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Hispanic Churches Growing Multiethnic

Many minority congregations are adopting English-language or bilingual services in an effort to keep youth engaged.
As a youth pastor in a Spanish-speaking church two decades ago, Joshua J. Pinto, 46, occasionally preached and led worship in English. To his surprise, the youth group started to grow as a result. Several years later, Pinto and his brother Saul E. “Steve” Pinto, 41, planted the bilingual Faro Church in Lake Forest, California, to reach second, third, fourth, and fifth generations of Hispanic Americans.

“We wanted to reach our kids, and the kids of our kids,” Josh says. “What I didn’t realize was that by launching bilingual ministry, other cultures were going to engage and start coming to our church.”

Today, Faro, which is part of the SoCal Network, draws 600 people to three weekend services: English-only, Spanish-only, and bilingual.

The English-only service is attracting a lot of emerging adults, those ages 18 to 35, according to Josh. The bilingual service attracts married couples from different ethnicities.

Ethnic minority churches, particularly Hispanic ones, in Southern California are becoming multiethnic and multilingual by necessity in an effort to continue to grow and reach their changing communities.

Rudy E. Paniagua, 44, an immigrant from Guatemala, leads the SoCal Network’s ethnic leadership development and Hispanic church-planting efforts. One hundred of the network’s 470 churches are Hispanic. Paniagua says the network’s goal is to become multiethnic, and for ethnic minority pastors to lead the way in their own communities, often through the addition or expansion of an English-language service.

“Our kids who are English speaking find it easier to have other ethnic relationships, but won’t bring friends to a Spanish-speaking service,” Paniagua says. “They feel empowered when their faith is not segmented between school and church, and they can invite their friends to an English service.”

Initially, many pastors considered such a practice controversial and objected, especially when they realized their kids had become more “Americanized” than Hispanic. But with some offspring marrying into other ethnic communities, many leaders now realize they must change in order to grow.

“Churches are becoming multiethnic because more of a reflection of their community, not identifying as a Hispanic church,” Paniagua says. “Churches are becoming multiethnic by offering an English service reaching second and third generation. That’s the present future.”

Daniel De Leon Sr., a national leader among Hispanic Pentecostals, and an AG executive presbyter, has been the senior pastor of Templo Calvario AG in Santa Ana since 1978. He notes the Southern Pacific District recently elected an assistant superintendent specifically to help Spanish-speaking churches start a bilingual or English-only service.

“Young people, especially millennials, speak English and don’t know any Spanish,” De Leon says. “They are saying, We don’t want to leave and go to an Anglo church; we’d rather stay, so can you do something?

More Hispanic pastors are realizing they need to start an English-speaking or bilingual congregation in order to prevent youth from defecting to a church that already offers them, De Leon says.

Of the 350 Hispanic churches in the Southern Pacific District, a handful don’t even use the Spanish language. De Leon calls them “Hispanic English-only churches.”

“They still eat enchiladas, tamales, and tacos, and celebrate some of the celebrations that are part of Hispanic culture, but they do everything else in English,” he says.

De Leon says he’s heard similar reports from Korean, Japanese, and other ethnic-minority congregations that also have implemented bilingual ministry.

“We’re super excited about it because it’s keeping our people together,” De Leon says. “It’s wonderful that parents and kids can come and feel it is their church.”

Ken R. Walters Jr., SoCal Network intercultural ministries director, says the shift is happening in Filipino congregations as well.

“They used to focus only on Filipinos, but they recognized they were losing their kids,” he says. “Almost every Filipino church is now focusing on reaching a lot of people groups, and many are successful.” Once about one-third of the congregation becomes non-Filipino, the church often adopts a name reflecting its international flavor, he says.

Steve Pinto, associate pastor at Faro, graduated from Latin American Bible Institute and Vanguard University, and taught for 15 years at LABI and now at Vanguard. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Impact of Monolingual English Services on the Retention of U.S.-born Latinos.”

“Latino people retain their culture and have an appreciation for it, but tend to lose their language, so they’re looking for a church that meets that cultural need and speaks their language,” he says. “There is such a thing as a Latino who does not speak Spanish or does not prefer a bilingual service. An English service that is very Latino is needed for the retention of second and third generation Latinos.”

The Pinto brothers have become an informal resource for other church planters who call seeking coaching and mentorship.

“Pastors have to recognize what I call the silent exodus,” Steve says. “I suggest they need to stop thinking of themselves merely as immigrants, but rather as developers, setting the next generation up for success. That requires an embrace of change.”

Photo: Many attendees prefer the bilingual service at Faro Church in Lake Forest, California.

Joel Kilpatrick

Joel Kilpatrick is a writer living in Southern California who has authored or ghostwritten dozens of books. Kilpatrick, who served as associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel in the 1990s, is a credentialed Assemblies of God minister.