Who’s in Your Backyard?

How can churches win the Hispanics that are living within reach of their ministry? How does a pastor begin to lead his church to meet the spiritual needs of those who are from a different country and who speak a different language?

There are currently over 35 million Hispanics living in the United States. Latinos make up more than 13% of our total population and were declared the largest minority in the census of 2000. Because of birth rates and continued immigration, the people group continues to grow faster than any other minority in the country. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States next to English. While people from Mexico make up more than 67% of the U.S. Latino population, there are large pockets of immigrants from several countries. For decades, immigrants have come from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Peru, and virtually every other Central and South American country. God is bringing the mission field to our own backyard and He desires that our churches do local missions work.

Often I encounter pastors and lay people who share with me about the influx of Hispanics in their own community. These church leaders are usually overwhelmed by the massive need and their own inadequacy to be able to meet it. Unfortunately, there is not much material available for these church leaders to equip them to have an effective ministry with or to Latin Americans. This lack of “how to” material may be because there are no two Spanish ministries that look alike. The U.S. Hispanic community contains such a wide variety of cultures, worldviews, regional accents, economic statuses, and legal statuses that it makes it impossible to reach them with a fixed standard or methodology. Thus, even the most well-meaning church leaders are quickly overwhelmed and discouraged when it comes to getting the gospel out to their Hispanic neighborhoods.

Let me encourage you that there is hope! There are many churches launching effective Hispanic ministries. While the methods have been different in each case, some similarities have been present in all of them. These similarities are the same truths that are vital and foundational for any church seeking to reach Hispanics. Getting a grasp on these foundational truths will jumpstart any church to begin reaching the mission field in their own backyard. The following paragraphs contain these similarities found in churches with effective Spanish ministries.


I.  Every Church with an Effective Spanish Ministry Has Done Away with the Hindrance of Resentment100_7194
It is important to recognize that Hispanic’s greatest need is Christ. This is a given, is it not? Unfortunately, this truth is sometimes difficult to accept because of political and social concerns about the American Hispanic community. Immigration is a difficult issue since 1/3 of all Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. are here without adequate documentation. It is understandable to have anxieties and resentments with the politics and nuances of the issue. I have found that this resentment is the number one unspoken hindrance to churches being motivated to personally reach Hispanics. Sometimes the resentment is not left unspoken.  Many people ask, “Shouldn’t they just learn English and attend our church?”  The problem is, many do not speak English and it is our responsibility to go and reach them with the gospel.
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well illustrates this truth. The Samaritan woman was one who was despised by the Jewish nation.  The Samaritans were those who intermarried with gentiles and were the outcasts of the time.   Furthermore, this particular woman did not have a good lifestyle.  She had previously had five husbands and now was living with a man to whom she was not married!  This woman was one that others avoided.  My father preaches a message on this story and describes the woman as, “the one who others walk around.”  Even the disciples wanted to stay away from Samaria as a whole.  But what did Jesus do?  He did not avoid her; neither did he allow the social issues to hinder the relationship or become even a topic of conversation. Instead, Christ immediately offered her living water.
I recently heard of a Mexican man who came to our country illegally. By God’s grace, the man landed in a city in Michigan where there is a solid and thriving Spanish-speaking church. The man heard the gospel and he was saved. As he grew in Christ he began to be convicted about his legal status and was confronted with the decision of returning home or staying illegally. This is a difficult decision for Hispanics to make! Often they are established in a job while their children are settled in the school system. Families like this left everything to come here and would leave all they accumulated to go back to nothing. With a desire to obey Christ, the man went back to Mexico now burdened to share his faith with his former friends and family.  In more ways than one, he was once a foreigner and a stranger but is now a missionary!
May God help us recognize the greatest need any person has is Christ. Leading a church into a Spanish ministry requires leading the congregation to do an honest heart-check by asking some tough questions, “Are we truly concerned with the spiritual needs of our entire community?” and “What are the hindrances in our own thinking that would keep us from effectively reaching it?”
II. Every Church with an Effective Spanish Ministry Has Been Willing to Immerse in a Different Culture
Another important essential for reaching Latin Americans is understanding that ministering to them requires much more than functioning in a different language.  It involves working with a culture that views the world completely differently than we do.  Reaching Hispanics involves being willing to learn, accept, and function in their unique culture.
I love the kenosis passage in Philippians chapter 2. Verse 7 says that Jesus, “. . . made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.”  Of course, we call this Christ’s incarnation, where Jesus willingly gave up the use of some of His attributes some of the time to become a man.  The verse says that Jesus, “made himself of no reputation.”  The New King James translation quotes, “He considered it not robbery to be equal with God.”  In other words, Jesus did not view his position in heaven as something to be grabbed hold of or kept.  Instead, He humbled himself, becoming a man and even became obedient unto death.
Missionary Earl Dannenberg always talks about the importance of having an incarnational ministry as a missionary.  By this, he meant being willing to immerse in a different culture and become like them in order to reach them; not taking on the negative or sinful aspects of any culture, but being willing to give up some luxuries to go out of our comfort zone to better reach people with the gospel.
This idea of having an incarnational ministry is so very important when it comes to reaching Latin Americans.  Within the Hispanic community, there are many cultural aspects to understand.  Here are just a couple:
  • At the dinner table a Hispanic hostess will fill your plate before she places it in front of you.  You will offend her if you do not eat all the food on the plate. Unfortunately, if you eat it all she often will insist on serving you more.  You will, again, chance offending her if you do not accept the seconds!  An incarnational ministry first involves being willing to go out of your comfort zone to simply visit the homes of Hispanics.  Then it may involve being willing to eat two or three helpings of food that you might not care for.
  • Hispanics are notorious for not being governed by time or schedules.  If you are invited to a birthday party at a Latin American’s house and show up on time, you may be the only one there!  Therefore, it requires patience when beginning a Spanish Bible study or a church service. Very few will get there on time. The encouraging aspect comes in that no one will be in a hurry to leave either.
While there are many other cultural nuances to learn, foreign missionaries will tell you that the best way to learn a culture is to simply spend time with its people. Immersing yourself into the culture in this way will give you a validity among Hispanics that cannot be gained otherwise.
III.  Every Church with an Effective Spanish Ministry Has Loved People and Found a Way to Reach Them
When Jesus was asked, “What is the Greatest Commandment in the law?” He replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.”  Then our Savior continues, “And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39).  Those who have been effective in reaching Latinos share a passion. They are totally in love with God.  They have cultivated their personal relationship with God in such a way that they love what God loves – people!  They see every person as a soul who is either going to heaven or hell.  They allow the love they have for God to spill out onto others as they try to reach them with the gospel.  You may be the most ignorant person when it comes to the Spanish language and Hispanic culture; however, if you love Hispanics with this kind of love you will find a way to reach them.
I have been so encouraged by the Berean Baptist Church in Pella, Iowa and the way they have reached out to Latinos. Pella is a predominately Dutch community. The only Hispanics are those who work at the one Mexican restaurant in town. Even though there are so few Hispanics, Berean Baptist is reaching them.  Their ministry began with a church family who left a tract in the Mexican Restaurant.  As a result, the cook’s wife, Teresa, came and visited their church.  As it turns out, she was a Christian!  Teresa did not know English, but this did not stop the church family from ministering to her. Teresa began attending faithfully.  A bi-lingual couple in the church began a Bible study with her husband, Sebastian.  Eventually, Sebastian made a profession of faith!  When the couple had their first child one would have thought that the infant had five sets of grandparents in the way that the people at Berean Baptist showed love and affection to that child. Berean’s pastor did not know much about the Hispanic culture but he began asking around and learned all he could to know how to best minister to them as a church.  Sebastian and Teresa have since moved to a different town; however, the people at Berean Baptist still make the trip to visit them and have worked to connect them with a Spanish ministry in their new town.
This church made a lasting impression on me.  Here is a church in a community with almost no Latinos yet they are winning those who are there.  How are they doing this?  They are first simply loving them and then are finding a way to reach them.
Observation tells us that there are three types of churches in relation to potential Spanish ministries:
1) The church located in a predominately Hispanic community and who has the potential of developing a solid and thriving Spanish ministry.
2) The church located in an area where there is a small concentration of Hispanics. This church will probably only have a Spanish outreach without developing a solid ministry or a new indigenous church.
3) The church that is located in an area where there are no Hispanics but that has an interest in reaching them. This church has the potential of investing people and resources in other communities.
No matter which category your church falls into, God can use you to help reach the Latin American population.  May God help us to accept that He has brought a mission field to our own country for us to reach. May God keep us from the resentment and stereotypes that would hinder us from taking the gospel of Christ  to Latinos.  May God also give us the willingness to do away with our comfort zones and immerse ourselves in the foreign Latin-American culture. Finally, may we love Hispanics with Christ’s love and find a way to reach them.
Posted 10/17/07
At Baptist Church Planters, we are asking God to continue this movement of reaching Hispanics.  If we may be of help or an encouragement in any way, please contact Herb Taylor at herbandwanda@gmail.com. May God richly bless you as you seek to reach the mission field in your own backyard.