Connections: Samuel Rodriguez
Aug. 24, 2014
Latinos in the Limelight
Samuel Rodriguez is the leader of the largest Christian Hispanic organization in the U.S., the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC).
In addition, Rodriguez is an ordained Assemblies of God minister who pastors a multiethnic church in Sacramento, Calif., New Season Christian Worship Center. His wife, Eva, is senior pastor of a Spanish-language AG church in Elk Grove, Calif., Centro Cristiano de Adoración, with primarily Mexican attendees.
Rodriguez, 44, recently spoke with Pentecostal Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy.
evangel: You are pastoring a congregation that is 55 percent African-American and 30 percent Anglo — but only 5 percent Latino. How did that mix happen?
SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ: God spoke to my heart about the church being an intentional reflection of the mosaic. From the first day, we intentionally placed people in leadership who reflected the tapestry of the community we were reaching. If you have a praise and worship team that is white, you’re only going to reach white people; if you are all Latino, you’re just going to reach Latinos.
evangel: In April, the NHCLC merged with the Evangelical Alliance of Latin America (CONELA) to form the largest Latino Christian organization in the world. Tell us about that.
RODRIGUEZ: It is historic for the church collectively, but also for the Latino community globally. We had the leading Latino evangelical figures from around the world. Both teams approved the merger unanimously. With 486,000 churches, this is the largest evangelical network in the world. My role will be CEO-president. [AG Executive Presbyter] Jesse Miranda, the godfather of the movement, emerges as the emeritus global chair. He is an iconic figure both domestically and globally. Gilbert Velez, an AG minister from Texas, is board chair.
evangel: How did you, as the son of Puerto Rican parents, become so influential in evangelical circles when you were so young?
RODRIGUEZ: Only by God’s coordination. My parents are not preachers. I doubted everything I saw in the Assemblies of God church in Allentown, Pa., where I grew up. I doubted glossolalia; I doubted people being changed; I doubted God’s existence.
When I was 14, a Teen Challenge leader came to our church. He stopped in the middle of a song, called me out, and began to prophesy. He told me I was going to be influential beyond my imagination. Everything I’ve seen my life was laid out when I was 14 years old.
Another speaker came one year later and said, “Because you doubted last year, I am publicly repeating it to you.” That catapulted me into thinking God may be real after all. I had wanted to be a computer engineer for IBM, but I surrendered to God. I started speaking at youth conventions around the country, where thousands of Latino young people received Christ and the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Jesse Miranda passed the baton of the Hispanic Evangelical Association (AMEN), which he started in 1992. I had already formed the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. We’ve grown in 14 years from 3,000 to 40,118 churches in America, and 440,000 in Latin America.
evangel: Why are Pentecostal churches attracting Hispanics when many other faith groups aren’t?
RODRIGUEZ: Pentecostal churches are exploding with the Hispanic demographic. In the next 20 years the leadership mantle of many wonderful Pentecostal denominations throughout America — the Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland), Church of God of Prophecy, Foursquare — may very well reside in the hands of Latinos. Almost without exception, Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of corresponding local churches through their regional districts.
The reason Pentecostals are attracting people is that they usually come from the Catholic charismatic movement. They already embrace the pneuma, glossolalia, signs and wonders, healings and miracles. There is nothing egregiously abnormal about worshipping in a Pentecostal setting when you’ve already been in a Catholic charismatic setting.
Pentecostals have a solidified commitment to biblical orthodoxy. The Pentecostal church is the most attractive religious narrative for the Latino demographic in America.
evangel: Why are predominantly white churches and predominantly Hispanic churches sometimes suspicious of each other?
RODRIGUEZ: The suspicion lies in mutual myopia. Latino churches believe Anglo churches have a paternalistic point of view. Some would argue there is an old imperial, colonial missionary mindset that says, “You are under us.” Some Latinos repudiate that by saying, “We’re going to start our own churches and thrive so abundantly that you will come under us.”
This results in angst and trepidation, not cooperation. I am driven by the idea of a kingdom culture rather than suffering from cultural myopia.
I’m proud to be Latino. But above all things, I am a Spirit-empowered, born-again Christ follower. More than ever, we are seeing Latino Pentecostal pastors reaching out to Anglos and African-Americans with a broad multiethnic lens.
Latinos are not a race; we are an ethnicity. We have black Latinos, white Latinos and brown Latinos. Because of that, we have a multiethnic proclivity. We are in a better position to reach out to everyone. It’s already part of our cultural DNA.
evangel: What is the biggest problem facing the Latino community?
RODRIGUEZ: It is the identical problem facing the Anglo community: successful outreach engagement with the next generation. We have discovered we are not immune from the next generation becoming less religiously affiliated and disenchanted with the standard religious modus operandi.
The second issue we have to address is there is an immediate crisis in education. I would love to see more Latino seminary graduates who have the intellectual acumen to serve unapologetically as strong defenders of the faith. I believe there is a vacuum now.
Many of our pastors have a lack of educational commitment, hence the problem of exuberant emotionalism rather than solid biblical orthodoxy. We are going to have a difficult time in a world of moral relativism, cultural decadence, and spiritual apathy.
Thirdly, we are living in the most difficult time in America as it pertains to Judeo-Christian values. We have never had our Christian faith under the level of assault we are currently experiencing. We’re more about self-preservation than changing the world. There needs to be a broadening of our agenda rather than suffering from myopia.
evangel: What can and should white Christians learn from Latino Christians?
RODRIGUEZ: The number one thing my wonderful Anglo brothers and sisters can learn from the Latino church is to look at what we are doing right: growing. I say this respectfully — quench not the Spirit. We are still people of the Spirit, not just in our polity and the text narrative; not just in the form, but the function.
Ontologically we are people of the Spirit and we live it out every single Sunday. We are people who believe Jesus still saves, delivers, heals and baptizes. We believe in the laying on of hands, in the powerful prayer language, in signs and wonders, in the supernatural. We are both seeker friendly and Spirit friendly, both practical and prophetic, both righteousness and justice, both sanctification and service.
We reconcile Billy Graham’s message with Martin Luther King’s march. We are preaching salvation and being filled with the Spirit of God. We are saying let’s change the community, let’s address poverty and sex trafficking. We have the fishes and the bread without ever sacrificing truth on the altar of expediency.