According to sociologists Mark Mulder, Aida Ramos, and Gerardo Marti, Latino Protestants are a force to be reckoned with. They “are simply more religiously active” than their Latino Catholic or white or black Protestant counterparts. They are “more actively committed to their congregations,” and “their churches are more central” to their religiosity and to their lives. Latino Protestants are a “growing but neglected religious group that will become a more visible and prevalent force in American life.” As Latinos continue to grow as a percentage of the US population, and as more Latinos become Protestants, people will need to know more about this growing segment of US Christianity.
These three researchers have collaborated on a book, Latino Protestants in America, which results from a study called the Latino Protestant Congregations (LPC) Project that was funded by the Lilly Endowment. The book is based on the first years of the project (2014–2016), but the study will continue through 2018.
After providing a broad introduction to Latino Protestantism (chapter one) the authors frame their study historically (chapter two), helping readers understand both the importance of conversions to Protestantism after the takeover of the Southwest by the United States (1848) and how immigration has impacted the growth of Latino Protestant churches, particularly after the 1965 Immigration Act. With that background, the book refers to a number of studies of Latino Protestants (chapter three), including the in-depth interviews of the LPC Project, to provide a snapshot of the diversity of the community today.
The next three chapters address Latino Protestant identity (chapter four), congregational life (chapter five) and the social and civic engagement of Latino Protestants in US society (chapter six). The descriptions in these chapters demonstrate that: Latino Protestants, as the book’s subtitle suggests, are both growing and becoming more diverse. Because of their unique history and experiences, Latino Protestants have developed an identity that is distinct from that of other US Protestants and from Latino Catholics. They are starting and growing churches that reflect that identity, and they are participating in politics and social issues in ways that demonstrate their unique ecclesiology, theology, and ethno-religious identity. The book ends (chapter seven) with a description of how Latino Protestants might influence US Protestantism and highlights some of the issues that the researchers did not address, but which they consider important for future study.
Latino Protestants in America clearly accomplishes its goal of offering “a map of a route that leads to a deeper understanding of Latino Protestants.” The book provides many interesting snapshots and illustrations of what Latino Protestantism looks like today. It names and describes some of the reasons why Latino Protestantism is growing and provides examples of some of the diverse “flavors” represented under its broad canopy. The book does a good job of summarizing the results of some earlier studies of Latino Protestants and combining that with their own field research.
In the last chapter, the authors mention some of the issues they feel need further research. Their biggest concern is to avoid “ethnoracial essentialization,” a situation in which Latino Protestants are described by “tautological and racialized stereotypical statements that have no analytic value.” As an example, they mention the tendency to state that Latino Protestants have “worship services with a Latino flavor” without being able to clearly explain what that means. Because it is difficult to clearly describe this diverse community, they hope that future research will coalesce “around a common set of interests.” With that in mind, they suggest that future research focus on worship, ethnic identity, and civic engagement “for the sake of building a body of shared understanding.”
The authors want their readers to realize how diverse Latino Protestantism is, and so they look at all types of Protestant religious expressions. But this tends to downplay the fact that the vast majority of Latino Protestants are Pentecostal or evangelical (about 75%) and that this is the segment of Latino Protestantism that is growing the most (see Pew research on Latino religions and the work of Clifton Holland). For example, the largest Latino Protestant denomination, the Assemblies of God, is only mentioned once in the book, and the third, fourth, and fifth largest denominations (Seventh-day Adventist, Church of God and Apostolic Assembly) are not mentioned at all. Of the five largest Latino denominations in the US, only the Southern Baptists are mentioned extensively. Much smaller mainline denominations are mentioned more often than any of the larger evangelical and Pentecostal denominations.
In addition, the book does not focus on other important issues related to Latino Protestantism. It mentions the issue of migration but mostly focuses on Latino Protestants once they are in the US. The authors address the impact of Protestant immigration from Latin America only in passing. New migrants from Central America and Puerto Rico, in particular, are increasing the number of Latino Protestants and also bringing new expressions of Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal faith with them. These versions of Protestantism were born in Latin America and are not the result of direct missionary efforts. They have many things in common with their US counterparts, but many of the recent movements look more like African Indigenous Churches than the more traditional expressions of US Protestantism that originally sent missionaries to Latin America. These new movements are having an important influence on the development of Latino Protestantism, and the missionary efforts of Latino Protestants are also having an impact in Latin America (as detailed in Andy Olsen’s article in the July/August 2017 issue of CT).
Another important issue the book neglects is the relationship between class and the “flavors” of Latino Protestantism. Numerous studies have demonstrated that Pentecostal expressions of faith have been more attractive to poorer Latinos. The book implies that mainline Latino Protestant churches achieve the highest socioeconomic status, though the authors acknowledge that the research is not clear on this issue. These other studies would posit that Pentecostal churches have been more attractive to the poor and that Pentecostal churches have probably done more to help Latinos improve socioeconomically, if one takes into account the place the people started from when they became Pentecostals.
Energy and Revival
The authors remind us throughout the book that Latino Protestantism is growing and that it will continue to grow. Their research invites us to ask important questions about Latino Protestants. They also have some crucial questions that are always in the background throughout the book. These are large-picture questions that do not have straightforward answers, dealing with the expanding role of Latino Protestants in US Protestantism, the varied experiences of Latinos who attend churches that are not predominantly Latino, and the impact of Latino Protestant conversions on the Catholic Church in the US.
Mulder, Ramos, and Martí have written an engaging and readable book that challenges us to recognize why understanding Latino Protestants is so important. This book joins with an increasing number of studies of Latino Protestantism and will likely serve as an important introduction to many who are just beginning to recognize the importance of this growing community, particularly in the social scientific field. On a personal level, I will be very interested to see the direction that the Latino Protestant Congregations Project takes and how it encourages the development of more research in this area.
The authors of Latino Protestants in America have provided us with a very useful resource. By focusing on aspects of Latino Protestantism that are unique or different from other forms of Protestantism in the US, they invite us to look at what the community might contribute to the future of Christian faith in this country. May the spiritual vitality of Latino Protestants and their commitment to the life of the church continue to bring energy and revival to God’s people in America.
Juan Martinez is professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Story of Latino Protestants in the United States (Eerdmans).
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