The Importance of Communication in Establishing a Hispanic Ministry
by Karen Aguilar
Just as a building is only as strong as its foundation, a ministry is only as strong as the vision and resources behind it.
WITH TODAY’S GROWING Hispanic population, more and more churches are expressing an interest in reaching the Hispanic community. Eager to increase their numbers, infuse their churches with new energy, bring needed rental income, or simply do their part in fulfilling Jesus’ command to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15b), pastors and leaders may jump at the first chance they have to partner with an existing Hispanic church or begin their own Hispanic ministry.
Yet if they jump too quickly, they may alienate members of the congregation or open their doors to something they do not have the resources to effectively support. Good intentions are not enough. There must be cultural awareness and good communication in order to ensure a common understanding of how the ministry will look and function.
Just as a building is only as strong as its foundation, a ministry is only as strong as the vision and resources behind it. Visions that are not well-defined or articulated can be easily misunderstood. Visions that are not supported by leadership are likely to lack the support they need to build and continue, and visions that are not backed by the church are likely to cause friction that may ultimately tear apart the ministry they are meant to serve. On the other hand, visions that are clearly articulated, understood, and supported by the leadership, the congregation, and resources are likely to grow.
As the wife of a Hispanic pastor and ministry planter, I have seen firsthand how the lack of a clearly defined and supported vision can impact ministry. In our experience, we have responded to invitations to begin a Hispanic ministry only to discover that the ministry the pastor expected was not the vision we understood, or that the desire to create a Hispanic ministry was the vision of one pastor and a few key individuals, but not of the whole congregation. While the English-speaking leadership seems unaware of any miscommunication, Spanish-speaking congregants express feelings of frustration and rejection.
In one instance, the results of the miscommunication were so strong that none of the members of the Hispanic congregation were willing to remain at the church when we were called elsewhere, leaving the non-Hispanic leaders to feel hurt and betrayed that things hadn’t worked out as they had planned.
When Jesus came to earth, he modeled the crossing of ethnic boundaries (John 4:3-42: the woman at the well) and commanded his disciples to do likewise (Matt. 28:19a: the Great Commission). Although churches have generally understood this command, they have not always been willing to bring other ethnic groups into their own congregations, preferring to form separate, homogeneous ethnic churches instead (Garces-Foley 2007, 4-5; Branson and Martínez 2011, 14-15).
Yet forming separate ethnic congregations is not necessarily the biblical model, for the early Church “preached the Gospel to Jew and Gentile. . . [overcoming] the initial temptation to be only a Jewish sect” (Fong 1996, 83). Of course, when language is a factor, separate services are often necessary, but everyone benefits if churches can maintain open communication to work together toward unity.
There is no one-size-fits-all model for establishing a Hispanic ministry. Rather, churches should consider what model works best for their own history and religious tradition (Branson and Martinez 2011, 39; Garces-Foley 2007, 25), as well as for the group they desire to reach.
They should consider their resources and the ethnic composition of the neighborhoods around their church (including numbers, ethnicity, education, social-economic level, language preference, and prior church involvement), and ask God what he would have them do in regard to the vision they are beginning to form.
They should then consider the type of Hispanic ministry they would like to implement. Possible ministry models include: the dominant-culture church (business-as-usual), the dominant-culture church with a multicultural fellowship (assimilation), the space-sharing or ethnic-specific church (separation), the multilingual church (pluralistic co-existence), and the bi- or multicultural church (integrated pluralism) (Pocock and Henriques 2002, 134-40; Garces-Foley 2007, 155-57; Bennett 2011, 19-21). In the first three models, the planting church makes little adjustment.
• The dominant-culture church focuses on sending missionaries rather than welcoming the culturally diverse into its own congregation (Pocock and Henriques 2002, 134).
• The dominant-culture church with a multicultural fellowship focuses on reaching a target ethnic group through a designated ministry that may be in another language (e.g., Sunday school in Spanish), expecting ethnically diverse members to “fit in” to the already established ministry structure, rather than making changes to accommodate the church’s growing diversity (Bennett 2011, 19).
• The space-sharing or ethnic-specific church focuses on reaching the target population via a separate church or space-sharing arrangement, renting space to an already-established Hispanic church or using resources to plant a Hispanic ministry that it expects to eventually grow and become its own church.
In the last two models, the planting church works collaboratively with ethnic church leaders toward a common vision and purpose.
• Although language barriers cause the multilingual church to hold separate worship services, leaders share finances and purposefully work together to form a common identity that is apparent throughout the church (Garces-Foley 2007, 157).
• Generally lacking language barriers, the bi- or multicultural church goes one step further, incorporating “international heterogeneity at all levels of the church,” from the mission, vision, values, and strategic plan to the music programs, teaching styles, and scripture applications (Pocock and Henriques 2002, 139-40).
Once a church has identified a need, captured a vision, and verified resources, it should begin to create congregational buy-in. Options for accomplishing this include topic-centered sermons and Bible studies, the formation of ad hoc committees to further refine the vision and explore options, and cross-cultural or intercultural sensitivity training experiences.
Involving the whole church in the decision and preparation process is an important part of establishing a welcoming atmosphere and setting the groundwork for good communication. Without it, most congregations will revert to a multi-congregational, shared-space structure “in which the different groups maintain their own worship, governance, and leadership,” even if “they are all under one name and one roof” (Law 1993, 47).
Of course, starting a new ministry requires finding a leader who shares the vision of the ministry the church would like to create. Many times, churches express their desire to begin a Hispanic ministry, locate a leader who expresses a similar desire, and assume they are on the same page regarding what the ministry should entail.
While both may talk about having separate services in Spanish and English and occasional joint services together, one may picture a church working together toward unity, and another may picture a ministry taking the needed steps to establish itself as a separate church. Or, both may refer to unity, but one may picture assimilation, while the other pictures cultural pluralism.
Because simply inviting a potential leader to come, sharing the vision, and asking if the leader would like to be a part of it can create a cultural power imbalance (causing a Hispanic leader to say what the executive pastor wants to hear), churches ought to be careful how they go about determining shared vision and establishing leadership, especially if the potential leader is a first-generation Hispanic immigrant. They also ought to be clear what the power relationship between leaders would be going forward, so the potential leader knows whether he or she is being invited to collaborate, invited to lead separately, or invited to follow.
Different cultures have different views and expectations of leadership that are linked to their willingness to be forthright and to share what they think. White, middle-class leaders are expected to facilitate discussion and enable a group to reach a consensus in order to accomplish what needs to be done (Law 1993, 31). Hispanic leaders are expected to speak for those they lead and to make the ultimate decision of what needs to occur.
In Hispanic circles, leadership is very much person vs. program oriented, and good leaders are expected to be “sensitive to the needs and talents of everyone in the group” (Nida 1974, 25; Law 1993, 32). Executive pastors who meet with potential leaders to determine the vision they have need to be aware of this dynamic and invite the leaders to share their own vision, to encourage dialogue and attempt to avoid the perception of the powerful vs. powerless (Law 1993, 33, 91). Although the church may already have a fairly well-designed vision, it should recognize the need for collaboration and be willing to be flexible in the way the final vision is cast.
Since the executive pastor is likely to be the individual who most closely works with the Hispanic pastor (even in a space-sharing relationship), it is especially important for him or her to receive some sort of cross-cultural training.
But cross-cultural training and sensitivity building should not stop there. The Hispanic pastor (if not already bilingual and bicultural) should receive similar training, as should church members on both sides of the cultural spectrum, particularly if the goal is to work together toward a common purpose.
Possible ways to provide training include cross-cultural awareness seminars, Spanish-as-a-second-language and English-as-a-second-language courses, the inclusion of cultural notes in a church newsletter or bulletin, and the hosting of cultural fairs or celebratory events.
While communication between people of the same culture can at times be complex, communication between people of different cultures is even more so. It is important to understand (1) that the words that are spoken are values that establish how people should relate to each other in different situations; (2) what needs to happen in order for people to feel they “belong” (Branson and Martínez 2011, 146); (3) what topics are considered appropriate or taboo; and (4) what is understood by one’s actions, expressions, and other forms of nonverbal communication.
There is also the issue of power, or “the degree to which one party controls resources valued by another party,” which may cause the one without resources “to conform to the expectations of the more powerful person” (Rogers and Steinfatt 1999, 133).
Because Hispanic cultures tend to be non-confrontational, non-Hispanic leaders and congregants should be taught that “yes” does not always mean “yes” to individuals from a Spanish-speaking culture.
Although cross-cultural misunderstandings are always possible, awareness and sensitivity can prepare the way for establishing trust, respect, and dialogue. At the surface level, leaders and congregations should be taught (1) what greetings are appropriate; (2) what words, topics, or actions are offensive; and (3) what is expected in regard to standing distance, eye contact, and touch (Pocock and Henriques 2002, 115-17; Rogers and Steinfatt 1999, 174-83).
At a deeper level, they should be taught about attitudes toward time, the general differences between high and low-context or hot and cold-climate cultures (e.g., being relationship-driven vs. task-oriented), and the relation to authority in regard to individualism vs. collectivism (Rogers and Steinfatt 1999, 86-95; Lanier 2000).
Because Hispanic cultures tend to be non-confrontational, non-Hispanic leaders and congregants should be taught that “yes” does not always mean “yes” to individuals from a Spanish-speaking culture. As Eugene A. Nida (1974) states, “Latin society has . . . sought to preserve the ideal more than the real through the practice of telling people what they want to learn rather than disturbing them with the blunt truth.” While the non-Hispanic might see this as lying, the Hispanic would see it as “placing higher values on ideal interpersonal relationships than on the truth” (1974, 51).
Of course, Hispanic pastors can work with their congregants to teach them the importance of saying what they mean in U.S. culture, but it is helpful for leaders and congregants to be aware of this tendency so they can determine an individual’s preferences in ways other than by asking a direct yes/no question.
Executive pastors and church leadership teams ought to realize that the collective nature of Spanish-speaking cultures expects the leader to speak for the people he or she leads. That means that if there is a problem, people will inform the leader and expect him or her to present their case before the powers-that-be.
Even if encouraged to share their opinions individually (which gives more credence in an individualistic society), individuals from a collectivistic society (e.g., Hispanics) may not be willing to do so (Law 1993, 34). Non-Hispanic leaders should recognize that when a Hispanic leader speaks, he or she may be representing the entire group (Lanier 2000, 43). For that reason, they ought to be prepared to give more weight to what a Hispanic leader says than to what an individual from an individualistic culture (white, middle class) says, since that individual would likely only be speaking for him or herself (unless of course he or she is the one speaking for the Hispanic group).
In meetings, white, middle-class churches should be careful to avoid selecting a “token” Hispanic representative to serve on a committee or speak for the entire group. While leaders are expected to represent the needs of their group, individuals from a collectivistic culture will typically feel uncomfortable serving as the sole group representative, preferring instead to serve with other members of their culture with whom they can form a consensus.
If input on an issue is desired, it is better to first have two separate, culturally-divided groups work through the issue and to then bring the groups together to share the consensus they have reached, once both groups are ready (Law 1993, 50).
When mixed-culture groups do meet, it is advisable to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting exchanging greetings and pleasantries, so as not to alienate anyone from the group. Although European-Americans tend to first focus on the task and then get to know those with whom they are working, “Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end” (DuPraw and Axner 1997).
An immediate jump to the task may offend those who are accustomed to a more relational structure and hinder, rather than help, the goal of working together. Because churches desiring to establish a Hispanic ministry are already willing to reach out, and because they (as the ones with the resources) are likely to be viewed as more powerful than those they seek to reach, it is important that they be willing to adapt their cultural norms so as not to offend (Pocock and Henriques 2002, 42).
Due to the power-differential, Eric Law (1993) recommends structuring meetings via “mutual invitation,” rather than expecting each member to feel equally powerful to volunteer his or her own opinion. In mutual invitation, the leader first shares, taking care not to project him or herself as an expert, then invites someone else to share, who has the option to share or pass and to then invite someone else, and so forth (1993, 83). Mutual invitation can be enhanced by establishing ground rules to govern how meeting interactions should take place (1993, 109).
Whether or not mutual invitation is used, leaders need to “develop creative techniques by means of which [all congregants] can be encouraged to produce and send feedback they know will affect the presentation of [the sermons]” or the decisions that are made (Kraft 1991, 159).
Assess and Adjust
Church leaders have a strong influence on church culture (Garces-Foley 2007, 89). Although it will not be easy, they can become effective in reaching the Hispanic population if they develop a humble, willing-to-learn attitude (Pocock and Henriques 2002, 119); structure power to reflect the value they place on reaching the Hispanic population by placing Hispanics on their paid leadership staff (Garces-Foley 2007, 89); and become involved in the lives of those they are trying to reach (Kraft 1991, 62).
People have a tendency to want to be with their own culture groups, where they feel comfortable. Churches that have a vision to reach cross-culturally must work to keep that vision ever present in the eyes of their congregations. They must provide opportunities for cross-cultural interaction, place their money and resources where their priorities are, be clear as to their intentions, and continually assess how they are doing with their stated goals and objectives.
Building a strong foundation of collaboration, shared vision, and open communication is important. Objectives and goals may change over time, based on perceived need. One method may work for one church and a different method for another. The same church may even change its model of ministry focus over time. As long as churches are willing to explore a vision, seek God’s will, and work together to build it, God will be glorified. The important principle is to build a good foundation of effective communication so love, fellowship, and collaboration may abound.
Bennett, Christine I. 2011. Comprehensive Multicultural Education: Theory and Practice. 7th ed. Boston, Mass.: Pearson.
Branson, Mark Lau and Juan F. Martínez. 2011. Churches, Cultures & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
DuPraw, Marcelle and Marya Axner. 1997. “Toward a More Perfect Union in an Age of Diversity: Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges.” Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed January 9, 2013, from www.pbs.org/ampu/crosscult.html.
Fong, Bruce W. 1996. Racial Equality in the Church: A Critique of the Homogenous Unit Principle in Light of a Practical Theology Perspective. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.
Garces-Foley, Kathleen. 2007. Crossing the Ethnic Divide: The Multiethnic Church on a Mission. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kraft, Charles H. 1991. Communication Theory for Christian Witness—Revised. Mary-knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Lanier, Sarah. 2000. Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures. Hagerstown, Md.: McDougal Publishing.
Law, Eric H. F. 1993. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community. St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press.
Nida, Eugene A. 1974. Understanding Latin Americans: With Special Reference to Religious Values and Movements. South Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Pocock, Michael and Joseph Henriques. 2002. Cultural Change & Your Church: Helping your Church Thrive in a Diverse Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Rogers, Everett M. and Thomas M. Steinfatt. 1999. Intercultural Communication. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.
Karen Aguilar has supported her husband in establishing three Hispanic ministries. They currently serve at Springwater Church of the Nazarene, where José pastors the Hispanic ministry. Karen is a Multnomah University MA-TESOL graduate and works at Warner Pacific College.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 474-482. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use please visit our STORE (here).