This congregational assessment from Holy Cow Consulting provides benchmark data to inform decisions about identity, clergy search, strategic planning or a financial campaign.
More Congregational Vitality
Latino Protestants are experiencing remarkable growth, according to Pew Research Center. Pew reports that by 2030, half of all Latinos in America will be Protestant. While some gather in Latino megachurches – especially in the southwest – containing thousands of members, the great majority attend smaller congregations, often characterized by part-time pastors, relational intimacy formed through networks of friends and family, and a high proportion of lay volunteers. Often unseen, these smaller congregations are remarkably significant to the lives of millions of Latinos in America.
Religion is important to daily life
Overall, Latino Protestants are characterized by high levels of religious commitment. For example, the book American Grace by Robert Putman and David Campbell reports that 85 percent of Latino Evangelicals indicate that religion is very important in daily life. Their intensity is intertwined with their church involvement. According to Pew Research Center, Latino Protestants tend to be more religiously active, attending church services and small groups more often than their Catholic counterparts. Attending church every week is a far greater priority among Latino evangelicals than Latino Catholics: 62 percent of Latino Protestants attend worship on a weekly basis, compared to 40 percent of Latino Catholics. The most religiously intense Latino Protestants are evangelical (71 percent), Pew reports.
Latino Protestants also spend a lot of time each week involved in congregational events. The majority of both Latino Pentecostals (70 percent) and evangelicals (63 percent) spend at least three hours a week in church activities, compared to mainline (36 percent) and Catholic (32 percent). About one-third of Latino Pentecostals indicated that they spent more than seven hours per week engaged in church-related activities, states Norman Eli Ruano in his dissertation “The Holy Ghost Beyond the Church Walls: Latino Pentecostalism(s), Congregations, and Civic Engagement.” That means that in addition to attending weekly worship services, they spend more time than Latino Catholics participating in afternoon meals, midweek studies, lay leadership meetings, cleanup and repairs around the building, practicing music, volunteering with youth, and much more.
Of weekly activities, Pew Research reports that group prayer or Bible study are especially important: 48 percent of Latino Protestants attend a group at least weekly. In contrast, only 17 percent of Latino Catholics indicated the same level of regularity. In other words, Latino Protestants have more than twice the rate of involvement in congregational activities – a powerful energizer for generating religious commitment and a significant resource for use by pastoral leadership.
What makes churches so central to the spiritual lives of Latino Protestants?
In his book Latinos in the United States, David T. Abalos’ suggests cultural connections make for strong bonds among Latino Protestants. At least in some cases, Latino Protestantism gains adherents by offering an ethno-religious haven. For example, many of the pastors of their churches are Latino, speak Spanish, share similar hardships, and bring a more egalitarian attitude to governance. In contrast, Latinos Catholics are less likely to have a priest with a Latino heritage. Moreover, being regular community with other Latino Protestants offers comfort and comradery. In this interpretation, Latino Protestantism congregational life offers an ethnic familiarity and consolation in their Latinidad largely absent in many Catholic churches.
In contrast, Latino Protestants may not feel as welcome in non-Latino churches, which leads them to more readily accept invitations from friends and family into Latino-centric churches. This is especially likely in a political climate where Latinos are seen as illegal and unwanted foreigners, despite the majority of Latino Protestants being legal citizens and born in America.
Immersion in the church
According to our interviews for the book Latino Protestants in America, for many their immersion in Protestant churches is due to practices that differentiate these churches from Catholicism: specifically, more emotionally-immersive worship, greater encouragement of lay leadership, and multiple opportunities for women’s and youth’s direct involvement.
Yet another important reason for high levels of church participation may be a consequence of their conversion to Protestantism—sociologically, converts have higher rates of congregational activities when compared to lifelong Protestant Latinos.
Finally, while all congregations depend on members volunteering their time as a resource, churches that are financially strained often create multiple, meaningful opportunities to sustain the ministry. Volunteer service directly saves money on hiring staff or outsourcing services. Moreover, service commitments, attendance at activities, and religious intensity all reinforce each other.
In the end, Latino Protestant congregations capture and channel the religiosity of Latino Protestants, an intensity that is a defining cultural ethos of their churches. Given continuing evidence of their sustained growth, the forces contributing to the centrality of church among Latino Protestants is likely to remain for some time.
Author’s note: Latino Protestants are mainline, evangelical, and Pentecostal. It has been crucial to our work that leaders do not define them as mostly or even dominantly Pentecostal, and folding Pentecostal and Evangelical together create its own analytical problems. In writing about existing research, there is a difficulty in maintaining these distinctions because the best available work sometimes ONLY discusses evangelicals. Our work seeks to correct this, even when we use that research to provide the best overview of current dynamics as possible. We want to emphasize that in contrasting Protestants from Catholics, we are drawing attention to the many Christian orientations that exist within Protestantism and in the case of our research, in the Latino community.
In a gathering of congregational leaders, the word “millennial” enters the conversation. A wave of uneasiness settles in — judgment, honest confusion or distress. What is the future of our congregation with these young people?
As a church-going millennial and congregational consultant, I observe these conversations through a few different lenses. Here’s what you should consider.
“What if millennials are the carriers and not the cause [of cultural change].” – Mike McHargue
Thought leader Mike McHargue, voice of The Liturgists podcast and The New Copernican Series, encourages a broader perspective of our changing lifestyles and overall culture. To quote a friend, “I wasn’t born this way, glued to my phone. I didn’t choose to have a six-second attention span.”
Action step: Try withholding judgment in favor of seeking understanding. You might learn something and uncover that millennials make more sense than you thought.
We are individuals with unique stories and normal human needs. Labeling us “millennials” doesn’t even scratch the surface of who we are. We have personalities, varied hardships and defining life experiences. What we do share is an isolating, technology-driven culture. Because of this, we especially need authentic conversation and relationships.
Action step: Try getting to know us on an individual level. This step is recommended in Center staffer Wendy McCormick’s Engaging Young Adults article. My best relationships started by getting together outside of the worship building. Meet us for coffee or invite us to a sports game, a game night, lunch or a local show.
We’ll likely collaborate with you to do something. As society gets faster, our time is important. Help us use time together to further our goals and contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Giving us a meaningful role will make us feel valued and grow our commitment to the congregation.
Action Step: Ask us what we’re interested in or passionate about. Support us in making those ideas happen. Derrick Feldmann’s Social Movements For Good will help you understand social movements of this generation and what makes them successful.
As you get to know young adults, you’ll be able to spend more time together doing the life-giving activities of your congregation.
I’m having more conversations with congregations that characterize themselves as multicultural. For example, I met with a governing board of a Caucasian congregation that had recently welcomed 20 refugees from Ethiopia. A board member said, “We sing songs that are new to us.”
Another pastor called the Center for Congregations looking for resources related to talking about racial justice. I asked, “Is your congregation predominately African-American or mainly Caucasian?” She said, “We are multicultural. We are about 60% white, about 30% black, and we have others who are recent immigrants from Latin America.”
A multicultural congregation is typically racially diverse. Yet, the diversity also stretches beyond racial inclusivity. A multicultural congregation holds and seeks racial, cultural, class, generational, gender and other differences to be represented among its participants.
Those who study multicultural congregations note that when 20% percent of the participants represent the non-dominant group, the non-dominant group begins to transform the congregation in significant ways. The style of prayer changes. People learn facts they didn’t know before (“there are over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia!). New friendships are made.
A rich congregational experience
A multicultural congregation includes a diverse range of people in attendance. More robustly, the congregation expresses its religious claims and commitments through the activities and practices of more than a single, dominant culture.
Many effective multicultural congregations become diverse because of unfolding circumstances, as opposed to deciding to become such a congregation. For example, a congregation may find itself located in a zip code with an influx of immigrants. Or a congregation might observe that the public-school district in which they reside includes students of a different race than most of its members.
Resources you can use
If you are addressing the challenges and opportunities of becoming a multicultural congregation your governing board might begin to deepen its consideration by reading and discussing some outside resources. I recommend these two – a blog titled Different Models for Multicultural Congregations and Ministries and the article Against the Current.
As your knowledge and expertise deepens, I recommend the web resource Striving Toward Multi-Ethnic Church to increase your capacity as a multicultural congregation.