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Baptists tackling Hispanic outreach; Barna underscores size of challenge

MIAMI (BP)–The United States is the world’s third-largest country in Hispanic population, missions professor Daniel Sanchez said in reflecting on a recent Barna Research Group study of U.S. Hispanics’ faith.

“If we’re looking at the Hispanics as a mission field, from a global perspective then, the country with the third-largest Hispanic population should be a major focus of the Southern Baptist Convention’s attention,” said Sanchez, director of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Church Growth Institute in Fort Worth, Texas.

Hispanic work indeed receives significant focus from the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, state conventions and associations of local Baptist churches across the country.

Yet the challenge of reaching U.S. Hispanics remains a monumental one.

Strategies have been implemented and church planting efforts are in place to reach 10 times as many Hispanics within the next five years as ever before, said Bob Sena, manager of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s Hispanic church planting unit.

“We’re not reaching many Americans of Hispanic origin,” Sena said. “My deep concern is that we’re not reaching many of the second and third-generation Hispanics. Reading the report from Barna made me realize how much we have done but how much more we need to do.”

Frank Moreno, the Florida Baptist Convention’s strategist for Hispanic and international church planting, noted, “The [Barna] report states that fewer than 1 percent of Hispanics are joining the Baptist church.” Among other Protestant denominations, the Barna study notes, there’s only “a slightly above average tendency for Hispanics to attend charismatic and Pentecostal churches.”

Hispanic attendance within Catholic churches, meanwhile, is weakening, according to the Barna study. “As recently as one decade ago, two-thirds of all Hispanic adults (68%) said the church they attended most frequently was Catholic; today that proportion is down to just half (53%),” the report stated.

Moreno noted that much of the nation’s growing Hispanic population is “coming from everywhere” — from at least 23 nations primarily in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

“And 95 percent of them do not attend church, including the Catholic Church,” Moreno said. “Hispanics are very open to the gospel when they come to this country.” But, he warned, “If we don’t take this opportunity the Lord is giving us, we are going to lose them. They are in a different country. They want to be identified with Hispanics like themselves. If we don’t take advantage of this, it’s going to be hard to reach them in the future.”

Hispanics comprise the youngest group in the United States, Sanchez said. Half are under 25 years of age — significantly lower than the median age for the general population. Younger Hispanics, he noted, for the most part eagerly assimilate into the non-Catholic American culture.

“Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest and sociologist, has been pointing out that large numbers of Hispanics have been leaving the church in the last decade,” Sanchez said. “He says currently 23 percent of Hispanics do not consider themselves Catholic.

“Barna is also correct in pointing out the trend toward religious pluralism among Hispanics,” Sanchez said. “The point to be made is, there is more receptivity to the evangelical message among Hispanics than ever before in the history of this country. I for one am very thankful for the commitment of Southern Baptists to reach Hispanics but I personally think we need a coordinated national strategy that involves all the agencies and focuses on Hispanics as a people group.”

Moreno pointed out that there has been an explosion of evangelical growth in Latin America during the last decade and a decrease in the amount of negativity by the Catholic Church toward evangelicals. These factors may help explain why Hispanics are easier to reach now than ever before, he said.

Regarding the challenge Baptist churches in particular face in reaching Hispanics, Moreno said, “I think that has to do with their Catholic background. In Latin America especially, there used to be a lot of bad publicity as far as relating to evangelicals. Perhaps they are hesitant to relate to Baptist churches because of that.”

The Barna report, released Jan. 3, is available on the Internet at www.barna.org.

Fewer than 200,000 of the nation’s 31 million Hispanics are members of the SBC’s 2,100 Spanish-language congregations.

The largest number of Hispanics is in California, Texas, New York and Florida, followed by Illinois, Arizona and New Jersey, all with more than 1 million Hispanics. Another 11 states have between 200,000 and 1 million Hispanics. In descending order of Hispanic population, they are New Mexico, Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Connecticut, Michigan, Virginia, Georgia and Oregon.

California Southern Baptists count 260 SBC Hispanic congregations and 15,000 members from the state’s total population of 10.5 million, said Danny Sotelo, the state convention’s coordinator for multi-ethnic evangelism.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas counts 937 Hispanic congregations, including 621 started within the last five years. The Southern Baptists of Texas state convention counts 28 Hispanic congregations, including 16 started last year. The state’s Hispanic population was estimated last July by the Census Bureau to be 6.5 million.

New York has the nation’s third-largest Hispanic population, estimated at 2.7 million. According to records kept by the Baptist Convention of New York, there are 36 SBC Hispanic congregations in the state. This includes 31 in metro New York City and five throughout the rest of the state.

Florida, with its 2.3 million Hispanic population, has 224 SBC Hispanic congregations; 22 were started in the last year.

The continual immigration and high birth rate are two reasons Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, as reported by Barna, Sanchez said. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show Hispanics have overtaken Asians as the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group just since 1997.

At projected growth rates, people of Hispanic origin are expected within the next five years to overtake blacks as the nation’s second-largest population group. The Census Bureau in July 2000 estimated 31.3 million Hispanics living in the United States — 11.9 percent of the total population.

“Texas has become second in population by virtue of the increase of its Hispanic population,” Sanchez pointed out. “With other [ethnic] groups you may have either continual immigration or a high birth rate, but not the combination of the two.”

Wyoming is an example of the mushrooming growth of the Hispanic population in various regions. The Census Bureau estimated fewer than 30,000 Hispanics were in the state last summer, including 600 permanent residents in the coal mining area where Gillette is the county seat. By spring more than 7,000 men and their families are expected to be scattered across the Powder River Basin anchored by Gillette. The new immigrants have been drawn by the prospect of temporary work digging wells for methane gas development, a coal byproduct.

Benjamin Martinez has already led at least 15 of them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Martinez is a missionary from Monterrey, Mexico, who arrived providentially in Gillette on assignment from the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention and NAMB just three weeks before the first of the temporary Hispanics arrived — now five times the number anticipated by community officials — for six-month to three-year contracts.

Martinez’ 18-year-old daughter, Priscila, is an example of how quickly young Hispanics become Americanized. She arrived with her family in the United States in January 2000 knowing no English and started school in Casper during the six months the family acclimated to American culture before moving to their mission field. Now she interprets for her father. Though Martinez is in an intensive English class four hours a week, the missionary considers himself to be only at the 50 percent level of conversational English.

Like the Martinez family, 68 percent of the Hispanics in the United States immigrate from Mexico, census records show.

“We need to be sensitive to the culture of the person to whom we’re witnessing,” Sena said. “But it’s not enough just to share the gospel. We need to start churches among them in order to disciple them and connect them and help them to understand that Jesus is more than a mere name.”

Evangelist Rudy Hernandez, president of the Southern Baptists of Texas state convention, was one of several Hispanic leaders to stress the importance of reaching out in English to people of Hispanic origin.

“We need to redouble efforts to reach the Hispanic teenager,” Hernandez said. “Ninety-five percent of the work among Hispanics is done in the Spanish language and for that reason we will not reach the young people and the young married. We need a strong emphasis on reaching the Hispanic teen in either language, and I think by zeroing in on English we are going to be able to help a lot of these folks who are not being reached.”

An emphasis on the culture is also needed, said David Lema, the Miami Baptist Association’s director of Hispanic ministries. A study recently completed for the Florida Baptist Convention showed many of the same conclusions reached by the Barna report.

“According to the study, the gospel has very little impact in Dade County,” Lema said. “One of the challenges we have is in reaching the second and third generation. They like their Hispanic customs — a lot are bilingual and fluent in English, which is their primary language, but they like their Latin music.

“A church that would provide a cultural setting where they could feel comfortable and a linguistic setting where they could relate and understand — that would be a growing church,” Lema said. Some Anglo congregations in Dade County have begun to reach out in English to Hispanics, he noted.

“One of our other challenges is that we still have a lot of people who do not feel comfortable in an English setting or they just don’t like it,” Lema said. “People feel comfortable in their cultural setting. They will flock to it.”

Pentecostal and charismatic churches have had greater success in reaching Hispanics than Baptists because the emotionalism in their services “parallels the cultural lines of normalcy for Hispanics,” Lema explained.

“Clapping is very easy for a Latin person,” he said. “Wherever you go, there’s going to be music with a beat and there’s clapping. Some of our Hispanic churches have not understood that, and that has had a tremendous impact on their retention of membership.”

Southern Baptists for many years have provided entry-level theological and ministry education in Spanish to equip lay leaders and Spanish-language pastors not comfortable enough with English to pursue seminary-level training. In addition to the Hispanic Baptist Theological School (formerly Seminary) in San Antonio, Texas, more than 100 Spanish-language small group study centers are scattered throughout the nation.

The focus in many of these centers has changed from translated “study course” materials of an earlier generation of Southern Baptists to the study of church planting concepts and strategies that emphasize the contextualization of the gospel — putting the gospel into a context understandable by the specific culture being reached.

“LifeWay [Christian Resources] has a staff and has committed resources to provide materials in Spanish, and I’m sure other agencies focus on this,” Sanchez said. “Nationally there has been an explosion of Spanish-language radio and television stations. This is another opportunity, another way to reach Hispanics with the gospel. We are beginning to take advantage of this. NAMB has developed some excellent Spanish-language commercials.”

Reaching Hispanics is as much international missions as it is local missions, several leaders reiterated.

“We need to start churches in every zip code, in every barrio, because that family environment is what they’re looking for,” Sena said. “Then, as they go back [to their homeland], they will be multipliers of the gospel because they have been discipled, because they have an understanding of the Scripture, of who Jesus is, and the benefits of the Bible.”
(BP) Photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PERSON-TO-PERSON, STARTING POINT and AT WORK.

The 20 states with largest Hispanic population, according to US Census Bureau estimates as of July 2000:

10.5 million
6.05 million
New York
2.66 million
2.33 million
1.28 million
1.08 million
New Jersey
1.03 million
New Mexico

For a state-by-state ranking of the Hispanic population in the United States, see the U.S. Census Bureau’s website: www.census.gov/population/estimates/state/rank/hisp.txt. The official 2000 census figures are set for publication in March.