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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, Arkansas.

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 Hispanic.

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 identity.”

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 preferred language.

“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 Christ.

Espinoza also suggests churches can minister to illegal immigrants by directing them to appropriate sources for obtaining legal documentation.

“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 message.”

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? (

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