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SPRINGING UP: A worship service at New Life Covenant in Chicago.
John Gress/Reuters/Newscom
SPRINGING UP: A worship service at New Life Covenant in Chicago.

Growth spurt

Religion | More Hispanics are filling Protestant pews

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

As politicians wrestle over America’s immigration policies, a profound spiritual transformation is unfolding among Hispanics: They are joining evangelical churches in droves. Many conservative denominations in the United States have realized that the growing Hispanic population now represents one of their greatest evangelistic opportunities, and churches are making creative accommodations to reach Hispanics across the country.

Turning Point Church, a Southern Baptist–affiliated congregation in suburban Miami, describes itself as “a church of many cultures, where Christ is the point of unity.” Noel Lozano and Jorge Rodriguez, who both immigrated to the United States before the age of 20, co-pastor the church they planted in 2009. Sundays feature both English and Spanish-language services. Turning Point averages about 300 attendees, but it has baptized 50 new converts over the past year.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about two-thirds of all Hispanics in America identify as Catholics, but that percentage is dropping. As the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land has noted, Iglesia Bautista congregations (and other evangélico churches) are springing up across the country. Hispanic immigrants came “here to work, we’re evangelistic, we shared the gospel with them, they became Baptist,” Land explained. Hispanic-majority Southern Baptist churches number about 3,200 today, and Southern Baptist leaders hope to grow that to 7,000 congregations by 2020. Other evangelical and Pentecostal denominations tell similar stories of Hispanic growth.

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Vatican watchers agree that the appointment of Pope Francis, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, signals that the Catholic Church intends to press forward with re-evangelization efforts among the Hispanic population of the Americas, once considered unquestionably Catholic.

Some Hispanics attend both Catholic and Protestant services. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for instance, was baptized as a Mormon, but his family subsequently joined the Catholic Church. In recent years he has attended Catholic services as well as Christ Fellowship, a Southern Baptist multi-site church in south Florida. Protestant Hispanics tend to be more politically conservative than Catholic ones, although 50 percent of Hispanic evangelicals supported President Obama in the 2012 election, according to the Pew Forum.

One of the most prominent Hispanic evangelical leaders is Wilfredo “Choco” De Jesus, who pastors Chicago’s New Life Covenant Ministries, one of America’s largest Assemblies of God churches. Time magazine recently named De Jesus one of its “100 Most Influential People” in the world and later featured his praying hands for its cover story on “The Latino Reformation.”

Unlike Miami pastors Lozano and Rodriguez, De Jesus was born in the United States. He grew up in inner-city Chicago, accepted Christ at New Life Covenant at age 14, and became that church’s pastor in 2000. Since his appointment, the church has grown from a weekly attendance of 120 to 5,000.

New Life Covenant holds both English and Spanish services on multiple campuses. The church operates a network of community services, including a homeless shelter, an after-school program, and a gang member outreach called “Gangs to Grace.” In 2002, New Life Covenant also opened a residential farm outside Chicago for women escaping the sex trade or drug addiction. Writing for Time, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church said, “New Life is reaching out to the outcasts and forgotten in our society—the homeless, women suffering with addiction and prostitution, and young people in gangs.”

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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