In the United States, churches frequently start Spanish language services or ministries, only to find that those attempts often fail and end up alienating the Spanish community. The end result can be a step back for the gospel, and this leads to frustration for pastors who had nothing but good intentions.
Perhaps the most common reason for this is a failure to plan for the end game of the ministry. There is often a desire to “do something” to reach the Spanish speaking community, but the leadership of the church–in their desire to “do something”–often fails to plan for the long haul. Evangelizing is wonderful, and is certainly better than nothing, but if God grants salvation, then what? Proper consideration for how to adequately structure the ministry and how it will relate to the English church is essential.
There are two extremes in having a church with two different languages: integration or separation.
In the integration/separation spectrum, there are many pitfalls, so let me set the landscape. Complete integration of a language ministry would be something like completely bilingual services, or handicapping one language group into a glorified Sunday School class, forcing them to worship in the main service in their non-native tongue, probably listening via headphones. In other words, complete integration keeps everyone in the same room at all times. On the other hand, complete separation makes the Spanish ministry an autonomous local church. Often the ministries meet on different campuses. In this approach there are essentially two different churches, brought together by a common name or source of funding.
It is essential that in planning a two-language church, the pastors and elders plan for the long term. They should ask “If this ministry grows and works, what would we want it to look like in five years?”
A few questions to guide our end game:
For those who lean toward complete integration (Everyone in the same room):
- Does complete integration impede the growth of any language group, or perhaps both, by making services unnecessarily long and tedious… or the same length with less content?
- Does complete integration and the complication of translation make understanding more difficult? Are the simultaneously translated songs/sermon necessarily less precise? Understanding is obviously entwined with edification (1 Cor. 14:26-28).
- Does complete integration make it difficult to make specific and sensitive application? Our Christ-crucified message must always remain unchanged (1 Cor. 1:22-23), but that doesn’t mean we have to present it identically at all times to all groups, cf. Mt. 4:17 with Mt. 11:28.
- Does complete integration force the other language group to worship as Americans?
- Does complete integration leave one group without a pastor? If a Spanish speaker has a need, who does he go to for help? (It’s easy for him to think: ‘The translator doesn’t know anything, he just regurgitates what that white guy is saying’. That may sound offensive, but I think it accurately describes the divide our sin has created).
For those who lean toward complete separation (Different languages on different campuses):
- Does complete separation have a detrimental impact upon the church, segregating it to the point that it no longer pictures Christ’s end-game (Rev. 5:9-10)?
- Does complete separation foster biblical principles in the Spanish speaking congregation like submission to government, integration into American society, etc.? Why wouldn’t we want the English speaking children of Spanish-only speaking parents to go to Sunday School, camp, etc. with the rest of the congregation’s youth?
- Does complete separation force the Spanish congregation to start an English ministry? In other words, the Spanish congregation will be bilingual no matter what (They will have children and grandchildren who prefer English), so why are you making one church all English and another church Spanish and English?
- Does complete separation then divide English speakers, making the dividing line one of culture instead of language? Do you need an American ministry, a South-African ministry, an Australian ministry, a Queen’s English ministry, or are these types of cliques the exact thing that Christ died to abolish? (1 Cor. 1:12, see also 1 Cor. 11:17-34 where un-biblical division and the Lord’s death are contradictory terms).
As I’m sure you’ve picked up already, I believe in most cases the answer to these questions will lead us to a desire to meet on the same campus, doing everything we can to make the church one body. Though the language barrier will require that most worship services be held in different rooms so that each group can be properly edified and discipled by biblically qualified elders in their language, I believe every effort should be made to integrate the body when possible (Some ideas: Occasional bi-lingual services/baptisms, have one fellowship area not two, plan outreach events to include both language groups, etc.). The two groups cannot speak much to one another, this is a curse we brought upon ourselves (Cf. Genesis 11), but that does not mean we should not communicate love for one another.
As a quick illustration, the church I serve at does frequent fellowships events, where the entire church–regardless of language–spends time eating and fellowshiping together after some of our Sunday services. Spanish ministry always greatly looks forward to their turn to plan and feed the masses. What’s on the menu? Thousands of taquitos, burritos, salsa, esquites, choco-bananos, paletas, and an extra dollop of amor. It is a blessed time with smiles all around as everyone feels like part of the body, and I believe God is greatly honored in that.
Two specific dangers:
a) In your end-game strategy, will the leadership in your language group reflect a Biblical ecclesiology? Most churches that have a Spanish ministry have just one person linking the English elder board with all its money/resources to the Spanish ministry. So let’s just be honest and call that guy ‘el papa‘, because that’s probably how he’s functioning, whether you understand what he’s saying or not. Thereby elevating the risk, because he is accountable to no one (this side of heaven) and you are probably giving him money. Sadly, I find all too often that the English elders have little idea as to what actually goes on in their Spanish ministry.
Therefore, I believe we should make every effort to protect the Spanish ministry with a plurality of biblically qualified elders that speak their language and are elders of the church at large (Acts 14:23, Tit. 1:5, etc.). Of course, I’m not saying that you need to start with five Spanish speaking elders from day one, nor that we should lower the standard of godliness for the purpose of representation. However, with time, the godliest qualified Spanish speaking men should be actively trained, quite frankly, even if they don’t speak English. Lastly, though the Spanish and English speaking elders may often meet separately, make sure that a plurality of Spanish speaking elders attend the English elders’ meetings. This bridges the communication gap and preserves doctrinal unity. Also, remember, if only one pope person sits on both boards, he can still speak ‘ex cathedra‘ by simply saying “the English elders would want us to do this”.
b) Plan to encourage unity amongst Spanish speaking family members. That may sound obvious, but since many desperately desire for their children to flourish in an English speaking world, they often delegate all learning to English speakers. It is commonplace for first generation Spanish speakers to be unable to communicate well with their children by the time they finish high-school. This discipleship issue is exacerbated by the fact that the youth ministry staff probably can’t communicate well with the parents either, obviously, a crucial aspect to youth ministry. The Church’s youth and Spanish ministries, then, should shepherd families in harmony when necessary. Yes, instructing the children in English, but simultaneously equipping (Eph. 4:12) and exhorting the students and parents to obey the Scriptures (Eph. 6:1-4). If the parents do not speak English, this cannot be done if the students shrewdly convince the youth ministry staff that their Spanish speaking parents “just don’t get it”. Sadly, many English speaking Churches deepen the generational divide instead of encouraging the youth to adorn themselves with the graceful garland of the instrucción of their parents/grandparents (Pr. 1:8-9).
Tomorrow we’ll look at some practical advice for launching these kinds of ministries.