Where are the large Hispanic churches in Texas?
By John Hall
Texas Baptist Communications
According to the 2000 census, 6.7 million Hispanics live in Texas. The Baptist General Convention of Texas relates to more than 1,200 Hispanic churches, a ratio of one congregation per 5,500 Hispanic resident.
But only one Hispanic BGCT-affiliated church has more 2,000 members. None average more than 1,000 people in a worship service.
In a state known for large Baptist churches, where are all the large Hispanic churches?
Hispanic Texas Baptist leaders believe such churches have not formed yet because of a combination of socio-economic reasons. But they see larger Hispanic Baptist churches on the horizon.
The major reason Hispanic churches have stayed small is a flawed approach to starting churches, according to Roland Lopez, pastor of Northwest Hispanic Baptist Church in San Antonio.
When congregations started missions in years past, they were designed to remain permanently reliant on the mother church. Mission church buildings were constructed to hold a maximum of 150 people. Without substantial funds, these potential churches would continue to be missions.
Over time, members of Hispanic Baptist mission churches have grown to think they never can be large churches, Lopez said. “It was conditioned that it can only go that far.”
Gus Reyes, ethnic consultant for the BGCT Center for Strategic Evangelism, ties the lack of large Hispanic Baptist churches directly to the lack of leadership trained in the skills needed to run a large church.
College and seminary training, coupled with experience with multi-member church staffs, are foundational in helping ministers understand how to lead staff and larger groups of people, Reyes said.
“The academic training gives you the vision, scope and skills to manage staff and issues found in a large church,” he said. “It gives you the tools. I'm not saying you need that to have a big church. It just gives you the tools needed for success in managing and leading a large church.”
Frank Palos, associate coordinator for the BGCT Church Health and Growth Section, believes many Hispanic churches fail to grow large because of their fondness for family and closeness. When a congregation gets large enough that an individual does not know everyone, members tend to find a smaller church where they have a relationship with each member.
“The Hispanic culture enjoys the intimacy,” Palos said. “The closeness of the folk may be a factor why Hispanics don't gather in large numbers.”
While Hispanics enjoy being close to their biological and church families, they can be separated by language preferences, Palos added. As later generations mature and draw closer to American culture, they limit their use of Spanish and often move into English-speaking congregations.
This movement limits the size of Spanish-speaking congregations that focus primarily on the needs of immigrants, Palos continued. While Anglo churches tend to minister to children's needs and assume parents will come too, Hispanic congregations serve the parents and assume the children also will come.
Accelerating the divide between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Hispanics is the lack of substantial youth or children's ministries in the ethnic churches, Palos said. When there is a program, it is conducted in English and further separates children from parents.
Hispanic churches are forced to choose how they are going to minister to the community, Palos continued. And that choice can determine the impact of the congregation.
“Our folk are really at the crossroads of diversity,” he said. “Do we do a ministry for kids which would be in English? Do we do an all-Spanish ministry for adults? Or do we attempt a bilingual ministry? It's difficult to do ministry in one language. It's even harder to do it in two or more languages.”
Despite these factors against growth, BGCT leaders believe large Hispanic churches will arise. Reyes points to mega-churches in South America and Mexico, as well as several large non-Baptist Hispanic churches in the United States, as models for the future.
“It's already being done. It's just not as visible in Texas,” he said. “I think we're on our way. We will see mega-sized Hispanic churches fulfilling the Great Commission in the near future.”
Lopez believes reaching third- and fourth-generation Hispanics is key in growing a large ethnic church. Later generations often have the economic stability and power their predecessors did not have, he said. This allows churches to have a larger budget to work with.
Palos is quick to remind that numbers are not the “sole measuring stick” of success for a Hispanic congregation. A church's impact on people and the community around it is more important to Hispanics than numbers. Attendance, membership and budget size are less important than people.
Several churches of a couple hundred people can be as effective as a large church of several thousand, Palos said. “If they are ministering to people inside and outside the church, they are doing their job.”