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HISPANIC CONSORTIUM: Opportunities, challenges ahead for Southern Baptists

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The astonishing growth of America’s Hispanic population presents great opportunities — as well as challenges — for Southern Baptist witness and ministry, a consortium of convention leaders were told Oct. 2.

The Hispanic population is growing faster than any other ethnic-cultural segment of the U.S. population — tripling since 1980 and expected to triple again by 2050, said Daniel Sanchez, professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, during Hispanic Consortium ’09 in Nashville, Tenn. Projections indicate Hispanics in the U.S. will number 128 million by 2050 — nearly 30 percent of the entire population.

Recent research reveals 20 percent of Hispanics already identify themselves as “evangelical” or “Protestant” and more than 50 percent are seeking a more direct and personal relationship with God than what they find in their traditional religious practices, Sanchez told the group.

As Hispanic populations increase in states like Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, churches will find dramatic new opportunities for evangelism and church planting, Sanchez said. By the same token, the needs for culturally appropriate strategies and resources also will grow, he said.

“The Hispanic fields are ready for harvest,” Sanchez said. “The religious background of many Hispanics favorably predisposes them to the evangelical message, if it is presented in a positive, sensitive way. But most of our church members need to be trained on how to share the Good News with Roman Catholic friends.”

Leading Hispanics to a personal faith in Christ and discipling them can help strengthen the country’s moral and religious values, the research showed. Hispanics typically are very conservative regarding social values, are strongly committed to strong family ties, religious beliefs and hard work and are more likely to be married and have children than other Americans.

Significant challenges also come with Hispanic ministry, however, the research indicated. First-generation Hispanic immigrants, the large majority of whom do not speak English, will continue to be the largest segment of the Hispanic population for another 10 years. Those people must be reached and discipled in Spanish, Sanchez said. On the other hand, second- and third-generation Hispanics are predominantly bilingual or English speakers and will not be effectively reached with Spanish-language strategies.

While second- and third-generation immigrants are making tremendous strides educationally, most first-generation immigrants do not have a high school education and 50 percent of Hispanic young people drop out of high school in some areas of the country, according to the studies. That means Southern Baptists can focus on encouraging young people to finish their education, but also that entry-level ministry training needs to be provided for less-educated Spanish-speakers who feel called to ministry, Sanchez said.

The economic situation of Hispanic families also has implications for Southern Baptist witness and ministry, added Luis Lopez, director of LifeWay International, a subsidiary of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Second- and third-generation Hispanics are making significant strides economically and U.S. Hispanics are projected to be the ninth-largest economic power worldwide by 2020, Lopez noted. Some Hispanics, however, have serious financial needs — especially among first-generation immigrants — and one-third of the children live below the poverty level.

Needs-based ministries, such as English as a Second Language, can provide a point of entry to reach multitudes of Hispanics for Christ, Lopez said. “Stewardship training, including money management, budgeting and retirement is desperately needed,” he told the group. “This has implications for individuals and churches and also for church-staff support.”

Southern Baptists can look to the business world for illustrations about how important it is to adjust thinking and strategy to Hispanic realities in North America, Sanchez said. He pointed to the bankruptcy of Kmart, which refused to publish advertising materials in Spanish even though many of its stores were located in communities that were 55 percent Hispanic. On the other hand, Chase Bank has made inroads with mobile banking units that reach out to immigrants who are traditionally very resistant to opening bank accounts.

“The unprecedented receptivity of Hispanics to the evangelical message has significant implications for the development of contextualized strategies and resources related to evangelism, discipleship, church planting, leadership training and missions education,” Sanchez said. “Because Hispanics are spreading throughout the country so rapidly, we desperately need many new Hispanic churches in cities and towns across America. This also calls for unprecedented efforts in leadership training at all levels.

“The explosive growth of the Hispanic population, coupled with their unprecedented receptivity to the Gospel, requires extraordinary measures be taken to bring the harvest the Lord has placed before us,” Sanchez concluded. “The question we have is, ‘How are we going to respond to this challenge, this mission field, that is right here on our doorstep?'”

Formed in 2005 out of a report by a national Hispanic task force to the North American Mission Board, the Hispanic Consortium serves as a catalyst to help Southern Baptist entities maximize their effectiveness in Hispanic ministries. It is composed of staff members from six entities, a state convention executive director, a state convention missions director, an associational director of missions and a SBC seminary representative.
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press.

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