For years, Hispanic pastors in the United States have watched their flocks grow in faith and number. This year, a long-awaited survey confirmed it nationally.
Lifeway Research’s first Hispanic church study, said to be the most comprehensive of its kind, offered leaders lots of reasons to celebrate: pastors who remain committed to Scripture and evangelism, churches that are thriving and drawing in young worshipers.
While Christianity overall ages and declines in the US, Hispanic believers are countering the trends, and leaders are hopeful for the future, as immigration from Mexico and Latin America continues.
“For a long time, the Hispanic Latino church has been invisible to many in the United States and its growth has not received the necessary attention, considering it is the fastest-growing evangelical group in the United States,” said Gabriel Salguero, president and founder of National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC).
“The church has been navigating the reality of the Latino demographic boom. One in four children born in the US are Latino. There are over 60 million Latinos in the country,” he said. “It is important for the church in the United States to pay attention to one of the fastest-growing groups, to notice the missional force that Hispanics represent.”
The Lifeway survey was sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse and conducted in partnership “with two dozen denominations and church networks” including Salguero’s.
Leaders were quick to note commitment to Scripture as a key reason for Hispanic churches’ success. In the survey of nearly 700 pastors of majority Hispanic congregations across denominations, nearly every one (99%) agreed that their church considers the Bible the authority for their church and lives. Ninety-four percent strongly agreed.
“This brings just such a clear revelation that the Hispanic church is still alive because it’s a church that still believes that God is God and the Word of God is the Word of God,” said Lori Tapia, national pastor for Hispanic Ministries at Disciples of Christ. “It's beautiful to see how it’s so biblically grounded.”
Luis López, associate vice president of Hispanic relations for the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee agreed.
“The relevance of the Bible for the Hispanic church is outstanding, and that means we have a tremendous opportunity to present the Jesus the Bible speaks about in a way that will connect with people,” he told CT. “That is especially important because we live in a culture where the relevance of the Bible is being questioned tremendously.”
The report reflects a church that has similar trends between evangelical and mainline denominations, which evangelical leaders see as a potential call to unity. “We are learning that we have more in common than we often believe,” Tapia said.
Ministry leaders also saw Hispanic Americans’ cultural and sociological distinctives reflected in the survey results. With 58 percent of Hispanic Protestants being born outside the US and another quarter being second-generation Americans, most church members have endured the hardships of immigration and resettlement.
“The Latino church is entrepreneurial. It’s passionate about mission. It has a deep commitment to evangelism,” said Salguero, who pastors a multiethnic church in Orlando. “Hispanics often come from places where there is a lot of need, and they come with a passion for the gospel.”
López agrees with this logic. “Where there is discomfort, people will look for ways to look up to God, and I think God is using that to bring people to him,” he said. “Sometimes our crises and difficult circumstances are the ones that will draw us closer to him.”
While established churches across denominations worry about their aging flocks, Hispanic congregations skew young, with 35 percent of attendees under 30, including 18 percent under the age of 18.
The Hispanic leaders see these numbers as a valuable window of opportunity and a big responsibility.
“The survey is showing us that we have an outstanding number of young children and young adults in our classrooms. We have great potential, but this is something that we need to pay attention to very closely,” said López. “The older generation has to be creative to make sure that they pass the baton of faith.”
Angel Jordán, Hispanic initiatives director for BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, sees the same challenge.
“We see a disconnect when two out of three pastors belong to the first generation, while so many church attendees are younger,” he said. “The Hispanic church needs to be open to find ways to be a church for the younger generations and do whatever it takes for them to be strong followers of Jesus.”
CT had previously explored how first-generation pastors preach mostly in Spanish, while second- and further-generation Hispanics many times speak better English than Spanish, pointing to the great challenge that Hispanic churches face to accommodate two different cultures.
“First-generation pastors bring traditions and practices from their own countries, which are great, but they don't always work for the second generation of Hispanics who were born in the United States,” said Jordán. “That is why it is so important for churches to have multigenerational leadership with the younger generations in mind so as not to lose them.”
“I believe that engaging this next generation through both the message of John 3:16 and Matthew 25, which is reconciling men with God but also caring for those in need, is what’s resonating and has our young generation excited about the Lord and about the gospel,” said
Abraham Hernández, executive director at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Young people want to play an active role in the church.”
The number and size of Hispanic churches in the US are growing, according to Lifeway. They are continuing to welcome new, first-generation immigrant families, with a spike in migrants coming to the US from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua last year, in addition to the significant numbers from Mexico and Guatemala.
“And first-generation Hispanics continue to arrive,” said Salguero. “That’s how the great [spiritual] awakenings we’ve seen in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Latin America have come to impact the United States.”
In some countries that were once predominantly Catholic, evangelicals are growing to record numbers.
“Interestingly enough, the United States sent missionaries toward Latin American countries to bring the gospel,” said Hernández. “Now we see that people are coming from Latin American countries to show the fruit of their faith here.”
With promising growth from youth and new arrivals getting involved in their congregations, leaders cautioned against letting this moment fade.
“Spiritually, there is a reality that all churches have to confront, and that is that comfort becomes the enemy of passion for evangelism and church growth,” said Salguero.
“The Hispanic church has to be careful, because it can easily fall in the same comfort zone and become dull,” said López. “We have to be watchful and never lose that sense of need of the Lord, or the success won’t last forever.”