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    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

America’s Melting Pot: The Church’s Ministry Challenge

By Robert Mims
Aug. 28, 2011

The Census Bureau’s most recent figures show that Hispanics have become the nation’s largest minority group, a demographic shift that has just begun simmering within America’s melting pot.

None of that surprises Assemblies of God leaders and pastors, who need only scan the pews on a given Sunday morning to see an increasingly diverse ethnic mix of attendees as they rise for worship.

“The Assemblies of God needs to be proactive in addressing this issue and making sure this group is included and represented,” says David Stepp, senior pastor of the Bakersfield (Calif.) Hispanic Church. “We are a culturally diverse nation and will continue to see more and more ethnic groups rise from minorities to majorities.”

Indeed, the 2010 Census shows the United States has moved from predominantly northern European ethnicity to where today one in six Americans — 16.3 percent, up from 12.5 percent just a decade ago — are Hispanic; 13 percent are black; and non-Hispanic whites account for 63.7 percent, down from 69.1 percent in 2000. Some demographic researchers predict that between 2040 and 2050, whites will dip below 50 percent of the total population.

Stepp and his wife, Letty, have seen the nation’s transition in microcosm as the Southern California congregation they founded has gone through nearly 20 years of change and growth. The first generation at the church often spoke Spanish as their first or only language. Now, however, their children, more comfortable with English, are the newest among the Bakersfield church’s 1,100 parishioners.

“We are a mostly Hispanic church birthed in an Anglo, English-speaking church that has come full circle,” says Stepp, himself born in Caracas, Venezuela. “Because of our youth and young adults, we have found it necessary to begin an English service. We foresee having a completely English-speaking church along with our existing Spanish church to accommodate the second and third generations.”

Malcolm Burleigh, director of Intercultural Ministries for the Assemblies of God, cautions that even when language is shared, cultural differences remain — and must be respected and adapted to presentations of the gospel.

“God has brought the world to us,” Burleigh says. “We have been evangelizing in the context of who we are. But we need a better grasp of their culture so we do not offend in our approach to evangelize.”

When he speaks of culture, Burleigh notes the danger of lumping all Hispanics — or any language group — together.

Most Spanish-speaking Americans are of Mexican ancestry, given the long border their country of origin shares with the United States. However, others trace their roots to Puerto Rico, Cuba or any of another 16 countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Their language may be common, but culturally their differences can be wide; words and phrases in one Hispanic country take on other meanings in another.

“Learning their particular language and idioms takes their guards down,” Burleigh says. “Once they know you are interested in learning, eating their food, understanding their struggles, the walls come down.”

Efraim Espinoza, director of the AG Office of Hispanic Relations, says the Fellowship’s leaders are emphasizing the need to understand the ethnic distinctives of its growing minorities. (Hispanics attending the Fellowship’s more than 1,900 Spanish language district churches alone — not counting those worshipping in English-speaking congregations — numbered 250,000, according to the AG general secretary’s statistics office.)

“The opportunities [this trend represents] are many, especially as some of our established congregations move to the suburbs with their congregants and their facilities become available, especially in the inner cities,” Espinoza says.

While the AG recognizes and is acting on the changing ethnic makeup of the nation and its own churches, Espinoza stresses that the Fellowship already has a good record of serving Hispanics, who make up roughly 10 percent of U.S. membership. He notes that the AG had its first Spanish church in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1915, just one year after organizing as a body.

Espinoza also points to the Fellowship’s 1995 launch of Evangelio Pentecostal, a Spanish version of Pentecostal Evangel that became a subscription-based quarterly publication in 2000; the Vida Nueva Sunday School curriculum; the development of an all-Spanish AG website (; recognition of the Commission on Ethnicity; establishment of the Office of Hispanic Relations in 2005; and, most recently, creation of the Office of Ethnic Relations.

Those are just a few of the actions showing that leaders are cognizant of the demographic realities in the country, Espinoza says.

The challenges of ministering to Hispanic followers will have to remain flexible, too, says Heber Paredes, lead pastor at the Irvine (Calif.) La Puerta Abierta Church.

“We are used to ministering to the first [immigrant] generation, but then we needed to reach a new, second generation to keep them in church,” Paredes says. “The first generation may speak Spanish only. The second generation speaks Spanish, but prefers English. Now, we have a third generation totally immersed [in American society], often speaking English only — they truly consider this country as theirs.”

Still, Hispanic adherents treasure much of their parents’ and grandparents’ heritage, which keeps them culturally unique. Those elements are most visibly expressed in music and exuberant styles of worship, Paredes says.

In a congregation of 600, Paredes and his staff currently offer two services — one in Spanish, the other bilingual, in English and Spanish. The same pattern is applied to La Puerta Abierta’s numerous small group ministries. Many of those ministries focus on basic needs — infant care, understanding and dealing with immigration laws, employment and education.

“We have basic needs that are not problems for the main American culture,” Paredes says.

But the payoff, Paredes says, is sweet. Because so many Hispanics’ experience with faith has been limited to institutional religion, a personal conversion experience often amounts to a spiritual sea change.

That excitement can mean worship — in style and longevity — that doesn’t always stay within service length limitations many mainstream Assemblies of God churches follow.

Differences? Yes. But there also is unity in purpose all Assemblies of God attendees share

“We are all together cooperating for the kingdom of God,” Paredes says.

ROBERT MIMS is a journalist based in Salt Lake City.

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