Hispanic/Latino UM Churches Are Developing Large Congregations

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Oct. 5, 2015 /Discipleship Ministries/– Hispanic/Latino United Methodist churches, traditionally seen as primarily small congregations within the connection in the United States, are using small groups and other disciple-making efforts to develop larger churches with 350-plus worshipers.

“Just to see us have this size of a church is new,” said Samuel Rodriguez, director of Hispanic/Latino and Multi-Ethnic New Church Starts at Discipleship Ministries. “Like with the whole denomination, I think we need large Hispanic/Latino churches, we need medium-sized churches, and we need small churches.”

Three congregations with more than 350 in weekly worship – in Texas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania – are leading the way among Hispanic/Latino United Methodist churches.

Worshipers at Valley Praise United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas are mostly third- and fourth-generation English-speaking professionals.

Rev. Aaron Saenz, senior pastor at Valley Praise, said United Methodists need to include ministries not only for first-generation immigrants, but also for third- and fourth-generation Americans with Hispanic/Latino backgrounds.

“As the church looks forward to doing Hispanic ministry, there has to be a multifaceted approach to it,” Saenz said. “A lot of churches want to do Hispanic ministry and they automatically just do a Spanish-speaking service and a food pantry or something. They're missing out on the third- and fourth-generation professionals that are Hispanic, but identify more American, who really could contribute a lot to our leadership in our denomination.”

All services at Valley Praise are in English, with bilingual cultural familiarities included, but a Spanish translation is provided electronically. “What we've found is that we're reaching more Spanish speakers with a translation offered at our services than when we offered a full Spanish service,” Saenz said. “Grandparents who can speak English, but prefer Spanish, can sit right next to their children and grandkids in the same service, and they can all worship together.”

Valley Praise, organized as an off-campus worship site of Harlingen First UMC in 2006, was planted as a separate church in 2010 and chartered in 2012. After meeting for years in a middle school, the church renovated a warehouse building for worship services.

The official membership is about 150 people, but each Sunday 300-350 people regularly attend two Sunday morning services. “The next thing we're going to do is start a Saturday evening service in January,” Saenz said. “We're hoping to reach a new demographic of young adults with that.”

Valley Praise developed a discipleship system called “Move” which seeks to integrate people into the life of the church. “Move to Follow is a baptism class, Move to Commit is a membership class, Move to Serve is where people get plugged into serving, and then Move to Lead is a four-part leadership class that helps us identify and train leadership for the congregation,” Saenz said.

“To me, moving people from the crowd or participation to leadership is one of our greatest strengths,” he said. Four lay preachers from Valley Praise currently preach in rotation at a small rural church. In addition, three licensed local pastors, including two who are in fulltime ministry, have come from the congregation.

Valley Praise is growing because people are inviting their friends to church, Saenz said. “Social media is important, but really we find that when someone comes on the elbow of another person, they're going to be more likely to stick around.”

The church’s small group ministry, called Grow Groups, encourages 12 people or less to meet regularly, read scripture and pray together and take on a mission project. “Our rule is the bigger we get, the smaller we have to get. So we have to provide more small group opportunities,” Saenz said. “… Our goal is always going to be to have 100 percent of our worship attendance involved in a small group.”

In Kentucky, Fuente de Avivamiento UMC is based in Lexington, but has developed 70 house churches that meet in Lexington and several surrounding communities, and has planted two satellite churches in nearby Richmond and Harrodsburg.

“We believe that the church can grow not only by expansion, but by extension,” said the Rev. Dr. Iosmar Alvarez, lead pastor. “Expansion means growing in the same place. Since our building will not allow us to continue growing, we decided to start growing by extension. That means house churches.”

Alvarez said house churches reach the community 5-12 people at a time. “The purpose of the house church is guiding people to Christ and taking care of them,” he said.

Counting the people who attend house churches, Fuente de Avivamiento has about 500 people in weekly worship on Sunday and Thursday nights.

“Our church is becoming more and more multicultural because all of the services are bilingual,” Alvarez said. “We have African-Americans. We have Anglos. We have people from different countries.”

Fuente de Avivamiento (Spring of Revival) began as a ministry of Hope Springs Community UMC in 2004, became a local church the next year and received its charter in May – the first Hispanic United Methodist Church chartered in the Kentucky Conference. The Anglo and Hispanic churches currently share the same facility in Lexington, with Hope Springs worshiping on Sunday mornings and Fuente de Avivamiento on Sunday nights.

But Alvarez said Fuente de Avivamiento hopes to move into its own building within a year.

House churches also are a major part of the worship experience at Nuevo Nacimiento (New Birth) UMC in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

“The church is not just keeping inside the four walls. We need to get out,” said Rev. Elena Ortiz, senior pastor. “That's why I have it in my heart to open the worship services to the houses.”

The church divided its community into sections and organized the house churches led by local pastors in training “because a lot of people don't want to come to the sanctuary,” Ortiz said. “Some of them are immigrants and they fear coming to the worship service.”

Nuevo Nacimiento is the largest Latino church in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, with 188 members and over 350 weekly worshipers who experience a vibrant bilingual worship experience on Sunday.

Different rhythms of Latin music resonate with the diverse Latino cultures represented at the church, so Sunday services feature congas, bongos, drums, trumpet, saxophone, violin and tambourines, along with drama and arts ministries.

“People like to feel at home. When we praise God in the worship service with that rhythm, the people from the Latin countries feel good because they feel like it is home,” she said.

The mission of Discipleship Ministries is to support annual conference and local church leaders for their task of equipping world-changing disciples. An agency of The United Methodist Church, Discipleship Ministries is located at 1908 Grand Ave. in Nashville, Tenn. For more information, visit the Press Center or call the Communications Office at (877) 899-2780, Ext. 1726.