English or Español?
For many Hispanic churches the answer is both
By Jennifer McClure
Eddie Cantu was a Bible school student in 1981 when he
sensed God leading him to minister in Mexico, but it was another decade before
he understood the “Mexico” God had directed him to reach was, in fact,
Cantu now pastors Centro Cristiano Hispano, an Assemblies of
God congregation in Springdale, which has one of the largest Hispanic
populations in the state.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Arkansas experienced
the second-highest percentage increase in the Hispanic population of any state
from 2000-2005. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the Hispanic population in the
United States will nearly triple in the next 50 years. Healthy birthrates among
Hispanics as well as immigration trends are significant factors in this
projection. By 2050, nearly one in three U.S. residents are expected to be
This year the Arizona Latin District became the ninth
Assemblies of God Hispanic district. Out of the U.S. Assemblies of God’s 12,362
churches, some 2,200 are Hispanic congregations. At the start of the decade,
that number stood at 1,885 — an increase of about 16 percent.
This growth has brought bilingual needs and immigration
concerns to the forefront for Hispanic congregations across the United States.
But often in confronting these challenges, leaders in Hispanic churches find
they increase their ministry footprint in their community.
New Hope Christian Fellowship, an AG church in Greeley,
Colo., used to offer only an English service, but 10 years ago Pastor Rigo
Magana started a Spanish service. Since then, Magana says, the church has seen
growth in both services.
“When we came we had about 150 people,” Magana says. “Now we
have about 800 coming every weekend.”
Since offering both Spanish and English services, New Hope’s
ministry has reached not only across language but also ethnic divides.
Multiethnic ministry is becoming more common among Hispanic
congregations. For New Life Covenant Church, an AG church in Chicago, bridging
language and cultural barriers to reach the people in its community was a
motivational factor to add an English service.
“For 35 years the church service was in Spanish, but the
community became more predominantly second- and third-generation Hispanic and
African-American,” says Wilfredo de Jesus, senior pastor of New Life. “The
community was changing, and the church had to change with it, but not lose our
Today at New Life there are more English-language services
than Spanish — four of the five weekend services are in English —
but De Jesus says cultural identity is not lost when English becomes the
“There are so many things that make us Hispanics other than
the language,” De Jesus says. “The culture, the food, the traditions —
those makes us Hispanics as well.”
In fact, De Jesus’ first language isn’t Spanish, which is
true of many pastors in AG Hispanic congregations. Just five years ago he began
to learn Spanish well enough to preach his sermons in Spanish.
“Even though I’m Puerto Rican, I was born and raised in
Chicago,” he says. “My parents talked to me in Spanish, but I responded to them
in English. It was a challenge for me to learn my own language and try to
create a sermon.”
De Jesus preaches both Spanish and English services. He
encourages pastors to offer bilingual ministry, either in separate meetings or
with a translator in one service. Offering an English option allows a church to
reach non-Spanish speakers, whether they be Hispanic or of another ethnicity.
“Their children are going to have friends — they may
be black, they may be Anglo — and they may want to invite them. But they
can’t invite them if their church is only in Spanish,” De Jesus says.
Hispanic churches must consider the generations of Hispanics
whose first language is English, De Jesus says. But with more than 50 percent
of the U.S. foreign-born population coming from Latin American countries, the
need for Spanish-language services is far from extinct.
Located in an area of predominantly first-generation
Hispanics, Springdales’s Centro Cristiano Hispano offers only Spanish-language
ministry. This is appealing to many local Hispanics from across Latin America
who speak little or no English.
Efraim Espinoza, director of the Office of Hispanic
Relations for the AG, says churches, regardless of ethnicity, are increasingly
affected by immigration, but the problem presents a unique opportunity.
“The broader immigration issue means we have undocumented
attendees in our churches or we have families who have undocumented workers in
their homes,” Espinoza says. “The church cannot solve the issue of immigration,
but the church can minister to people in need.”
Since starting Centro Cristiano Hispano in 1995, Cantu has
been able to minister directly to hundreds of Hispanic immigrants.
In Greeley, Magana says he understands the plight of
immigrants. Born in Mexico, he immigrated into the United States with his
parents at age 12.
Now a U.S. citizen, Magana says New Hope is committed to
connecting families to local service agencies. Church members and leaders also
look for opportunities to make people feel at ease and experience the love of
Espinoza also suggests churches can minister to illegal
immigrants by directing them to appropriate sources for obtaining legal
“While we do believe in immigration reform,” Espinoza says,
citing the official AG position paper on the topic, “we also believe in
compassionate care of the individuals who are caught in the situation.
“As our churches effectively minister to our growing
Hispanic population in the United States,” he says, “they are also reaching the
extended family members in other Latin American countries with the salvation
Though the booming population brings new challenges,
Espinoza says U.S. Hispanic churches are “reaching across generational and
language barriers to minister to a multigenerational Hispanic population.”
JENNIFER McCLURE is assistant editor of Today’s Pentecostal
Evangel and blogs at Going Up? (jmcclure.agblogger.org).
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