Growth explosion of the Hispanic church
The storms are raging over the proposed celebration of the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the Americas in October 1492. What started as the prospect of memorializing five centuries of change and progress has turned into a bitter battle that includes the angry voices of indigenists and other groups that propose the labeling of Columbus' voyage as the ultimate symbol of oppression and murderous colonialism. But no matter which side triumphs in setting the tone of the quincentennial celebration, one has to recognize the tremendous impact of Spanish culture on the history of the continent.
In North America Hispanics number about 25 million and, taken as a group, represent the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. In the midst of these people, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is experiencing an outstanding success.
In the North American Division, as in other parts of the world, the Spanish-speaking membership is growing faster than any other ethno-linguistic segment. And this is the case in most parts of the world. During the past ten years the aver age annual growth rate has been around ten percent from 25,191 members in 1979 to 64,502 in 1990, and from 215 congregations in 1979 to 441 as of the third quarter 1991. At this rate the His panic churches will have about 150,000 members by the year 2000. In the Pacific Union Conference alone, the more than 30,000 Hispanics comprise 17 percent of the total membership.1
In August 1990 the Hispanic leaders of the North American Division voted an evangelistic plan that would see 100,000 Spanish-speaking members in North America by the end of 1995. This means baptizing 40,000 new converts in the next four years. Also in the works is a national evangelistic campaign throughout 1992, marking the 500th anniversary of the Columbus discovery. Judging by the ebullience and enthusiasm of the Hispanic leadership, these goals will be reached!
This phenomenal growth has created serious challenges for the Spanish-speaking work. Eradio Alonso, associate ministerial secretary for the division, lists six areas of concern: (1) the need of buildings for new congregations; (2) providing Adventist education for thousands who cannot afford our education; (3) finding steady financial resources for the increasing opportunities in evangelism; (4) furnishing a greater variety of Spanish literature; (5) developing stronger ties among different Hispanic nationalities; and (6) better representation at the governing structures of the church.2
Why the growth?
Until recently the Hispanic work grew slowly. What are the reasons for this tremendous spurt in the past decade? Besides the obvious leading of the Holy Spirit, the time just seems to be right. Economic and political upheavals in Latin America have spurred immigration to the north. Spanish language radio and publications have been sowing the seed for decades. The Catholic Church has changed its posture toward Bible study, allowing its members to discuss Bible doctrine more openly. American leaders and members have supported and nurtured Latin congregations. To these, let me add three major factors.
No more melting pot In recent years a sociological change that has increased the visibility of all Hispanics in the United States has also influenced evangelism among them. I refer to the abandonment of the melting pot mentality. Let me explain.
The melting pot social theory suggests that any ethnic group will eventually lose its own unique identity and will integrate totally as part of mainstream American culture. As some have said, the melting pot has turned out more like a stew pot in which all ingredients keep their flavors while influencing the flavor of the whole dish. In recent times it has become acceptable to retain the elements of one's ethnic culture while learning the ways of North America.
Hispanics now have their own national television chain, attracting the attention of most major advertisers. There are new magazines for North American Hispanics in both English and Spanish, and strong job-recruiting campaigns by well-known companies. The new His panic identity is so strong that it has inspired an English-only movement that attempts to uphold English as the official language of the United States.
How do all these affect Hispanic evangelism? Effective outreach among ethnic groups requires a good measure of respect for the distinctive traits that make up the group's identity. In general, imposing external cultural values or habits has not proven very successful anywhere. Spanish churches have always been a sanctuary not only for religious beliefs but also for those cultural attributes that make up the Hispanic way of life. Now that Hispanics know that they are not required to "melt," they have come in record numbers to churches that perpetuate their Hispanic identity.3
Spanish Seventh-day Adventist churches, for instance, exhibit a distinctive Latin American influence in their church services: spirited singing, active response with "amens" to a good mes sage, and a warm welcome to visitors.
Another factor that propels the growth of Hispanic congregations is the emphasis on evangelism. Some Spanish leaders point to a historic meeting held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the summer of 1980 in which Hispanic coordinators forcefully decided they would make evangelism their top priority, just as they did in their countries of origin in the Inter-American and South American divisions. The encouraging number of baptisms after that year speaks for the seriousness of their commitment.
The evangelistic methods employed by North American Hispanics are many including Revelation seminars, group Bible studies, baptismal classes, Easter week evangelism, multimedia presentations, and small group outreach.
Some ministers are developing new strategies. In Chicago Pastor Efrain Perez, now sales director for foreign language literature at Pacific Press, translated into English every sermon delivered in Spanish by his guest speaker, Pastor Pedro Clausell, from New York, in order to reach a group of English-speaking young Hispanics. Both audiences responded, and more than 40 were baptized. In Tacoma, Washington, Joaquin Cazares, a minister and a physician, is reaching the Latin community through a radio program that offers health tips and fields health questions from his audience.
Lay involvement is the key to soul-winning. In the Greater New York Conference 105 lay preachers equipped with Bibles, books, and pamphlets worked in 16 churches. Less than four months later 286 were baptized. Three months after that, the ministers again started a month-long training program and organized more than 100 lay teams. The new phase started with a lay festival at the Brooklyn College auditorium; in the same meeting an altar call was made, and more than 100 non-Adventists responded. That conference laid plans to baptize 800 by the end of 1990. The achievement: 710.
Hispanics attempt to utilize every opportunity for soul-winning. They distribute record amounts of outreach literature (64,000 members support 100,000 subscriptions of El Centinela, the Spanish missionary journal), and their church calendar is planned around evangelistic events.
Spanish members usually set their own soul-winning goals. Pastor and members come up with a plan and a goal for growth. Many times they will not reach that exact number of baptisms, but they know their work and their direction. This is no place to discuss the merits or the theological significance of setting goals, but I believe it works as a general principle of church growth.
What can we learn?
1. Target specific groups, respecting the social, cultural, and personal traits they exhibit. Adopt evangelism methods to specific situations, and let this be the unique product of each congregation.
2. Make soul-winning the top priority. A myriad of details and concerns surround each minister and church member in North America politically, socially, and economically. In the midst of all of these we need to hear the words of the Great Commission: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19).
Rearranging our priorities, as painful as it may be, will give us a tremendous sense of freedom and purpose.4
3. Involve the laity. Ministers alone will not finish the work. When it comes to soul-winning, the laity is as responsible as the clergy. They need to be involved in training and in setting their own baptismal goals. There is nothing business or pleasure that should get us more excited than bringing souls to Jesus.
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1. Statistics available through the Office of Human Relations of the North American Division.
2. Revista Adventista, North American edition, April-June 1990, p. 5.
3. According to some Catholic leaders, the Catholic Church is losing Spanish members in several parts of the country because, among other reasons, it does not let Hispanics worship in ways that preserve their cultural roots. Vicki Larson, "The Flight of the Faithful," Hispanic, November 1990, pp. 18- 24.
4. For more on North American Hispanics, see also Christianity Today, Oct. 28,1991, cover story, pp. 16-21.