Dr. Julio Guarneri
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On Sept. 15, The Texas Tribune announced Hispanic Texans now may be the state’s largest demographic group. A study done in 2021 suggests Hispanic Texans make up 40.2 percent of the state’s population, while non-Hispanic white Texans make up 39.4 percent. This, of course, does not surprise us.
Demographers have been forecasting this for decades, but the moment has arrived. We must ask ourselves: “What are the implications? What does this mean for Texas Baptists, particularly?” Although many of us have known this day was coming, are we ready?
Texas Baptists are focused on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. From a Great Commission perspective, if we want to make disciples of everyone in our state, we need at least 40 percent of our churches to reach Hispanics actively or for all of our churches to reflect this in each congregation.
From a Great Commandment perspective, we must address how loving our neighbor relates to the issues of economic and educational disparity in our state. Most importantly, we must continue to recognize what has been true of Texas for some time: We are a mission field and a mission force at the same time.
Our commitment to reach our state with the gospel and to be a mission force to the rest of the world should lead us to focus on at least three priority areas with great urgency—churches, leaders and cross-cultural competency.
In a state where no group is the majority and that grows more diverse every day, cross-cultural competency is a must. If Texas Baptists are going to remain relevant and strong, we must operate cross-culturally. The Scriptures offer us models on how the church of the first century did this.
The church in the New Testament experienced significant and rapid-pace shifts in its cultural and ethnic make-up.
In Acts 6, we have the account of the first seven chosen for the food distribution to widows. The problem was one of a church that had become multicultural. While the Hebraic members had been the majority originally, the Hellenistic members increased in number significantly.
The manner in which the church addressed this issue could have divided the church or allowed it to keep thriving. While all 12 apostles were Hebraic (Jews), the seven they chose possessed Hellenistic names. In other words, the church and the apostles were cross-culturally sensitive. As a result, “the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts 6:7b).
We would do well to learn from the early church’s wisdom by increasing our leadership capacity and ensuring our church and institutional leadership represents well the cultures we serve.
Conflict and tension often can arise in church life from a lack of cross-cultural understanding. As I have written in a previous article, I have found this to be true even in primarily Hispanic churches and comprised of Latinos from various countries or cultures.
Part of this cross-cultural understanding is knowing there is no such thing as a Hispanic or Latino culture, per se. Rather, there are multiple cultures under the Hispanic umbrella.
While Hispanics may share a language or some common heritage, Hispanics of Mexican background have a different culture than those of Puerto Rican or Cuban descent. Argentinian culture is different from Salvadorian or Guatemalan. Colombians and Spaniards may share some commonalities but differ in multiple ways, as do Hispanics who have lived in the United States for three or four generations.
In addition to country of origin, cultural differences also exist depending on educational level, socioeconomic status and whether people come from rural or urban areas. Churches that wish to be effective in reaching Hispanics need to be aware of this and not assume there is a monolithic “Hispanic culture.”
The Apostle Paul models this cross-cultural adaptability for us. He declares, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. … To those not having the law I became like one not having the law. … I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20a, 21a, 22b).
Reaching our state will require more than a “y’all come” posture. Sharing Paul’s passion for the lost, let us commit to become cross-cultural disciple-makers.
I believe Texas Baptists have made great strides in reaching the diverse population of our state, especially Hispanics. Much progress has been made in the diversity of our leadership, the efforts of our universities to prepare more Hispanics for ministry and for other vocations with a Christian worldview, and in the planting of new churches and Spanish-language ministries.
Nevertheless, we must make an honest assessment of where we are and where the gaps are. My guess is we cannot continue with business as usual but must ramp up our efforts to plant new churches, prepare more leaders and position ourselves cross-culturally.
We need to create capacity in our churches for reaching the Hispanic population. That requires a multi-prong approach.
We need more new Hispanic church plants. We need churches that reach Spanish-speaking Hispanics, English-speaking Hispanics and bilingual Hispanics. This latter category might be considered its own language group.
We need existing English-language churches to start Spanish-language worship services or ministries. The “en español” model seems to be working in many places. We need non-Hispanic churches to be willing to reach Hispanics and even, perhaps, become multi-cultural congregations.
One size does not fit all. It will take all this to reach our state for Christ.
The same is true for leadership development. We already have a shortage of leaders who can lead Hispanic congregations, Spanish-language ministries, or who can serve as multi-cultural leaders in non-Hispanic churches. Yet, every day we will continue to need an increasing amount of such leaders prepared to lead well into the present and future of our state.
Such training includes theological education and the preparation of leaders in other vocations. It also includes cross-cultural training for Hispanic leaders who come from other countries, so they can minister in the unique Texas landscape.
We must come together and bring our resources to bear in a bold strategy that accelerates our Hispanic leadership development at all levels. Additionally, we need non-Hispanic church and institutional leaders who will possess cross-cultural competency as they minister, teach, reach and lead a state where the largest population group is Hispanic.
While reaching our diverse state could be challenging, the potential of doing so in such a way that we become a powerful mission force ought to motivate us. History will tell if Texas Baptists seized the opportunity laid before us. May it be so for the sake of the kingdom and the glory of God.
Julio Guarneri is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in McAllen and first vice president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
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