As a professor, I meet students and pastors who say they want to “reach Hispanics” or start a ministry in their church to “minister to Spanish speakers.” I am encouraged by such conversations. After all, if Hispanics are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, then reaching out to this diverse demographic must be near the top of our priority list. I would even argue that it should be our Great Commission desire to minister to Cubans, Guatemalans, Colombians, and other groups from Spanish speaking countries (Matt 28:19-20).
Amid my enthusiasm, however, I do have a reservation—for when Christians say they want to minister to Hispanics, what I generally hear is this: We want to share the good news with them and show them how to do ministry.
Now, I know what you are thinking: “So what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we supposed to reach Hispanics with the gospel?” Of course, we should want to minister to Hispanics. But many North American Christians may be unaware of a reality that could change the way we view our Hispanic neighbors. It’s this: The Christian faith is vibrant among the Hispanic population. You heard that right. There are thousands of Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, church-attending Hispanics already in our midst.
What I propose, then, is that instead of only focusing on how to minister to Hispanics, we should be open to learning from our Hispanic brothers and sisters in Christ. While there is a variety in terms of the beliefs and practices of Hispanic believers, there are some common themes that emerge. And if we can learn from other Christians who look and speak like us, why not those from Latin America? What follows are two ways that we can learn from Hispanic Christians.
1. Learn to Read Scripture with Confidence in Its Reliability
While North Americans may struggle with Bible stories such as the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah being alive inside a large fish, or even Jesus’s bodily resurrection, many Hispanic believers accept the truthfulness of such stories. Their concern is not whether the biblical accounts actually happened. Instead, their focus is on how to interpret the Bible and seeing how its message can change their lives, particularly those suffering under oppression and poverty—which, when in light of the biblical storyline, sounds a lot like the concern of God’s people throughout redemptive history.
Since many Westerners live in a culture immersed in a humanistic worldview, thereby spending an inordinate amount of time trying to justify the historicity of the events in the Bible, I think we would do well to listen to how Hispanic Christians focus on the interpretation and application of the Scripture. In doing so, we may even discover that we are coming closer to understanding the suffering of God’s people throughout Scripture, as well as the Suffering One who died on our behalf.
2. Learn to Read Scripture in the Context of Community
In my experience, many Westerners think that if they simply apply the correct method for studying the Bible, then they will arrive at the correct meaning of a passage. To be clear, I am not saying that the way we interpret Scripture (what is called hermeneutics) is unimportant. What I am saying is that there is more to interpreting Scripture than applying specific rules of grammar. Part of that “more” is the church community, that is, those who have something to teach us and who hold us accountable to read Scripture in light of historic Christian orthodoxy (what the church has taught about the Bible through the centuries).
Many Hispanic believers are inclined to hear about the ways God’s Word has shaped their brothers and sisters in Christ. You might even say that David encourages us to do this in Psalm 145:11–12:
They [the saints] tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all people may know of your mighty acts.
North Americans would do well to listen to the way Hispanic Christians read the Bible in their communities, as they testify to the greatness of God in their lives. We can do this by befriending the members of a local Hispanic church or by visiting with the Spanish-speaking couple down the street. By listening closely to these believing communities, we may find that Hispanics identify better with themes such as suffering, lament, exile, and Jesus’s great sermon, which states that the meek will be lifted up and the powerful will be laid low (Luke 6:20–22). We may even find that most of us identify more with Hispanic Christians, who see Christ’s suffering and meekness demonstrated at the cross as the path to eternal life, than with those who see power, wealth, and influence as the keys to the kingdom.
Again, we should have a Great Commission desire to reach Hispanics with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But as we seek to minister to this community, please keep in mind that Christianity is flourishing among people from Latin American. So, let’s look for ways that we can learn from these brothers and sisters in Christ, ways in which they can help us be more like Jesus. We might just find that Hispanic believers would make great elders and deacons in our churches, excellent leaders in our denominations, and outstanding presidents of our theological institutions.
“Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion,” Pew Hispanic Center, April 25, 2007, www.pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=75. Cited in M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2013), 34.