Beckett: Review Essay – A Future for the Latino Church

Author: Daniel A. Rodriguez
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Introduction

Like most people, I don’t always read introductions, but the introduction to this book is definitely a must-read as it sets the tone for the book and provides helpful definitions of terms being used throughout the book, especially those the reader might not be familiar with. I immediately saw myself in the type of Latino/Hispanic Rodriguez describes here and throughout the book. These are U.S.-born English-dominant Latinos, or what he later calls Latinos “living in the hyphen” of being Hispanic-American. The challenges of these U.S.-born Latinos like me is that “they embrace many values and attributes of the dominant group in the United States [i.e., Anglos], thereby creating a cultural distance between themselves and their foreign-born parents, grandparents and neighbors who have more recently arrived in the United States from Latin America or the Caribbean” (p. 16).

This was certainly true of me growing up. While I was much closer to the Black and Puerto Rican side of my family when I was very young, as I got older that cultural distance grew wider and wider until it got to the point that I might as well be on an entirely different planet than they are. As a result, I lost my connection to my Black and Hispanic family, which is why I’ve recently been seeking to get back in touch with my ethnic roots. As Rodriguez emphasises throughout the book, this divide between U.S.-born and foreign-born Latinos is not only linguistic but also cultural. This is true for society as a whole and it is also true of the church. The challenge this book addresses is: How does the church minister to Latinos living in the hyphen of being both Hispanic and American?

When defining the terms Rodriguez uses throughout the book, what I found really helpful is his rejection of the idea of the monolithic Hispanic. On defining the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino/a,” Rodriguez writes, “Experts remind us that any prolonged debate over which term should be used is self-defeating because both terms ultimately fail to deal with the complexity of Hispanic existence in the United States… Instead, we see ourselves as a ‘heterogeneous and complex’ minority. Diversity is our trademark” (p. 26). As Rev. Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez notes in his article, “Hispanic Is Not What You Think,” Hispanic is not homogeneous, i.e., Hispanic culture and identity are not monolithic.

Much as African culture is not monolithic since Africa is a giant continent with its own cultural divides, so Hispanic is not monolithic—especially in America—as Latinos identify as being diverse not only between U.S.-born and foreign-born but also within their own groups. This understanding is crucial going forward as one might consider how to minister to Latinos living in the hyphen. While I prefer the term mestizo, Rodriguez utilises the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” going forward as long as they are properly understood as helpful but limited in scope.

One last defining term I found helpful was cultural validity and cultural relativity. At first, my red flag went up when I read “cultural relativity” because it sounds like cultural relativism, but to my satisfaction that’s not what he describes at all. Whereas cultural relativism purports the equality of truth among cultures, cultural relativity postulates the equality of cultures anthropologically. Rodriguez quotes Van Rheenen, who says, “All cultures demonstrate satanic brokenness on the one hand and godly influences on the other. Cultures exhibit both a proclivity to sin, which alienates them from God, and attributes of goodness, reflecting divine presence” (cf. Romans 1:18-21 and 2:14-15). Therefore, “every culture must be evaluated according to its own standards, not according to those of another society” (p. 32). In other words, avoid ethnocentrism. Cultural relativism rejects the notion that every culture is equally broken in sin; it prefers to acknowledge all cultures as inherently true and its “sins” are simply subjective judgements from an outside culture rather than objective and absolute truths.

Chapter 1: Living in the Hyphen

This chapter is largely dedicated to providing helpful statistics regarding Latinos in the United States, such as population by race and ethnicity, nativity among Latinos, language use among those native-born and foreign-born, educational acquisition between these two, and so on. As this book was published in 2011, however, we need to keep in mind that these statistics are outdated. Nevertheless, by viewing the increasing pattern of statistics at the time of publishing, we can make an educated guess that these numbers are only continuing to increase.

One statistic worth mentioning is that “the Hispanic population is much younger than the rest of the U.S. population. For example, the average age of non-Hispanic whites in 2009 was forty-one, while the average age of Latinos was twenty-seven” (p. 41). I found this noteworthy for our Lutheran context because we seem to have come to a consensus that the solution to our “dying congregations” problem is to get more young people in the church. It doesn’t seem to be working. This might have to do with our evangelistic methodology, but I can’t help but wonder if this also has to do with our demographic focus. Just whom are we trying to evangelise? People who look and sound just like us (i.e., Anglo) or everyone, which includes people who don’t look and sound like us? If we want more young people in our churches, perhaps we should turn our ministry focus on Latinos, especially those living in the hyphen. As the statistics show, 62.6% of Latinos in the U.S. in 2009 were U.S.-born (p. 41), which also means they primarily speak English, the majority of whom are young. Imagine how much this has increased in the last 12 years!

Rodriguez also spends significant time in this chapter covering the multiplicity of Latino identities, which are nuclear/monocultural Latinos, bicultural Latinos, marginal Latinos, fleeing Latinos, returning Latinos, assimilated Latinos, and “Latinos who choose to become a part of another culture other than the majority culture” (pp. 50-51). I found these distinctions personally helpful. I identify with the returning Latinos group, “who consciously desire to rediscover and strengthen their Latino identity” (p. 51). As mentioned before, this is what I’ve been doing for a little while now. It’s the reason why I took the Hispanic Theology & Ministry class as an elective during my laster quarter at Concordia Seminary (and why I read this book), it’s why I’ve gradually been learning Spanish on Duo Lingo (soon to upgrade to Rosetta Stone), and it’s why I’ve been getting back in touch with my mestizo family (Puerto Rican-African-American). All these identity groups are Hispanic-Americans, that is, Latinos living in the hyphen.

One of the problems many U.S.-born Latinos face is “racial ambiguity,” which I have experienced my whole life. Rodriguez comments, “since the U.S. Census Bureau has correctly observed that ‘People of Hispanic origin may be of any race’ [e.g., African American, white], ‘Hispanic’ or Latino’ is not offered as a separate racial category. The trouble is that most ‘Latinos clearly indicate that they do not see themselves fitting into the five racial categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau and widely used elsewhere'” (p. 52).

I recall many times filling out Census Bureau information and applications for jobs, schools, and scholarships where multiple racial and ethnic identifying markers are listed. I’ve been confused each time. I always mark “Hispanic/Latino” for ethnicity (if it’s even listed) and “African American” for race. Even worse, I’ve suffer with this racial ambiguity existentially my entire life. I’ve always wondered, “What am I?” That is, “Am I Puerto Rican/Hispanic? Am I Black? Am I white?” I’ve found myself not belonging entirely to either group, which is a common problem amongst U.S.-born Latinos living in the hyphen. Fortunately, this book and the Hispanic Theology & Ministry class mentioned above have helped tremendously in bringing an end to this ambiguity as I’m finally seeing myself as proudly being mestizo. In other words, I don’t have to choose between any of them but can comfortably live in the hyphen—in all worlds at once.

Chapter 2: Multigenerational Hispanic Churches

The case studies presented in this chapter and the others that follow are helpful in considering how I might approach Hispanic ministry in the future with a multigenerational and multicultural focus. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that all the examples Rodriguez gives in this chapter and those that follow are large churches. Granted, some of these churches started out small and became large over time, but what am I to take from this? Is large growth how we are to measure success? Is that what I am to infer from these case studies? I would like to see cases of small churches that are doing everything well that Rodriguez describes in this book who yet remain small. At the same time, however, it could be that doing ministry well in the hyphen inevitably leads to church growth. On the other hand, I question if that should be our marker of success. My question is: What should be our measure of success? Growth or faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ? If a congregation “dies” while the pastor and his people proclaimed Christ faithfully, I would still call that a success.

Nevertheless, there are helpful things to glean from this chapter. At Ministerios Coral Park (Coral Park Ministries) in Miami Florida, Pastor Luis Aranguren was “quick to remind [his people] of their sacred duty to embrace and minister to the entire family, including those who are highly assimilated and prefer to speak English” (p. 69). This got me thinking about our own ministry focus in our synod. In our tradition, we typically minister to the individual. Perhaps this, too, should change. Minister to la familia (the family), and you’ll meet the individual.

Pastor Aranguren’s recommendations to pastors are to “love your church” and to “be patient but intentional” (p. 69). This reminded me of something I heard from my seminary mentor, Rev. Dr. Peter Nafzger, who said, “The people you’ve been called to serve will not always be lovable, but Jesus loves them.” The changes that inevitably come with ministering to Latinos in the hyphen will come with people who are resistant to change. Such objections from these naysayers include, “We must preserve our language and culture!” “It will separate our families!” And, from the perspective of foreign-born Latinos, “The devil speaks English!” (If you want to get technical, he actually speaks Greek and Hebrew, but I still have to learn these as a pastor!) The pastor must meet these people with love and intentional patience.

Chapter 3: Multiethnic, Predominately Hispanic Churches

With the guidance of Matthew 4:12-17, Rodriguez provides a helpful definition of at-risk Latinos “‘who sit in darkness and the shadow of death'” as “‘those whose lives are surrounded by gangs and role models engaging in high-risk activities, and who need extra support at home and school to avoid falling into the traps of gangs, drugs, violence, and other criminal behavior'” (p. 84). My mind immediately went to a previous article I had written on table fellowship ministry. While it might terrify many of us, table fellowship ministry includes these at-risk people. After all, Jesus Himself had table fellowship with such at-risk, even dangerous, people. Jesus had table fellowship with at-risk people like lepers and the demon possessed. Jesus did not exempt these people from His mercy and grace; neither should we exempt them from His grace.

Chapter 4: Good News and Good Works in the Barrio

Rodriguez’s coverage of “holistic ministry” in this chapter is quite beneficial for two reasons: his language of being with those living in the hyphen versus working for them, and his vertical and horizontal approaches to ministry that are akin to the Lutheran two kinds of righteousness distinction.

First is the being with versus the working for mindset of doing justice. The four ethical frameworks of doing justice are working for, working with, being for, and being with. Using the at-risk Latino as an example, working for them is equivalent to buying them food or giving them cash. This kind of justice is severely limited because it treats the symptoms rather than the root of the problem (e.g., divorce, addiction, gang involvement, systemic poverty, etc.). It’s a unilateral approach that fails to meet the true needs of the neighbour. Working with someone would be equivalent to helping an at-risk Latino find a place to live, thus inviting them into a community. Here, both parties are involved and it’s a good first step, but more needs to be done beyond this.

Being for someone is basically advocacy on someone’s behalf, for example, expressing your irritation over systemic poverty in barrios on social media posts, or to a professor who doesn’t see it as a problem, or directly to your city government, or peacefully protesting, etc. Such vocal advocacy is necessary because it gives a voice to the voiceless, but it mustn’t stop there either. The last one—which is the ultimate goal—is being with someone. Here, you have a real relationship with the at-risk Latino. You walk alongside them and suffer with them.

This being with is what Rodriguez describes when he says “social concern is not only expressed through benevolencia [“mercy ministries”], that is, through efforts to provide immediate ‘relief’ for the needy; it is also expressed through ‘development,’ efforts to educate and equip people to address and to meet their own needs” (p. 110). In other words, doing justice goes beyond meeting the basic needs of the party in question. Rather, proper justice graciously walks alongside the person and helps them equip themselves to better their lives. As the modern proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The second is Rodriguez’s “vertical approach to ministry” and “horizontal approach to ministry.” These are largely akin to the two kinds of righteousness. Vertically, “the most important tasks entrusted to Christians include preaching the gospel, making and nurturing disciples, and planting indigenous reproducing churches.” Horizontally, “the most important tasks entrusted to Christians include engaging in social action and social justice,” i.e., good works (p. 111). The problem comes when there is a confusion of the two distinctions and one is entirely ignored. A focus merely on “vertical ministry” ultimately ends up leaving the neighbour deposed, as their real needs are ignored and left unmet, and you thus become a law-gospel reductionist. A focus merely on “horizontal ministry” ends up leaving God deposed, and you thus become a legalist. These “ministries”—the two kinds of righteousness—is not an either/or paradigm but a both/and paradigm.

From the case studies he gives in this chapter, we see that holistic ministry (i.e., having both a vertical and horizontal righteousness approach) is highly successful. Why does “holistic ministry” work so well? I believe it’s because it goes against our predisposed platonic thinking. Holistic ministry—maintaining the proper distinction between the two kinds of righteousness and not confusing the two—refuses to bifurcate humanity by separating the physical from the spiritual. Body and soul are inseparable; that’s why death and suffering (whether physical or spiritual suffering) are so tragic and aberrations from God’s good design. If we fail to address both physical and spiritual needs simultaneously and instead create this false dichotomy between body and soul, our ministry efforts will fail these body-souls whom Christ came to redeem. At the Parousia, it is not just the body or the soul that is resurrected; rather, both body and soul are resurrected because they’re not meant to be severed. Therefore, we would do well to minister to both here and now. The two kinds of righteousness are concerned with body-souls, not merely souls alone or bodies alone.

Chapter 5: The Local Church as Organic Seminary

In this chapter, Rodriguez addresses the challenge of raising future Latino pastors and layleaders. The challenge is education. The problem is not that Latinos who possess the capacity to be pastors or leaders in the church are stupid (because they’re not); the problem is that many of these potential pastors and leaders don’t qualify for seminary programmes because they haven’t received the proper education in the first place since so many of them come from at-risk backgrounds. So, Rodriguez suggests and he provides case studies that utilise programmes that focus on “in-house” training, for lack of a better term. In the Army, we call this on-the-job training, which is mostly what you do in the Army anyway.

What Rodriguez describes is essentially the purpose behind the Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) programme at Concordia Seminary. Roger Greenway, for example, “laments that it is unrealistic to expect seminaries to provide the type of training that leadership in urban contexts requires. Such contexts require ‘training that is biblically based, theologically valid, and contextualized to urban realities that are marked by ethnic diversity, cultural pluralism, wide educational differences, enormous social and economic problems, and rapid change.” Greenway wants to see more “church leaders ‘develop new forms of leadership training that are more church- and ministry-based” (p. 130).

This is literally what the SMP programme does where “students receive academic training in the setting where they will continue to serve following ordination.” This programme, among other LCMS RSOs (recognised service organisations) such as Stephen Ministries and even localised ones such as Lutheran Latino Ministries provide ample opportunities to help congregations raise up Latino pastors and layleaders. The problem with most seminary programmes is that “theological literacy or competency seldom includes the ability to effectively apply theological insights gained in the institution to the daily life of the church”; thus, they “are perceived as ‘theologically illiterate‘ in the eyes of their congregations” (pp. 130-131).

Rodriguez hits the problem right on the nose. Theology is more than a cerebral exercise. If you cannot love and serve your people, you might have bad theology. Or, more likely, you’re just a bad theologian, meaning you don’t know how to do good theology well. (Having good or orthodox theology doesn’t necessarily make you a good theologian.) For example, you might be well-versed in trinitarian heresies. Good, that is needed. Now, how does that enable you to love and serve your people? The Body of Christ needs arms, hands, feet, and legs, not just heads (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Chapter 6: The New Hispanic Challnge

There is a “moment of transition” within the Latino communities of the United States. Rodriguez uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to illustrate that just as the Jews failed to “recognize the ‘moment of transition’ inaugurated by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ” for the Gentiles, so many churches today are failing to recognize the moment of transition of the Latino community that is mestizaje, that is, Hispanics in America of mixed races and cultures. Baptism is that pivotal moment of transition for everyone, for in it, you “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Whether mestizaje or white bread American, all people find their commonality in their Baptism, “For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).

The problem with many, of course, is that recognising the mestizaje as part of the Body of Christ means change! Many congregations have a cognitive dissonance when it comes to evangelism—what Justo González calls “Jonah Syndrome” (p. 148). They want their church to grow (i.e., change) without it actually changing! “However, mestizaje implies change, and like the early church depicted in Acts [15], most churches resist change. Justo González acknowledges that ‘a certain instinct tells us that radical evangelism in our society would bring about the conversion, not only of unbelievers, but also of the church. For many, that would be too threatening. Therefore we make certain that mission follows only in one direction: that the center can affect the periphery but not vice versa'” (p. 149). The result of such cognitive dissonance is that to bring about the change we say we want but don’t really want, we end up doing unilateral missions that fail to build up the Body of Christ.

Issues in the Book

Of course, this book needs to be read through a Lutheran lens. While the book is a vital read especially for pastors who are considering doing ministry with Latinos, a few problems do need to be addressed. My first issue has to do with Rodriguez’s definition of the Gospel. His definition starts off somewhat adequately, that “the gospel is the fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic hope. It is the good news that God, through the death, burial and resurrection of his only begotten Son, freely offers renewal by the Holy Spirit and reconciliation with himself,” then it gets worse, “to all who approach him by placing their faith in and surrendering control of their lives to Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord” (p. 28). This stinks of Pelagianism, or synergism. God gives us faith; we don’t place our faith in Him as though it were something we acquired by ourselves.

Thus, the Lutheran Confessions’ definition of the Gospel is much more helpful here. Broadly speaking, the Gospel is “the entire teaching of Christ,” that is, the “proclamation of both repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (FC Ep V, 6). Yet there is also a strict sense:

When, however, Law and Gospel are placed in contrast to each other—as when Moses himself is spoken of as a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel—we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a proclamation of repentance or retribution, but is, strictly speaking, nothing else than a proclamation of comfort and a joyous message which does not rebuke or terrify but comforts consciences against the terror of the Law, directs them solely to Christ’s merit, and lifts them up again through the delightful proclamation of the grace and favour or God, won through Christ’s merit.

FC Ep V, 7; emphasis mine

Rodriguez’s definition works against both these senses, as his definition ultimately focuses on the unregenerate sinner’s ability and willingness to surrender to Christ (which is non-existent) rather than on Christ’s merit alone.

I also disagree with his definition of evangelism. Again, he starts off adequately when providing the Lausanne Covenant’s definition, “To evangelize is to spread the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.” Here, we see the Lutheran distinction between the broad and strict sense of the Gospel. However, as the definition continues, it brings the focus off of Christ again and places it on the meagre individual, that evangelism is done “with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (p. 30).

Once again, reconciliation (justification) is placed not only on the individual’s impossible ability to surrender to God but now also on his/her rational ability (“with a view to persuading people”). According to the Scriptures, we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). Christ comes to dead people. Dead people cannot come to Christ. Faith is not a cerebral exercise but the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Lausanne Covenant’s definition of evangelism is synergistic, for it places evangelism’s dependence not on the efficacy of God’s Word but on the evangelist’s ability to persuade and the receiver’s openness to opposing points of view in order to be persuaded to the other side.

The Confessions do not provide a definition of evangelism, but they do speak to witnessing or “testimony.” The Lutheran confessors place this testimony under the two kinds of righteousness framework. Vertically, “the Spirit of God gives the elect the ‘testimony that they are children of God'” (FC SD XI, 31). Flowing from this, testimony becomes horizontal in that the Holy Spirit “is not idle in them but impels the children of God to obey God’s commands. Therefore, believers should in the same way not be idle either, much less resist the impetus of God’s Spirit, but should practice all Christian virtues, godliness, modesty, moderation, patience, and love for one another” (FC SD XI, 73). In other words, these good works—this sanctification—”are the fruits and testimonies of faith” (Ap IV, 184). This evangelistic language of testimony fits well within Rodriguez’s recognition that the church ought to have both a vertical and horizontal approach to ministry delineated above (pp. 111-112).

A third problem that concerns me is that in many of the case studies Rodriguez covered, the pastors and leaders expressed a desire to make the Bible relevant (e.g., p. 97 with Calvary Fellowship in Miami Lakes, Florida). We have to be extremely careful with such a sentiment because (1) the Scriptures are always relevant and (2) there is always the danger of compromising on orthodoxy and orthopraxy for the sake of becoming relevant. We need to be copacetic with the fact that in a pagan world that wants nothing to do with Christ, the church and the Scriptures will always appear irrelevant in spite of their immediate relevance to their unregenerated lives. It is not our job to make the Scriptures relevant; it is our job to proclaim the Gospel and love our neighbour. Relevance has nothing to do with either.

Other problematic evangelical language in the book includes “seeking to help people take their next steps towards God” and “to get closer to God” (p. 99). We don’t need to take our next steps toward God since God comes to us (think Jacob’s ladder of God coming down to us rather than us going up to God). We also don’t have to try to “get closer to God” when Jesus has already done this for us and He’s going to do it again at the Parousia. Additionally, there’s the language of “giving God a chance” (p. 100). Who are we to give God a chance? God gives us a chance with every breath we take (repentance).

Bibliography

Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Sánchez, Leopoldo A. “Hispanic Is Not What You Think: Reimagining Hispanic Identity, Implications for an Increasingly Global Church.” Concordia Journal 42, no 3 (Summer 2016): 223-235.

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