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Center for Congregations CRG Director Aaron Spiegel spoke with Gerardo Martí about his recent CRG guest blog post. Gerardo is a professor, researcher and author of Latino Protestants in America. Below are highlights of their conversation.

Aaron: What are the primary motivators for American Latinos moving from Catholicism to Protestantism?

Gerardo: Roman Catholic observers have long been aware of what has been labeled “the defection” of Latinos away from Catholicism to Protestantism. It isn’t new. The esteemed Catholic sociologist Andrew M. Greely documented mass defections in the late 1980s. When pressed for an explanation, he speculated that the appeal for Latinos switching to evangelicalism was based in their upward economic mobility: Protestant churches were potent symbols of middle-class respectability. Current research is not willing to posit such massive changes to a single determining factor like this.

It is also important to note that more recent immigrants from Central and South America arrive into the United States already Protestant. That means more Protestant churches are now available to join. These same Latinos may have found themselves in Catholic churches in the past, but now more immigrants find (and are willing to start) local churches based on Protestant beliefs and liturgy.

Also significant, we cannot ignore the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse among priests that has hung over the American Catholic church, which has disillusioned many to leave Catholicism. Furthermore, many find it difficult to relate to priests in America, clergy who are less likely to be of Hispanic ancestry in comparison with local Latino Protestant pastors who tend to be indigenous, speaking similar dialects, often coming from the same region and sharing similar cultural experiences.

Additionally, our research finds the pursuit of more intimate and more intense spiritual experience to be important. In our interviews, Latinos say they were eager for the deeper spiritual nourishment they discovered in Protestant churches, finding their priests to be dismissive of their desires and questions, while discovering excitement and zeal in a local “Christian” church. More than one respondent simply said, “I found God here.”

Finally, the greater independence of many Protestant churches translates into greater organizational agility and adaptability to their local environment. Even when a particular church is unable to change, it is increasingly likely that Latinos can find a newer church designed to appeal to new sensibilities. This means that the competition among churches is not just between Catholic and Protestant but among Protestants themselves.

Aaron: You stated in your blog post that Pew Research reported that half of all American Latinos will be Protestant by 2030. Why is this significant?

Gerardo: The dramatic increase in Latino Protestantism is largely unanticipated. Considering that Latinos in America are stigmatized as “foreigners” in far too many places in the United States (as is evident in our political controversies regarding illegal immigration), this may result in a renegotiation of both the nature of Protestantism in America as well as the understanding of American Latinidad.

For example, Protestantism is traditionally the mainstream culture of white Americans, serving as a base for promoting privilege and status. The increase of Latino American Protestants may more fully emphasize the racialization of “white Christianity.”

Also, religion among Latinos has often been assumed to be steeped in Catholicism. Approaching Latino religiosity apart from Catholicism can be disorienting for religious leaders who simply have not known Latinos as Protestants. In addition, because the broad Latino community retains strong social and cultural ties to Catholicism, the increase of Protestants can be the source of tensions among family and friends when approaching the nature of the sacred through life-cycle events like weddings and funerals and church-based social events (festivals, holidays, parties, etc.) intended to reach larger social networks.

Aaron: Are American Catholic leaders trying to figure out why they aren’t “automatically” getting Latinos? Is there something “to be done” to change the trend?

Gerardo: All churches whose ancestry are Anglo-European (as well as Asian, i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) tend to lump all “Latino” ancestries together, and Catholic parishes often segregate congregations within a single church to serve particular ethnic groups. However, even when services are conducted or translated into Spanish, the idioms, illustrations, pronunciations, and vocabularies between Hispanic groups can be vastly different. Appointing a Mexican-American minister does not automatically create connections to Cuban, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran people in their neighborhoods. Similarly, relational connections — the family and friends people most likely lead new guests in their churches — do not necessarily overlap between various Latino ethno-racial groups.

Beyond the challenge of outreach to different cultural groups within the general category of Latino, all churches are challenged to be self-reflective regarding their willingness to be truly hospitable to groups that are socially distant from their own. I would caution church leaders against merely setting up another segregated ministry. While I commend congregations that support separate Latino ministries, it is worth considering further the extent a congregation can more fully welcome and incorporate Latinos (and other racial/ethnic groups) into the ongoing ministries of the congregation. While pastor and paid staff may be friendly initially, the successful incorporation of Latinos into obviously non-Latino settings takes a deliberate effort. Lay leaders and regular members must be willing to take into their lives new relationships.

Leaders are challenged to evaluate their own ministry: How wide are the arms of love that can be extended in your congregation? How welcoming is your church to “the alien, the stranger, and the foreigner”? Does your church have intentional boundary-crossers who regularly reach out to those who are unfamiliar and culturally distinct?

The Catholic Church shows pastoral commitment and concern for Latinos, yet the Church would benefit from even more aggressive outreach toward recruitment of Latino men and women from a variety of ancestral backgrounds for lay and full-time ministry.

Aaron: Some readers may associate Protestant with mainline denominations, yet you imply high numbers of Latinos connected with evangelical and Pentecostal movements. Is there a breakdown and explanation of the divisions within Protestantism?

Gerardo: To avoid confusion, our research uses the label “Protestantism” to signify all religious orientations that base themselves from the stream of congregational movements after the Reformation. Today, the data on Latino Protestants captures three distinct groups: Pentecostal – characterized by an emphasis on healing, tongues, and related ministries centered on the infusion of the Holy Spirit; Evangelical – non-Pentecostal churches that emphasize preaching, bible study, adult baptism, and emotive worship; and Mainline churches with affiliations to historic denominational structures like Methodism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, etc.

In terms of proportional representation, the most recent data indicate that the total population of Latino Protestants consists of a little more than one-third being Pentecostal, a little more than one-third Evangelical, and a little less than one-third Mainline. The dip in Mainline affiliation may have to do with the historic absence of significant Latino membership among these churches and the lack of educational credentials qualifying Latino leaders for ordination. In addition, it has been more difficult to establish new Mainline congregations at the pace at which Latino-centered Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations are being established, especially with the added requirements assumed for ordination in Mainline churches.

Aaron: Did the Latino community bring their high commitment and participation in church with them as immigrants or is this an American Latino phenomenon?

Gerardo: We are still working to understand the exceptionally high rates of religious intensity among Latino Protestants. Certainly, part of their congregational fervor has to do with the momentum of church centrality and involvement already cultivated in their countries of origin. Even so, Latino Pentecostals and Evangelicals are generally much more involved in their church communities than those from the Mainline. In addition, most Latino-centered Protestant churches are smaller and therefore require higher involvement among volunteers and lay leaders to sustain their ministries over time.

Aaron: Are there unique challenges for Latino churches that aren’t being addressed by denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations? How can organizations like the Center for Congregations be most helpful to the Latino community?

Gerardo: The challenges for sustaining the continued vitality of the Latino Protestant churches in America are many. They include:

  • Availability and affordability of pastoral training: Latino Protestants mirror their secular counterparts in having lower levels of college attendance and graduation. Therefore, the great majority of Latino pastors committed to ministry lack the educational background necessary to be admitted to seminaries. Consequently, they also lack the means to afford classes and study materials. In response to this situation, a variety of local Bible institutes have emerged, and many seminary and divinity schools in the United States have made generous arrangements to accept Bible institute credit to provide a pathway for graduate education. In addition, some larger churches and theological schools are expanding to provide training in ministry explicitly oriented toward Latinos. Denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations can further fund, mentor, and organizationally bridge opportunities for more formal pastoral training.
  • Financial pressures for salaries, rent, buildings, technology, and ministry infrastructure: Because Latino ministries do not usually include contributions from wealthy donors, church leaders are constantly pressed to meet the financial requirements to build ministry programs and serve the needs of their people. Even when aligned with larger denominational structures, the stories we hear from leaders in the field reveal how difficult it can be to obtain funding. Latino leaders believe priorities for Latino ministry to be quite low. Unfortunately, Latino ministries also suffer from the stigma and prejudice that is all too common among white-dominant communities. Latinos are sidelined, with their issues being accorded less importance. With Latino persistent population growth, the infrastructure for Latino ministry is an area of investment worth considering for the future of Christianity in America.
  • Latinos administratively lumped together, often with other “ethnic” ministries: Latino groups desire to have their own distinctive pastoral and congregational needs met. Yet lack of understanding or poor administration can often leave all “ministries of color” combined with little regard for significant distinctions in their histories and needs. In one organization, we found that all ethno-racial ministries, also joined with women’s ministries, placed under a single department head. Latino migrations are complicated, resulting in practical pastoral differences. With some reflection, church leaders would quickly realize that such administrative streamlining leaves important differences ignored and therefore unaddressed.
  • Absence of respect or authority in decision making within larger structures and networks: Latino leaders bring a great deal of passion and experience to their ministries. We have met many who began their ministries while still teenagers. Yet, their ministry experiences are often ignored and their input rarely sought. These Latino leaders feel like perpetual guests when participating in larger structures and networks of ministry, leaving their own distinctive perspectives and concerns ignored. Similarly, too few Latino pastors and consultants have attained status as “experts,” leaving a highly skewed and incomplete perspective coming from the few who have made it into elite spaces of influence. While non-Latino leaders should make an effort to be more inclusive, the few Latino church leaders with influence should not hoard their visibility and make an equally strong effort to expand the public influence of their colleagues and peers.

Latinos are firmly established in the American spiritual landscape. Attention to their spiritual development should be a priority. Of course, with commitment, planning, and foresight, the challenges listed above can be addressed with practical initiatives centered on further development of pastoral leadership. I trust that concerted effort, consensual planning, and a host of brilliant minds can certainly meet these challenges moving forward.
Tags: Religion In America, Contemporary Trends, Latino, Latinex, Multi Cultural, Ethnic, Diversity Race, Protestantism, Catholicism


Aaron Spiegel by Aaron Spiegel

Aaron Spiegel directs the Center for Congregations’ information and technology initiatives, including the Congregational Resource Guide. He is an author, rabbi and president of the Synagogue Studies Institute.

aspiegel@centerforcongregations.org