As a Latino who has invested most of my ministry life (over 30 years) to church planting, I am deeply grateful to the Send Institute at the Billy Graham Center and Lifeway Research for investing in the much-needed Hispanic Church Planting Research Project and giving us a glimpse into the missional impulse of Latino-led church planting in the U.S.
As a New York-born Dominican (Dominican York) committed to seeing gospel movements develop and mature in key influential cities of America, this research confirms what I have been experiencing as a church planting catalyst in New York City. It also challenges some assumptions and practices I see within the “church planting enterprise” in America, mostly governed by criteria and metrics established by the dominant culture.
The research highlights two fundamental traits that are a must for church planting initiatives to move beyond surviving and into thriving, especially in highly dense urban contexts: grit (resolve, tenacity) and faith.
As the study shows, I believe Christian Latino pastors and planters can write the book on both perseverance under extremely challenging circumstances as well as the need for an uncommon belief and reliance on the supernatural for what is a primarily spiritual endeavor—birthing a church.
Most Latino pastors and planters I relate to are bi-vocational, poorly funded (if at all), have limited formal theological education, and are facing threatening socio-political-economic challenges (systemic, generational, and cultural) within their ministry contexts. Yet they keep at it and manage to not only survive, but even to thrive!
Recently, I had the privilege of participating in an assessment organized by one of the most significant church planting organizations in the U.S. One of the candidates was a young couple of Caribbean descent (Dominican and Puerto Rican).
Although they did wonderful on the assessment (they are quite an impressive and gifted couple), there was a serious limitation that would normally disqualify them by the standards of the dominant church planting enterprise in America: a significant student debt!
It was a Catch 22 situation—in order to get the needed theological education that would equip them to best minister in their context, they acquired a debt that threatened their ministry viability! God bless the church planting organization that organized this assessment; they went out of their way to empathize and enter into the reality of this beautiful couple and ended by giving them a “green light” (along with the needed coaching) in a situation that would otherwise disqualify them for the task.
With much personal and family sacrifice, this couple had already been bearing significant fruit for the kingdom in the city! Unfortunately, this “grit factor” is one of the most significant qualities I see missing in too many of the well-supported church planters that come from privilege, resulting in untimely surrendering their ministries even when experiencing encouraging signs of fruitfulness.
The research also highlights the uncommon belief and reliance on the supernatural needed for fruitful church planting (especially in urban centers where many of the Latino leaders minister).
In my interaction with many Latino church planters and pastors, I am usually amazed by the small amount of time invested in the “holy grails” of strategic planning and development of church planting prospectus compared to the significant amount of time and energy invested in intense prayer for conversions, lingering in expressive, surrendering worship, and the fervent belief in the resurrected Christ and dependence upon the Holy Spirit for results.
I once participated in a church plant in which every time they faced a significant financial hurdle (which was about once a month), they would write the amount of dollars needed on a sheet of paper, lift it up in communal fervent prayer, and believe that God would somehow show the way. And he did, time after time!
As I read the results of the research, I also felt indicted. You might say that I am a Latino who has the privilege of being on the insides of the church planting industry in America.
Much of my efforts in recent years has been to prayerfully seek to usher into the Latino church much of the resources and opportunities that exist within the church planting world of the resourced dominant culture.
I am very grateful and excited to see the recent gains achieved: An increasing number of denominations and church planting networks are seeking the Latino and Latinapresence within their tribes, but not so much (at least not yet) the Latino voice.
We are opening doors for Latinos to come and learn from the dominant culture, and even access support and resources like never before in the church planting world, but I do not see the same impetus from the dominant culture to go and learn from the Latino church—learn how in the world we are able to thrive with such limited resources and extremely challenging circumstances.
Could it be that by inviting Latino and Latina leaders to submit to the criteria and measures of success of the dominant culture, we are actually becoming complicit in depriving them of the gifts that they could otherwise bring to the table: grit and faith?
Also, the fact that Latinos in general are receiving such little financial support (in spite of the significant results highlighted in the research) compared to the much greater amount of support that privileged non-Hispanic Whites get (with less proportionate results) is to me one of those indicators that point to how Whiteness still prevails in the institutional evangelical church in America.
My Latino brothers and sisters are bringing many gifts to the church planting table. I am excited to see how these will be used and received.