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Spiritual interest rises among Hispanics, new study says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Two Southern Baptist Hispanic leaders see evidence of a spiritual hunger and high receptivity to the Gospel among Hispanics in a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

Bob Sena, director of the field services team in the North American Mission Board’s church planting group, told Baptist Press the fact that 23 percent of the Hispanic population now identifies with either evangelical or Protestant churches “indicates that Hispanics are now more receptive to the Gospel message than ever before in the history of this country.”

“The Hispanic field is white unto the harvest,” Sena said. “My prayer is that the Lord will give us a passion to lead untold numbers of Hispanics to Christ and to start churches in the hundreds of communities across North America where Hispanics now live.”

Southern Baptists planted 1,592 Hispanic churches during the past five years, Sena reported, which averages 318 per year.

Daniel Sanchez, professor of missions and director of the Scarborough Institute for Church Planting and Growth at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed that the study confirms a deep spiritual hunger among Hispanics in the United States.

“They are searching for an experience that connects them more closely to God than they find in their traditional forms of worship,” Sanchez said of the trend away from traditional Catholicism toward charismatic worship among Hispanics. “… Evangelical Christians can be a blessing to them if they genuinely love them, establish meaningful relationships with them, focus on what is essential for salvation and include them in spirit-filled Bible studies and warm Christian fellowship.”

Sanchez noted the desperate need to start more Spanish-speaking churches and to train more Hispanic pastors in response to the Latino population’s desire for strong ethnic churches.

“May the Lord give all of us a passion in our communities across the nation to share the good news of salvation with our Hispanic friends and neighbors,” Sanchez said. “The Lord could use this as the instrument for the beginning of a great spiritual awakening such as we have not seen in America for many, many years.”

About one-third of all Catholics in the United States now are Latinos, the Pew study reported; the Hispanic population in this country now exceeds 42 million, or roughly 14 percent of the population — with projections to keep growing at an energetic rate.

Because Hispanics tend to incorporate Pentecostal and charismatic practices into their worship, this could mean changes are ahead for Catholicism, the nation’s largest religious institution, the landmark survey of more than 4,600 Hispanics found.

“Among Latinos, evangelicals tend to be much more charismatic or Pentecostal than Catholics,” Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said. “It’s also a pattern we’re seeing in Latin America where, in some countries, up to 80 percent of Protestants are now Pentecostal or charismatic,” he noted during a conference call with reporters when the study was released April 25.

“Evangelicalism, as we know it in this country, is fast disappearing in many places in the [global] South; basically, evangelicals are becoming Pentecostals. That is a growing movement throughout the world, and Africa in particular, not just in Latin America,” Lugo said.

Pew researchers documented how Latinos have distinctive religious practices rooted in renewalist Christianity, which places an emphasis on the Holy Spirit intervening in daily affairs. Also, Latinos are transforming the Catholic Church as more than half of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics. Though they’re Catholic, they report such things as divine healings and speaking in tongues.

“This is introducing a new way to worship, a new way of being the church,” Lugo told the Associated Press. “You could call it bringing the fiesta spirit into the Catholic Church.”

While predominantly white churches are attempting to reach out to Latinos through Hispanic ministries, the Pew study found that two-thirds of Latino worshipers attend churches with Latino clergy where services are offered in Spanish. Ethnic churches are prevalent even among English-speaking Latinos.

Because religion matters greatly to the Hispanic identity, ethnic churches tend to affirm cultural roots and strengthen families and communities, Edwin Hernandez, a Latino expert at the University of Notre Dame and consultant for the study, told AP. Ethnic churches help people integrate into society by providing job training, social services and intergenerational connections.

An element of the study with broader implications is the finding that two-thirds of Hispanics say their religious beliefs are an important influence on their political thinking, and they believe churches should address social issues and the political questions of the day.

Latinos who are evangelicals are twice as likely as those who are Catholics to identify with the Republican Party, the study said, while Latino Catholics gravitate toward the Democratic Party.
To read the study, visit www.pewforum.org.

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  • Erin Roach