By Brian Mavis
“I really liked today’s Mass, Father.” If you are a preaching minister, you’ve probably been greeted like that after church. It’s not news that in the United States many former Catholics are attending and converting to Protestant churches. What is news, though, is that many of those Catholics aren’t from Irish or Italian decent—rather, they are Latinos.1
• From 1900 to 2000 the number of Latin American Protestants swelled from 50,000 to 64 million!
• In 1930, Protestants amounted to 1 percent of the Latin American population; in 1996, Protestants made up 4 percent. Today it’s 12 to 15 percent.
• From 1950 to today, Mexico’s population went from 98 percent Catholic to 88 percent.
• Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world with 149 million adherents, loses one-half million Catholics every year.
• In the late 1990s, 8,000 Latin Americans were converting from the Catholic Church for Evangelical Protestantism every day.
(Statistics like these have not escaped the Vatican’s attention, and are likely part of the reason church cardinals in March elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first pope from Latin America.)
Now this trend has moved north, and today there are more Latino Protestants in the United States than Jews, Muslims, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians combined.
While the majority of the 52 million-plus Latinos in the U.S. (more than two-thirds) still are Catholic, that is expected to flip to a Latino Protestant majority within 20 years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Not Just Protestant, But Evangelical
Some Latinos are part of mainline Protestantism, but the vast majority belong to branches that are Evangelical—or as they would say, Evangélicos. And the majority of those Evangelical churches are charismatic. The largest Assemblies of God church in the U.S., New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, is a Latino church with 17,000 who attend.
Latino Evangélico churches are not only evangelistic, but also social centers, often taking care of people’s food, health, and housing needs. Samuel Rodriguez, executive director of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says Latino Evangelicals embrace the views of someone like Billy Graham, who has a “vertical agenda” of salvation, while also embracing the views of someone like Martin Luther King Jr., who has a “horizontal agenda” of social equality. He says Latino Evangelicals are a mix of Graham and King “with a little salsa tossed in.”
The Evangélico explosion is obviously tied to Latino immigration. Most Latinos came to the U.S. to find a better life—a life out of grinding poverty and toward opportunity. But it is a mistake to believe they all come from the same home country. Latino immigrants come from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Colombia—all of Latin America. Church is what they have in common. That is where they experience a shared faith and familia. It is where they all feel like they can belong, and they are finding genuine faith there.
The Challenge Ahead
In two more generations, Latinos will make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population. Evangélico churches will continue to increase in size and influence. It will be one of the fastest growing—if not the fastest growing—sectors of the U.S. Evangelical church. Some Christian organizations and denominations are responding. For example, Christianity Today will begin publishing a Spanish edition later this year. The Southern Baptist Convention is seeking to add 3,800 more Baptist Latino churches in the next seven years, increasing its total number to 7,000 Latino SBC churches. Of course, the Pentecostal and charismatic churches are already engaged and leading the way.
Meanwhile, the independent Christian church has been slow responding to this opportunity. In fact, I asked the 1,530 members of the ICC Ministers Facebook page if any of them knew of Latino ICC churches that had more than 200 attendees, and I didn’t get a single response (and it’s a very active Facebook page).
The independent Christian church is normally very agile and quick to move toward new evangelistic openings. It has been a leader in the megachurch movement, the multisite movement, and the missional movement, but the ICC churches are not leading the way to reaching Latinos.
This is a time of heightened spiritual openness for U.S. Latinos. It is time for independent Christian churches to step through this great door God has opened.
1I’m using the word Latino in the way it was defined in the 2010 Census: Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.