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Growing the Hispanic church
August 18, 2003
By Karen L. Willoughby

Times of Bible study were foundational during Southern Seminary’s Hispanic Leadership Conference in mid-July. The inaugural event sought to train current and future leaders for the growing number of Hispanic churches in the United States. BP photo

If anyone doubts that God is moving among Hispanics, just look at the numbers.

In 1999, 29 people of Hispanic heritage served through the International Mission Board in global missions, according to records kept by Jason Carlisle, who works with Hispanics at the IMB. Today there are 80, including 22 new workers in 2002.

A conference July 18-19 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is another indicator. More than 175 people -- mostly church members rather than pastors, and an equal number of men and women -- participated in the two-day event. They drove in from as far away as South Carolina, New York and Michigan, as well as states near Kentucky. And they weren’t all Southern Baptists. Rene Disotaur brought 10 members of the Christian congregation he pastors in Louisville.

“We know this seminary has a great reputation and we want to learn more about Jesus,” Disotaur said.

The Hispanic Leadership Conference was a low-budget, grassroots event built on relationships. Twyla Fagan, a former IMB missionary journeyman in Argentina, organized the conference. She is now director of Great Commission ministries in the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Seminary.

“This conference was a dream for many years for many people,” Fagan said. “Dr. [Thom] Rainer knew of the need for more Hispanic leaders.” Rainer is dean of the Billy Graham School.

Many Hispanics don’t have the educational background to pursue an M.Div. degree, Fagan said. She and Rainer talked about leadership training that would be effective; the idea for a Hispanic leadership conference grew out of their discussions.

“We hope to do this on an annual basis,” Fagan said. “We hope to grow it into a weeklong event and that people would know to set aside the third week in July for training.”

Starting last January, Fagan drew on people she knew in the Hispanic community to help with and attend the conference.

Plenary speaker Guillermo Montalvo is a longtime friend, holding several university degrees in Mexico and now a doctoral student at Southern as well as pastor of Crossroads Community Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. He spoke on characteristics of biblical leadership and the process of training leaders and Hispanic leadership in the 21st century. M. David Sills, former missionary in Ecuador who now teaches missions at Southern, spoke on doctrinal issues, biblical studies and evangelism. Juan Sanchez, Ruth Salazar, Carlos De la Barra and Fagan led workshops on prayer and on ministry to men, women, youth and children.

The worship team came from Fagan’s church, Iglesia Bautista Getsemani in Bloomfield, Ky.; her pastor, Carlos De la Berra, led workshops on men’s ministry.

Participation was nearly double what she had anticipated, Fagan said.

“It’s obvious there’s a pent-up need for training in the Hispanic community,” she said. “We had to add extra sessions of some workshops in order to accommodate everyone.”

Those who came had roots in many nations -- Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua and more.

Bibiano Librado of Woodruff, S.C., came with his wife, Josefina, and three young daughters as part of his training to be a pastor, he told translator Molly Sills. Because of his limited formal education, he has much to learn, he said, before he goes back to Mexico to pastor there.

Librado is an assistant to his pastor, Ponciano Acevedo of Mision Bautista Calvario in Lincolnton, N.C., who had brought him to the Hispanic Leadership Conference in Louisville to learn more of what he needed to know to help his pastor more effectively and to become a pastor himself, Librado said in Spanish.

In Fagan’s opening remarks at the Hispanic Leadership Conference, she explained the purpose of the event.

“This conference is about methods and strategies, but most of all, it’s about learning to be like Christ,” she said. “We need leaders who search for God’s face.

“I think God is going to use Hispanics to reach out to the United States and hopefully to revive all the churches. This conference is to help everyone participate in the Great Commission.”

Carlisle of the IMB talked about missions in the United States and around the world.

“Now is the time for the Hispanic people,” Carlisle said. “Where is God in the midst of all these Hispanics coming to the United States? As he did with Israel in Egypt, God is preparing Hispanics to reach the nations. He brought you here to bless the nations.”

A missionary movement among Hispanics is growing, Carlisle said. One example is the adoption of a city in Iraq by Hispanics, who work through a similar relational culture to spread God’s love to people who have never felt it before.

More Hispanic missionaries are working outside the Spanish-speaking world than are working in it, the IMB strategist said. He spoke of Hispanics with unusual ministries in regions unnamed for security reasons.

A Hispanic man from Los Angeles skilled in graffiti now is a muralist with a ministry in an artist’s colony in one of the Last Frontier countries. A woman called to missions felt thwarted because she thought she had no skills and cried out to God, “All I can do is cook!” She now has a thriving Mexican restaurant in another country where about 20 believers worship.

In the conference’s closing session, Montalvo spoke on the challenges and opportunities for Hispanic leadership in the 21st century. The world is changing, he said. Social, moral, family, cultural and religious values all are declining in the secular world. For Hispanic churches, the problem lies in making people realize the relevance of God’s Word to their lives.

“We need to change the strategies ... to make them more applicable to the public that we are trying to reach,” he said. “We need to study the culture and social dynamics.”

The message doesn’t change, but just as Jesus spoke of easily understood illustrations meaningful to the people of his day, so should today’s pastors and leaders, Montalvo said. (BP)

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