It’s time for many majority culture churches to enter new ministry relationships with Hispanic churches—from mission field to mission partner.
By D. Scott Hildreth
Many majority-language churches (English-speaking) think of Spanish-speaking churches as mission projects. The bulk of ministry to Hispanic churches concentrates on needs and support. On the positive side, this relationship can maximize unused space and provide opportunities for church members to practice hospitality and exercise missionary desires. However, this mission field mentality often introduces cultural conflicts and breeds frustration and dependence. A recent study seems to show that it is time for new ministry relationships—from mission field to mission partner.
Since the mid-20th century, missionaries have emphasized the importance of “indigenous churches.” This phrase simply means that the local congregation is anchored in its context and reflects the local culture. Though in many settings, this goal has proven to be elusive, missiologists have developed a set of ideals that show movement in the positive direction. We call these the “3-Selfs of indigenous churches.”
- Self-supporting – The church is not dependent on outside sources for finances or other resources to support its ongoing ministries.
- Self-governing – The church is both empowered and responsible for decision making and oversight.
- Self-propagating – The church “owns” the Great Commission as its marching orders. Leaders and members recognize their responsibility for evangelism, missions, and growth.
Hispanic church growth
Recent research performed by Lifeway Research shows most Hispanic Protestant Churches in the U.S. exemplify these 3 ”selfs.”
- Self-support – Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) Hispanic congregations say they have the necessary financial resources to sustain ministry.
- Self-governing – More than 1 in 2 (56%) Hispanic congregations have a full-time pastor (27% bi-vocational,10% part-time, and 1% volunteer). Two in 3 (66%) are first-generation Americans, and nearly 75% have a bachelor’s or graduate degree. Most (79%) are conservative evangelicals, and 99% consider Scripture the authority for life and ministry.
- Self-propagating – Nearly 4 in 5 (79%) Hispanic churches schedule regular outreach opportunities for members. Also, nearly half of the adults in the church participate in weekly Bible study. These churches are building healthy communities, and 47% indicate that 10 or more people have trusted Christ for salvation and joined their fellowship in the past year.
While there are undoubtedly other indicators of church health, these three “selfs” have served as key markers. Paternalism, the idea that one congregation takes responsibility for the ministry and beliefs of another congregation (like a parent to a child) has been the default relationship between majority language churches and immigrant or non-English congregations. However, this research makes clear it is time for majority-language pastors and churches to shift our thinking toward these brothers and sisters.
Shift in relationship
The first shift this research signals for us is relational. These “selfs” are not a ticket for independence. Instead, they are a platform for developing mission-partner relationships. A shared belief statement for many Baptists speaks of the importance of cooperation for the sake of the mission. This partnership is a sign of Christian unity and harmony. It is also a demonstration of God’s kingdom.
Often, we evaluate partnerships based on church size or similarity. However, genuine partnership is built on a foundation of respect and a common faith. Missionary Roland Allen pointed out that the apostle Paul understood the churches he planted were indeed the local body of Christ. According to Allen, this conviction rested on his, “profound belief and trust in the Holy Spirit indwelling his converts and the churches of which they were members, which enabled him to establish them at once with full authority.”“Often, we evaluate partnerships based on church size or similarity. However, genuine partnership is built on a foundation of respect and a common faith.” — @dshildreth Click To Tweet
Local churches relate to one another as partners in ministry, not as parents or overseers. The statistics above do not make this relationship true. However, they should remind us that the mission field is also a mission partner.
Shift in prepositions
A second shift is grammatical and practical as we serve with our Hispanic brothers and sisters, not for them. This may seem like an exercise in semantics; however, this subtle shift may make all the difference in the world.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert observe that there are moments in a relationship when partnership means carrying the load. These “relief” moments happen in the aftermath of a crisis when the aim is “to stop the bleeding.” We do for others what they cannot do for themselves.
This “relief” phase is urgent but should be short-lived. Follow-up phases of ministry—rehabilitation and development—involve working with one another as healing takes place and we can approach the mission together.
Far too many of our missionary approaches lean on the wrong preposition. We serve as if we are in the midst of a long-term crisis and relief ministry. The result of this grammatical (and practical) mistake fosters dependence, bitterness, and immaturity.
On mission together
The Hispanic population in the US is growing, and thank God Hispanic churches are too. The needs of Hispanic communities are complex and numerous. And no single church has the money, staff, membership, or resources to accomplish God’s mission alone. Thanks be to the Lord that He never intended this to be the case. He has called His church to be on mission together. May we pray like Paul: “I give thanks to my God…because of your partnership in the gospel (Philippians 1:3a, 5a, CSB).
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.
D. Scott Hildreth
Scott serves as Associate Professor of Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Together on God’s Mission and the co-author of Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out. Both books are published by B&H Academic.
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