When Job González was 21, he felt God’s calling to dedicate his life to worship ministry. Raised in a Spanish-speaking family and church in Texas, he thought he would always sing the praises of the Lord in Spanish.
Since 1980, more Christians have spoken Spanish than any other language. Thanks to the growth of the church in Latin America, over 413 million believers have Spanish as their mother tongue today, compared to 250 million with English, according to the World Christian Database.
But Hispanics born in America have continued to prefer English over Spanish for worship. To González’s surprise, he ended up serving at a Hispanic Baptist church that had all its services in English.
In his hometown in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, “Baptist Temple McAllen is a Hispanic church where the vast majority are Hispanic people who, over the generations, stopped using Spanish,” said González. “When the Lord called me to serve there it was pretty scary, because I had never led worship in English before.”
In Southern states with established Hispanic populations, spanning four or more generations of descendants born in the US, it’s more common to see Hispanic churches like the one in McAllen hold services in English only. Among newer arrivals, congregations stick to Spanish. Other churches offer a spectrum of bilingual, multilingual, and multiethnic worship, either with simultaneous translation or separate English and Spanish services.
Hispanic church leaders differ on whether the church has a role to play in preserving Spanish worship as a distinctive of their culture. Some believe worshiping in Spanish is central to their faith and services, while others believe it’s a secondary factor that should never cause division.
“Spanish is our mother language, and it’s at the core of our roots. Spanish is the second [spoken] language in this country,” said pastor Jorge Ramos. “The truth is that in the foreseeable future there will continue to be immigration of people who only speak Spanish, and if we want to reach them, we have to be here for them.”
Ramos, a native of Cuba, leads a small church in Hickory, North Carolina, that serves mainly first-generation Hispanics. He sees Spanish-only services as part of the mission of Hispanic churches.
Many Spanish-speaking pastors, along with their church members, identify with this calling.
“We have parents at the church that approach us saying, ‘We have children that have to continue to practice Spanish, so please have them take their Bible lessons in Spanish,’” said Sergio Villanueva, campus pastor at an urban megachurch in Chicago.
Villanueva was raised in Torreón, Mexico. After visiting Chicago in the early 1990s, he spent a summer serving at a Hispanic Pentecostal church in the city, where he was offered the opportunity to move to Chicago and take a full-time position in the worship team. But Spanish worship in the States hadn’t taken off at the time—while it was going through a revival in Latin America—so Villanueva didn’t want to stay.
“The Lord had breathed new life on it with all that he did with Marcos Witt and Jesús Adrián Romero in Mexico, Danilo Montero in Costa Rica, Jaime Murrel in Panama, Marcos Vidal in Spain, and many others. It was huge,” he said. “When I came to Chicago, I found out that Spanish worship in America had not experienced that yet.”
When Villanueva went back to Chicago in 1998, he began to imagine bringing that spirit of worship to Hispanic churchgoers there.
“I observed the Hispanic youth in the churches. I observed how they didn’t feel either American or Hispanic; they felt stuck in between, almost in an identity crisis,” said Villanueva. “I also saw how they had not experienced that praise revival we had gone through in Latin America. I dreamed of bringing all that passion to them. The Lord gave me great love and compassion for them.”
Originally founded in 1929, Villanueva’s congregation, Wheaton Bible Church, started offering services in Spanish in 1990, and in 2008 it opened its Spanish-only campus, Iglesia del Pueblo.
Villanueva has seen how Spanish worship has deepened his faith and blessed the church, but he doesn’t believe churches should make it their goal to preserve language or cultural practices.
“After living in America for a while, I was able to observe that the Hispanic church had barricaded itself, on the one side thinking that work was the top priority of their lives, and on the other trying to live in a bubble in order to preserve their language and their culture,” he said. “But that is not the calling of the church; it is not to preserve any language or any culture, but to find ways to impact the culture that surrounds us with the gospel.”
Historically, migrants in general and those who cross the southern border coming from different Central and Latin American countries have been an important mission field within the United States.
Second-generation Hispanics, like the church members at Villanueva’s congregation in Chicago, can struggle to find their own identity while being surrounded by a Hispanic community even though they are American by birth and attend English-speaking schools. But with each generation, Hispanics become less likely to speak Spanish and less likely to see the language as an important part of their Hispanic identity.
“Many parents of Hispanic origin prefer that their children focus on learning English—even those who don't speak English or don’t speak it that well—because they want their children to be absorbed by the American culture,” said González. “Parents care so much about their children's future that they are willing to assume the sacrifice of not being able to communicate with their children in their own language.”
Ever since 2012, González has been leading worship services in English and in Spanish, and he believes the church has to be flexible when it comes to the language.
The church where he serves now, Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, offers youth services in English and in Spanish. “We let them choose,” he said. “The truth is that only they know what language connects better with them, and the best we can do as a church is offer them the opportunity to make that choice.”
From 2012 to 2018, González was the Spanish worship leader at Lakewood Church in Houston, serving for a time in partnership with Coalo Zamorano. He began serving there shortly before Marcos Witt stepped down as pastor of the Hispanic portion. Like many megachurches with multiple leaders and services, Lakewood has a clear division between English and Spanish services.
“The language in which a service is led is secondary, it’s not doctrinal. The church has to be flexible and open in this matter, because people can only praise the Lord in the language of their hearts,” González said.
Villanueva believes that, as with other causes of division, it all boils down to going back to the church’s main calling.
“Both striving to be absorbed by American culture and striving to promote the heritage of the Hispanic culture can quickly become idolatry,” he said. “Christians must understand that our culture and our true identity is in Christ, regardless of language and culture. Before being Latino, I am a son of God.
“I believe that passing the Spanish language to the next generations is very valuable, and it is a beautiful thing. But this is a decision that has to be taken at home. It is the parents’ choice and responsibility, not the calling of the church.”
Villanueva cautions parents and church leaders about placing children in Spanish Bible classes and services with the sole purpose of preserving the language.
“The Hispanic church has to be aware that its growth comes mainly from second-generation Hispanics, and for most of them Spanish is not their preferred language,” he said. “If you are in a church where your heart is not being fed spiritually in your own language, you’re never going to grow.”
Even if it’s clear that churches shouldn’t make the preservation of a language their main goal, as long as Hispanics are immigrating to the United States, the need for Spanish church services in America will not fade.
“The Scriptures are filled with migrants. Moses, Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah. Even Jesus grew up in Egypt and then moved back to Israel,” Villanueva said. “Hispanics in America need to hear that their dual identity and even the struggle with two languages is not a problem, but rather something God is going to use for his glory.”
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