Latino Protestantism is growing in the United States. On the cover of the April 4, 2013 issue, Time Magazine claimed the United States was experiencing “The Latino Reformation.” The story highlighted the rise of Latino Protestants, “one of the fastest growing segments of America’s churchgoing millions.” However, writer Elizabeth Dias also notes that this growing population of Latino Protestants has remained largely invisible to both mainstream American culture and fellow Protestants. Although plenty of indicators point to the groundswell of this segment of Protestantism, Dias asserts that the nature of the faith practices for some (meeting in storefronts or living rooms, worshipping in Spanish) has complicated research efforts. Thus our understanding of Latino Protestants remains limited.
Nevertheless, we do know that religious devotion and practice has deep salience for Latino Protestants. Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us that 85% of Latino Evangelicals indicate religion is very important in daily life, significantly higher compared to 75% of White Evangelicals and 72% of Latino Catholics. Their faith matters and permeates other aspects of their lives. Other data also indicate that Latino Protestants (whether coming from Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Mainline orientations) are more religiously active than their Catholic counterpoints. And it is more than merely their personal religious devotion that is significant; Latino Protestant congregations capture and channel their religiosity. These congregations and their liturgical practices are strategic arenas for understanding a growing but neglected religious segment that should be studied and better understood.
As a joint endeavor of Davidson College and Calvin College, we are conducting a team-based examination of Latino Protestants in the United States. Our research design aims to illuminate the variety and complexity of Latino Protestant congregations and their worship practices in the United States through a qualitative approach. We have structured a methodology to pursue a national study that reveals the nuances of Latino Protestant congregational life. Our motivation for a larger project on Latino Protestant churches comes not only from a realization of how distressingly little we know, but also from a conviction that direct observation and careful interviewing will challenge common sense assumptions and tease out what researchers, denominational leaders, and local church pastors should be paying attention to. The research seeks to draw data from all strands of Protestantism (Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Mainline), to be attentive to generational dynamics (new immigrants to well-established Hispanics), to notice alternative liturgical structures (language dominance, places of worship, styles of music and preaching), and to be sensitive to the levels and degrees of Catholic influence and resistance.
Most importantly, our research resists homogenizing “Latinos” to be a singular ethnic or racial group but explicitly acknowledges that Hispanics in the United States are made of groups that are both recent and long-time residents with different countries of origin and different linguistic characteristics. In capturing the variety of Latino Protestantism, we wish to bring knowledge driven attention to how important these churches are to the present and future of American religion.
In structuring the attention of the researchers to Latino Protestant congregational life, we will frame the understanding of each congregation around the activities, artifacts, and accounts of leaders and members in these churches. We will begin with the following questions as a baseline for an inductive inquiry:
Who attends the congregation?
What do the rituals look like?
Which rituals are most significant to attenders?
What is the unifying vision of the congregation?
What kind of missional presence is practiced?
What are the props and residue of the rituals?
What kinds of spaces are used for worship?
Where are the sacred spaces?
What are the important stories that are retold?
What are the histories and theologies?
What are the prominent symbols, images, and metaphors?
These are starting points for ethnographic observations in each congregation. Congregational
studies tools (e.g., observations of people, processes, and properties; congregational histories; membership patterns) will be used to create thick, narrative descriptions of Latino Protestant congregational life guided by those who experience and live in it. We suspect there will be few pre-established “hypotheses” preferring to engage a methodology that allows salient patterns and structures to emerge. The end result will be a compellingly rich narrative and analysis that illuminates a growing wing of Protestantism in the United States.
Even with the successful establishment of the current LPC Research Fellows, we remain open to collaborating and networking with other students, congregational leaders, and scholars on this important research. You are welcome to pass along this information and visit our webpage.