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Language driving teens away from the church

A first-of-its-kind conference encourages teens to stay strong in their faith.

LUBBOCK, Texas — Latino youths shrieked, flailed like zombies and sang songs of praise in their native language — English.

Nearly 100 young Christians, representing 15 Churches of Christ in Texas and Arkansas, gathered at Lubbock Christian University for the National Hispanic English Youth Conference. The first-of-its-kind event focused on second-, third-, even fourth-generation Hispanics, born and raised in the U.S.

Danielle Campbell“A lot of people in my church tell me, ‘You need to learn Spanish,’” high school sophomore Danielle Campbell said. “It’s the hermanas (sisters, often first-generation immigrants from Latin America) who have a really hard time speaking English, and they want to talk to us younger people in the church.”

Campbell attends the Colgate Bilingual Church of Christ in Lubbock, where the congregation sings in Spanish and English. Church members translate prayers and sermons into English.

JuanRaymon Rubio, youth minister for the Colgate church, helped organize the three-day conference. One of its goals, he said, was to encourage young believers to stay strong in their faith — through high school and beyond.

“The first mission is to show kids that as soon as you graduate high school you can still be involved with Christ … whether it’s a Christian college or not,” Rubio said. “However, in addition to just being attached to the body, the second mission is pushing higher education. Especially with Hispanics, we don’t have a lot of higher education.”

Dan RodriguezTo serve new generations of believers, many Hispanic congregations need to incorporate English into their services effectively, said Dan Rodriguez, professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

“There are people who have been waiting for this event for a long time,” said Rodriguez, the event’s keynoter. “I’ve been studying our churches for the last 10 years and what we’ve needed to recognize is that for the last 10 years the majority of Latinos in this country were born here.

“After a generation or two, kids leave — they’re gone — because churches across the nation, including Churches of Christ, insist on being Spanish-dominant.”
FINDING A COLLEGE — AND A BIBLE CLASS
The youths and sponsors enjoyed a photo-clue scavenger hunt, soccer and basketball tournaments and card games between classes and song practice. At a college fair, recruiters from Christian universities showcased opportunities for Hispanic teens.
Teens play card games after a day of classes, sports and songs. (PHOTO BY KATIE JONES)
When he discusses college with young Hispanic Christians, Rubio often hears “I don’t know if I’d get in,” and “it’s too expensive,” the minister said.

“A lot of times, as Hispanics, we don’t push our kids (by telling them) ‘You can go to school,’ ‘you can go to college,’” Rubio said. Instead, many parents say, “Oh no, you need to get a job and help support the family.”

While the teens struggle with the decision to pursue college or work after graduation, Latino parents often struggle to find an appropriate Bible class that will educate and encourage their children.

Growing up in Mineola, Texas, the four children of Sabino and Cilvia Rodriguez left the Spanish-speaking assembly and went next door to attend their congregation’s English Bible classes.

“What’s important is your salvation, however it comes to you,” Cilvia Rodriguez told her children.

She and her husband attended the conference with a group from Springdale, Ark., where Sabino Rodriguez serves as minister for the Hispanic congregation of the Robinson Avenue Church of Christ.

Sabino Rodriguez teaches about the Holy Spirit, centered on 1 Cor. 3:16. (PHOTO BY KATIE JONES)Among Churches of Christ, bilingual ministries have struggled to evolve for decades, Sabino Rodriguez said. Like their children, he and his wife are U.S.-born. But society — in and out of church pews — tends to associate them with recent immigrants from Latin America.

“I was born in San Antonio; she was born in Waxahachie,” Sabino Rodriguez said. “We’re all Texans, so we’re not Mexicans, but we’re not white … (so) they give us a title: Mexican-American.”
Related Article: Debunking “Mexican-American” Some congregations recognize the need for Bible classes geared toward U.S.-born Latinos. Jacob Bautista, bilingual minister for the Graham Street Church of Christ in Stephenville, Texas, teaches a teen class in English before the congregation worships together in Spanish.

Not every church has an English class for Hispanics, said Joe Valdez, a teen who attended the conference.

“I don’t understand that much in Spanish, so I’d rather go to an English class,” Valdez said. “But I go into an English class and feel isolated because I feel like I’m the only Hispanic kid in the English section.”

Christians in the English classes are welcoming, he added, but he nonetheless feels awkward.

Another teen, Joanna Lopez, said she believes that Spanish-speaking churches should be willing to accommodate their teens who speak primarily English.

At the same time, she said, Hispanic teens should take time to learn or improve their Spanish, the language of their heritage, “because that’s what we are — Spanish speakers.”
‘THE LANGUAGE OF THE PEOPLE’
“Show the crowd your best zombie impersonation.”
Vivian Arjona displays what a zombie—a smiling one—looks like during Dan Rodriguez’s speech on “Zombie Christians.” (PHOTO BY KATIE JONES)

Dan Rodriguez gave that challenge to five volunteers as he spoke during an evening session at the conference.

Vivian Arjona, a middle school student from the Highland Oaks Iglesia de Cristo (Church of Christ) in Dallas, threw herself into the role — albeit half-heartedly — before bursting into laughter. Others groaned loudly, limped around the stage or simply fell over.

The point of the challenge: to understand what people think zombies act, look and sound like.

“Zombies are undead, mindless, act without thinking, don’t know they’re dead and infect others with their disease,” Dan Rodriguez said.

“Zombie Christians” have similar characteristics, he added, including acting without thinking or going through the motions of church — singing, taking communion and bowing heads for prayer, all without deeply thinking about why Christians do these in worship.

Avoiding the temptation to become a “zombie church” is a challenge for all congregations — English and Spanish, Dan Rodriguez said.
Youth at the conference pause for a photo during a photo-clue scavenger hunt. (PHOTO BY KATIE JONES)
After his speech, the professor spoke to The Christian Chronicle about more specific challenges facing Hispanic congregations.

In his research on Hispanic evangelical churches in the United States, Dan Rodriguez said that many churches follow an “immigration model” and speak only Spanish to make new immigrants feel welcome.

“These little churches are like little camps of refugees and exiles living in the United States, and they want their children — who were born here — to not lose their ethnic and cultural and linguistic roots,” he said.

Often, this determination to teach Hispanic children about their heritage “becomes more important than preaching the Gospel,” he added. As a result, Hispanic teens feel pushed away from their faith.

Arlett Hernandez, a conference attendee who will enter the seventh grade this fall, has seen friends leave the church. Other youths told the Chronicle that they’ve also seen friends leave, but none of them asked why.

“It’s probably because we are nervous of asking them why,” Hernandez said.
SEE MORE STORIES about efforts to reach Latinos in the U.S. with the Gospel. Find “One Nación Under God” under the “Series” tab.
Minister Miguel Bustillos compared the challenges facing Hispanic congregations today to those faced by the first Christians. He attended the conference with youths from his congregation, the Western Heights Bilingual Church of Christ in Dallas.

On the Day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2, the apostles received miraculous tongues of fire that allowed them to be understood in multiple languages by their diverse audience.

“The day of Pentecost, Peter could have said, ‘This is Jerusalem, you people get with the program — we speak Hebrew here,’” Bustillos said. “He didn’t do that. The apostles spoke the language of the people. And that’s what we have to do.”

The Reunión Nacional Juvenil, a Spanish youth conference for Churches of Christ, is July 20-22, hosted by the Westbury Church of Christ in Houston. For more information, see the event’s Facebook page.

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