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A Future for the Latino Church: Models for Multilingual, Multigenerational Hispanic Congregations. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 200 pp. $19.00..
Daniel Rodriguez is one of millions of Latinos in the USA living “in the hyphen”—belonging to two different people groups. Rodriguez is of Mexican descent, but is from the USA. He grew up speaking very little Spanish, acquiring it later while preparing for missionary service in Puebla, Mexico. At times feeling “despised” by both cultures, Rodriguez discovered he was not alone. He found numerous biblical parallels of this hyphenated existence, from Moses to Paul. And these biblical heroes used their dual identity for the glory of God. Rodriguez is resolved to do the same.
A Future for the Latino Church begins with huge numbers. Latino growth in America is obvious, but Rodriguez’s statistics shed light on the massive scale of that growth. Latinos are now America’s largest minority group. From 9.6 million in 1970 to 51 million in 2010, the numbers are breathtaking. From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 15 million, according to the US census. Led by Mexican-Americans, who account for two-thirds of the Latino total, the growth rate is steady. By 2050, based on current trends, the Latino population will be around 30 percent of the USA. How did this happen? It was a liberal immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, however, the increase is through fertility rates since borders are tighter.
Rodriguez’s central concern is how to minister to this growing demographic. Building on the work of Manuel Ortiz—a doyen in the field of Latino ministry in the US—Rodriguez argues it is time for the church to rethink Latino ministry altogether. The traditional approaches are antiquated. They use Spanish while most Latino children speak English. They focus on the vertical rather than the horizontal—that is, they strive for heaven without looking after social needs. They also tend to build unnecessary barriers between Latinos and the dominant culture. For example, some Latino ministers emphasize the diabolical nature of the English-speaking world: “El diablo habla inglés” (The devil speaks English). This shaming process, not uncommon in Latino churches, perpetuates an “isolationist” mentality.
At the heart of the book is the question of language. While Latinos appear to treasure Spanish, the fact is they eventually speak English. Few Latinos even speak Spanish by the third generation. However, Latinos tend not to become English in culture. They live a “Spanglish” existence: they speak English but retain a Latin “flavor” in their way of life. Rodriguez offers a corrective here, however. Focusing on language completely misses his point. “I didn’t call you to preach the gospel in English or Spanish. I called you to preach the gospel” (66). Repeatedly, Rodriguez argues that Spanish pastors need to abandon their parochial tendencies and realize the central message of the gospel is at stake: “all of us are one in Christ Jesus.” Steeped in biblical imagery, Rodriguez’s strongest argument is that the church was never intended to be linked to an ethnic identity, to a language, or to a particular culture or nation. Christ died for all and demands our allegiance. Ministries that deny these central truths will not only dwindle in a globalizing world, they will fall short of the gospel’s intent.
The contributions to knowledge in this volume are many, but I will focus on two that I found particularly helpful. First, Rodriguez points out an odd combination: Latinos are almost entirely (over 90%) Christian in heritage, but they are by far the most impoverished people in the United States. They have the lowest education levels, the highest rates of unemployment, the lowest income (for men and women), and are the most likely to live in poverty. He compels churches to make social uplift a priority because these people need relief: health care, food, education, school supplies, housing, employment, and protection from exploitation. Ministries to Latinos must be holistic if they are to follow Jesus’ example. They must bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, recover sight for the blind, and free the oppressed. A lopsided Christianity, Rodriguez argues, breeds perennial problems. “Many of today’s oppressed Latinos will become tomorrow’s oppressors” (116).
A second major contribution to acknowledge is chapter five, easily worth the price of the book. “The Local Church as Organic Seminary” shocked and challenged me. In essence, he argues that since Latinos cannot afford higher education, they turn to their pastors for training. Many Latinos dropped out of school or have criminal records. Many of them don’t even have GPAs or SAT scores. Additionally, why would an aspiring pastor go to seminary to learn about sophisticated European theologians when he would have to leave the trenches of ministry for six years? It would be a waste of time that could be better spent in service to his or her community. Rodriguez provides many examples of pastors who are effectively reaching people, reforming them, healing them, and building a future generation of leaders. They short-circuit the American education system in creative ways. A few institutions have clued in to this situation and now work alongside pastors, such as Gordon Conwell Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. But by and large, Latino pastors raise future leaders themselves. This was a wakeup call for me. It caused me to imagine how I might work with pastors in Los Angeles—my neck of the woods—to bring ministerial training out of the ivory tower and into the barrio. I don’t think a conscientious Christian academic can ignore the implications brought forth in this chapter.
Throughout the book Rodriguez provides exciting examples of pastors who are stepping up to make a difference. From Los Angeles to San Antonio, from Chicago to Miami, the future of the Latino church looks bright with these shining lights. Rodriguez’s insider views are helpful since he knows most of these pastors personally.
The church will be blessed by this thoughtful book, written by a committed Christian scholar.
Associate Professor of Religion
Malibu, California, USA