In response to a study released by the Pew Research Hispanic Center, three Hispanic leaders see a growing need for churches to consider the diversity among Hispanic populations as they reach out to those in their communities.
The study examines the diverse countries of origin found among the nearly 52 million Hispanics living in the United States. Taking figures from 2011, the study notes more than 20 Spanish-speaking nations are represented by the U.S. Latino population and focuses on the 14 largest Hispanic-origin groups.
According to the research, "nearly two-thirds (64.6 percent) of U.S. Hispanics, or 33.5 million, traced their family origins to Mexico." The next-largest group, Puerto Ricans, made up 9.5 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population. Following these were Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Spaniards, Hondurans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Argentineans.
Daniel Sanchez, professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said the explosive growth of the Hispanic population provides churches with great opportunities for ministry and evangelism because "Hispanics also are responding more to the Gospel than ever before."
In response to the Pew study, Sanchez said country of origin can influence Gospel receptivity among Hispanics.
"If you take some of the Central American countries, like Guatemala, almost one-third of the population of Guatemala is evangelical now," Sanchez said, adding that Puerto Rico also is almost one-third evangelical.
"So when they come to the States, they already have an evangelical orientation, and some of them are being instrumental in forming congregations," Sanchez said. "One can expect a higher degree of receptivity and that they've had more contact with evangelicals even if they are not evangelicals themselves.
"Interestingly enough, then, percentage-wise, some of these countries are ahead of Mexico in terms of percentage of evangelicals.... More people coming from Mexico will have a Roman Catholic orientation ... [and] may not have had any contact with evangelicals previously," Sanchez said. "So, it takes longer to establish a relationship with them. But, there are enough commonalities there. Evangelism, then, may just require more time for some from these groups."
Fermín Whittaker, a Panama native, agreed with Sanchez, saying exposure to the Gospel within the country of origin can affect Gospel receptivity.
Noting cultural and linguistic differences, Whittaker said, "We stay away from local dialects when preaching in our churches and make it something so all can understand the Word of God. That's the way I preach when I preach in Spanish. I don't take any jokes from Panama or any illustrations that may not be appropriate to the audience I'm speaking with."
Elías Bracamonte, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Nueva Vida in Topeka, Kan., said in addition to diversity in religious background, Spanish-speaking countries also have economic and educational differences. Thus, Hispanic immigrants "need not only to assimilate and adapt to the U.S. but also to each other."
For example, the Pew Research study said 51 percent of Venezuelans have a college degree compared to 7 percent of Guatemalans and Salvadorans. Argentineans have the highest annual median household income at $55,000 while Hondurans rank lowest at $31,000.
While these differences likely will influence strategies for reaching Hispanics in a community, Bracamonte encourages churches "to be humble and have good relationships and build trust because there's an open door, and this is our opportunity to have an impact and be a blessing to others with the spirit of Christ."
An even larger factor in ministry to Latinos, Sanchez, Whittaker and Bracamonte noted, may be the diversity between first-, second- and third-generation Hispanics.
"We also talk about the different generations: the immigrant generation, the children of the immigrants that would typically be bilingual, and then the grandchildren of the immigrants that are mainly English speakers," Sanchez said.
"It takes a variety of approaches to reach these different segments within the Hispanic population. Being aware of this is important in contradistinction to thinking that one style fits all."
Second- and third-generation Hispanics generally have higher education and a higher standard of living than first-generation Hispanics, Sanchez said. Additionally, "Second- and third-generation Hispanics are even more responsive to the Gospel message than the first generation. So, children's and youth ministries are extremely important.... Half of the Hispanic population is under 27 [years of age]."
Bracamonte, a second-generation American whose parents moved to the United States from Mexico, said those from the first generation have greater difficulty integrating into American culture.
"The first generational people have to assimilate, eventually adopt their country, adapt to the culture and adjust [to life in America]," Bracamonte said.
This generational diversity, Whittaker said, can be seen clearly in the language barrier between Spanish and English. While most first-generation Hispanic-Americans are predominantly Spanish speakers, their children and grandchildren tend to be bilingual or English-only.
As a pastor in California, Whittaker used to preach only in Spanish, but he noticed young people were not coming to church. When he began preaching bilingually, the church grew significantly.
Sanchez agreed, adding, "One cultural characteristic of Hispanics is a very strong emphasis on the family. So if a church can find a way to keep the family together, not necessarily worshipping in the same service, but if they can go to church together and even worship in different languages, then they will sometimes respond better than at a church that only ministers to the Spanish-speaking or only to the English-speaking segments of the Hispanic population."
Even with the diversity of country, generations and languages, Whittaker said, "The common bond is the Gospel."
"Those profiles are sometimes looked on as obstacles to the Gospel, but once you sit down and have a cup of coffee, it goes away. We use the word familia familia crosses the borders with everyone."
Sanchez agreed, noting, "There still needs to be an effort on the part of those working with Hispanics to reach all of them.
"It takes an effort because there are cultural variations," Sanchez said. "Typically, the pastors that are better able to relate to the cultures coming from different countries of origin, those churches are the ones that are reaching the largest number of them. The more we're aware of these challenges, the more effective we're going to be.
"Friendship evangelism needs to be utilized because if you establish friendships with them, then a greater degree of trust is developed," Sanchez said.
Whittaker encourages churches to develop "an openness of love for people in their community."
"It may sound like we're doing it, but in reality, sometimes we're afraid because we don't know what the response may be," Whittaker said. "I have found that when a church is willing to evangelize their community, the Lord provides the wisdom for them to do it the right way."
"Before you do anything, prayer has to bathe your community as you receive the compassion of Christ for everybody in your community, not only a specific language but all kinds of people," Whittaker said.