The cultural, economic, political–and religious–impact of Hispanics in the United States is significant and growing, says a Baptist university president working to train church leaders for the continuing Hispanic population boom.

Projections released March 17 by the Census Bureau chart a Hispanic population increase of 287 per cent in the first half of the 21st century; from 35.6 million in 2000 to 102.6 million in 2050. That would be almost one-fourth of the total projected population of 420 million, and would mark the first time in U.S. history that non-Hispanic whites are not a majority.

That means Americans “can be bicultural and bilingual or be by yourself,” says Albert Reyes, president of the Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas.

Reyes, who also is chairman of the Hispanic Outreach Task Force of the White House Initiative for Hispanic Academic Excellence, views that not as a warning but an opportunity and an invitation.

Unlike “white,” “black” and “Asian,” the term “Hispanic” (and the other popular designation “Latino”) is not racially determined and thus interacts with the nation’s ethnic groups, Reyes says. He finds that especially significant in the religious world in general and the evangelical Christian/Baptist world specifically.

“The borders of the future will become cultural rather than merely geographic. It will not be enough to know Spanish and English, it will not be enough to know theology or Bible, it will not be enough to know history or hermeneutics,” Reyes said in 1999 when he was inaugurated as president of BUA. “Being Hispanic means our identity is not finitely defined or permanently sealed but ever-changing, blending and adapting. It means we are a people whose horizons are expanded but not limited.”

The same demographics at work in the country are also influencing the composition of Baptist churches, associations and conventions. The rapid growth of Hispanic Protestant churches means an increasing presence around the religious table as well.

Juan Martinez, a Mennonite minister and director of the Hispanic Church Studies Department at Fuller Theological Seminary, recently spoke at BUA and discussed many of the issues raised by the growing Hispanic population:

–The transition of Hispanic churches from dependency on Anglos “mother churches” to taking responsibility for themselves;

–The recognition of the depth and width of the multi-cultural differences among Hispanics. (“We cannot assume our experiences as Latino are indicative of other Latino’s experiences.”)

–An openness to many models of ministry and an accompanying suspicion of doing things because that is the way they were done “yesterday.” (“Not all Latinos will be reached by the same type of church/ministry; not all Latinos will be reached by Hispanic congregations.”)

Martinez predicted Hispanic churches will develop in numerous styles, including congregations that are intentionally multi-cultural (“a really tough thing to do”) and Anglo churches which become more “Latino friendly” both in terms of visible leadership and worship style and content.

He also sees a wide spectrum, ranging from congregations where there is no linguistic distinction (moving back and forth from English and Spanish); to co-ministering with other minorities; multi-cultural churches where Spanish is the primary language and migrant churches. Each will have different emphases.

The Census Bureau warns that its figures “are projections not predictions.” For instance they factor in Hispanic women having Hispanic children–which leaves out the increasing number of “cross category” marriages. The projections also can’t predict cultural changes like the Baby Boom that skewed demographic planning a generation ago.

Within the Hispanic community there are also potential volatile variables, Martinez noted, including political changes in Latin America (which influence immigration patterns); the future of Puerto Rico (state or commonwealth); Mexican laws and politics related to the border; acceptance of Spanish and growth of Spanglish (the hybrid slang of English and Spanish); changes in immigration laws; massive migration from another continent (“What if China opened its borders and allowed unlimited immigration to the U.S.?”) and anti-Hispanic reactions in the United States.

Reyes, who expects BUA’s growth to reflect the growth both of the general Hispanic population and the increasing growth of Hispanic Baptist churches, notes that if the university were graduating 500 students a year (the current rate is 100 but is growing rapidly) there would be immediate ministry jobs for all of them.

“Our only choice as Christians and as Baptists is do we want the Hispanic population of the United States to know the Lord or not know the Lord,” he says.

Craig Bird is a writer in San Antonio, Texas.

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