by Manuel J. Gutierrez
When Latinos ask about getting involved in missions, the approach to getting them started is not simple.
It is believed that there are forty-six million Latinos living legally in the U.S., with another twelve million illegally. Sixty-four percent of Latinos living in the U.S. are of Mexican descent. Today, Latinos form over fifteen percent of the U.S. population; however, by 2025 it is predicted that we will more than double to thirty-three percent.
Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the U.S. In fact, there are more Spanish speakers than speakers of Chinese, French, Italian, Hawaiian, and the Native American languages combined. However, although Latinos are not all the same, we have been lumped into one group.
We are varied in our features, traditions, foods, customs, and even in the way we speak. Not all Latinos like hot and spicy foods, eat tortillas, or are short, dark, and have black hair. We do, however, share a history, language, and religious roots that unite us. This has allowed us to share a heritage that has helped to establish us as a defined people group.
I am a first-generation Mexican American and a first-generation Christian believer. Born in the U.S. to Mexican parents, I spoke only Spanish for the first five years of my life. In public school, I learned to speak English, but Spanish was still spoken at home. I first heard the gospel at the age of 12. It took two years of going to Sunday school and church before I allowed the message of salvation to penetrate my heart. Although it changed me completely, it also divided my family.
My parents viewed it as a foreign religion; to accept it was to deny the religious heritage of our ancestors. Since I had been deemed the one to become the priest, I would be letting down the spiritual future of the family if I continued following this foreign way. To continue in my faith, I had to take a stand against my family, our traditions, and our religion. The decision had consequences, but not all were negative—several years later, my parents and many of my eleven siblings also became believers.
At 16, I felt the call of God to study at the Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, I met two other Latinos: one from Puerto Rico, the other from Ecuador. It was rare to see another Latino preparing for ministry. As I struggled with the idea of being a missionary to another Latin American country, the Lord showed me that he had been preparing me to work with Latinos. I understood the language, customs, and traditions. I also knew what it was like to leave one’s religion and experience the condemnation of a family that did not understand.
The Lord led me to serve as a missionary in the Dominican Republic with CrossWorld. I knew of no other Latinos in the mission. The Dominicans accepted me as one of them. I loved the things that united me to the Dominicans and the differences that showed me I was still very Mexican in my traditions. However, God moved me on to serve at the Rio Grande Bible Institute in Texas. Today, I am helping to prepare future generations of Latino believers from all over Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula for ministry. The difference in how this generation views missions is huge.
A Glimpse into Latinos and Missions
The history of missions in Great Britain and the U.S. developed the concept of mission-sending agencies. Churches worked with sending agencies to provide support and prayer for missionaries, and sending agencies used a percentage of the incoming funds for operating expenses. They became one of the main links between missionaries and supporters.
Today, when Latinos ask about getting involved in missions, the approach to getting them started is not simple. Latin American churches are not familiar with the systems of mission-sending agencies or the concept of regularly contributing funds for the agencies’ support. This presents a problem for those who want to go out as foreign missionaries.
When missionaries brought the gospel to Latin America, they came with their financial support. Latino churches did not need to support them; consequently, many churches did not learn how to support their pastors or outside ministries. These new churches learned to depend on foreign missionaries. As a consequence, while churches in Latin America have grown numerically and spiritually, many have only been able to take care of immediate financial needs (e.g., their pastor and perhaps those of a daughter church).
Many pastors have been so concerned with the needs of their own churches that it has been difficult to think about supporting others involved in different ministries. When a church is not able to support its pastor, the pastor works outside of the church. This has given rise to the idea of becoming tentmakers rather than having salaries as paid Christian workers. Historically, the idea of channeling funds outside of the church has not been a part of the Latino church. Rather, the immediate needs of every church have taken precedence.
In many Latin American countries, there has been an attitude that one does not ask for funds, since it may come across as begging. It may be viewed as shameful for the family because it is seen as not being able to provide for the family member’s needs. Until recently, the pastorate (or those in missions) in a country such as Mexico was not considered a recognized profession. It was more acceptable to have a “real” profession and do ministry on the side. This demonstrated that while someone was prepared enough to work in a respective field, he or she had also chosen to serve the Lord rather than profit financially. This attitude allowed for the idea of working as a tentmaker, which gave the missionary more established contacts in the community.
Concerns for Latinos in Missions
When a Latino wants to get involved in missions, how does one begin? Where can he or she go? Who will help guide the process? What is the process? These are questions I frequently hear. Below are a number of concerns for Latinos in the U.S. looking to go into mission work.
Established mission processes. Many have asked for help from foreign missionaries and are told of the established process of receiving proper training, selecting a mission board, and raising support. These differences in historical backgrounds keep established missions and newer Latino missionaries from understanding each other’s perspective on missions.
Established and proven systems are often not questioned. The whys and whats are overlooked because certain ways of doing things are accepted as the norm. However, when one does not have a similar system or reason for doing things a certain way, that person will question it. This has been a problem for Latinos being absorbed into North American mission-sending agencies. It is difficult to understand why a mission agency would take out operational funds that were intended for one’s support. The thought is that the mission agency should raise its own funds to meet its needs just like the missionary has had to raise his or her own support.
U.S. tax laws. Aspects such as complying with U.S. tax laws are not always explained well. When one’s system is very different and he or she does not have to pay taxes in the same manner, it is difficult to accept. It is intimidating to think that one might go to jail for not paying taxes. Mission agencies understand this system, but often these laws are not explained.
Health insurance. It may seem like paying so much for health insurance is wasteful when insurance was much cheaper in one’s home country. Some Latino missionaries have asked whether health insurance is necessary at all.
Doing Things Differently
Today, however, the Latin American Church is changing its missionary vision. Because of the economic situation, many Latinos have moved to other parts of the world and believers have taken the gospel with them. Wherever they have gone, they have given a boost to the existing Church. When they arrive in a place with no established church, they learn how to plant churches in order to have others with whom they can worship.
This has given rise to men and women who have had to step in as Christian leaders. Their eyes have been opened to spiritual needs in their new country. They have become aware of the need to prepare theologically and culturally. The face of missions is changing and the Latin American Church is joining in the missionary effort like never before.
The lack of Latin American missionary-sending agencies has forced missionaries to look at other ways of going out to evangelize the world. This has given rise to a refocusing of the missionary support process. Many Latino workers have resorted to the customary tentmaker method of ministry used in their home countries. Being tentmakers permits new missionaries to work in communities and establish more contacts naturally. Unfortunately, this also limits missionaries in the time they have to minister.
In an effort to remedy this problem, some have asked their home churches to come alongside them. As the Latin American Church becomes involved, it has grown in its global vision of missions. Many churches that are not able to support both a missionary and a pastor are able to partially support a missionary.
We are seeing the growth of a Latin mission movement that is outside of traditional, Western systems. The Latin American Church is becoming strongly engaged in what is happening in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. It is indeed thrilling to see a Latin American face on many new mission ventures.
Dr. Manuel (Manny) Gutierrez is the language school dean of the Rio Grande Bible Institute, where he and his wife, Jane, have served for thirty-six years. He was ordained under his IFCA home church and received his doctoral degree in educational administration. Manny serves on numerous boards, including The World Radio Network and the Association for Biblical Higher Education. He and his wife have two grown sons.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 156-160. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.