
By the third generation there is integration. We continue to call ourselves Latino, but it’s definitely all English. You may not even speak one word of Spanish.
But then there’s a glitch in the matrix. Latter-third and fourth-generation Latinos are going back to the Catholic church, leaving the evangelical church. Why? They’re looking for liturgy, and they’re looking for the faith of their forefathers in order to reconnect to their Latino Spanish culture.
What would be the evangelical response to that?
The evangelical response would be to continuously affirm diversity in our churches. Don’t do away with your Latino ministry, even when your church becomes third-generation. Have a significant outreach toward Latinos perpetually.
Find out the needs of the community and address those needs—not with a paternalistic “We’re going to create a little bit of space for you,” but rather, “You are an equal shareholder here. We want you here. Matter of fact, we need you here.” That’s the shift that has to take place.
LISA CANNON GREEN (@LisaCCGreen) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.
This article appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. You can read the entire issue online. Also, make sure you subscribe to our print edition to receive the Spring 2016 issue delivered to your home or church for free.