By Elizabeth D. Rios and Luis Alvarez
Las Raices, We’ve Come a Long Way
To understand our roots, or better yet, our “flavor,” one must understand our history—las raices that make AG what it is. The General Council of the Assemblies of God (USA) was organized in 1914 by a broad coalition of ministers who desired to work together to fulfill common objectives, such as sending missionaries and providing fellowship and accountability. It was formed in the midst of the emerging worldwide Pentecostal revival—today one of the largest Pentecostal fellowships in the world, with over 12,311 churches and nearly 3 million members in the United States. There are nearly 58 million Assemblies of God members worldwide.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century in the United States, Protestants from various backgrounds began to ask themselves why their churches did not seem to exhibit the same vibrant, faith-filled life as those in the New Testament. One of the focal points of the Assemblies of God (AG) movement was the Azusa Street revival in 1906–1909. It was an unlikely location for an event that would change the face of Christianity.
It is important to note here that the English-speaking AG is very different in operation from the Spanish-speaking AG—a topic of debate with the denominational headquarters. Given this reality, the Spanish AG organizational structure and local church operations have come a long way. Many pastors as well as denominational executives are open to new outreach methods for youth such as the creative arts (e.g. dance, art, and poetic expression). In addition, many pastors who once thought that marketing to attract visitors employed tactics “of the devil,” are realizing that we live in a consumerist world where people make decisions on everything from where they’ll have their morning coffee to where they’ll worship on Sunday (or more important, if they’ll worship) by relying on popular media for information.
Y ¿Qué Es Esto?—We Ain’t in Kansas Anymore!
I have family and friends who are AG pastors/ministers, and I observed firsthand the struggle between what used to be done, what is being done, and what many wanted to do in their churches. The conflict became acutely apparent when my husband and I became church planters in South Florida in 2005. We had grown in our theology and spiritual health partly by being exposed to many of the emergent “conversations”—something that happened quite accidentally. For years a friend had urged me to start a blog, and I finally did. The thoughts of a Latina Pentecostal church-planting wife with two young boys (one of whom has special needs) caught the eye of a few people in the emergent movement, and led to invitations to emergent conferences and women’s initiatives. For Luis (who pastors a growing AG church in Brooklyn called Park Slope Christian Tabernacle), the emergent dialogue began in the Latino Leadership Circle, a group of second- and third-generation Latino/as who all had roots in Pentecostalism. In addition, many of us had read the books of Brian McLaren. It was from these initial introductions to a new way of “being” church that Luis and I, in our respective circles, tried to see how emergent thinking could work within the AG framework. We soon found that it would not be easy as we hoped.
The Sancocho Leadership Model and the Emergent “Conversation”
Sancocho is, without doubt, the most cherished culinary treasure of many Latinos (predominately Dominican and Puerto Rican). It is a dish that is usually prepared for special occasions. Its preparation is time-consuming and the dish contains many ingredients. I borrowed this name for the Latino leadership model of emerging leaders. Most of us have learned—through this long process called “life”—from people in various stages of ministry and position. Since a sancocho needs many ingredients, we believe we have observed or read many leadership models in our communities and globally via the technology. Since we are Gen Xers with a Latino bicultural perspective, many of the intact historical models didn’t work for us, so we took a bit from here, a little from there, and added a little of our own flavor. A lot of ingredients went into making us who we are today, and as a consequence created the DNA of our church plant. This mix was what first attracted me and many of my Latino AG or Pentecostal colleagues to the Emergent conversation. Like many, we don’t view Emergent as a church or a movement, but more of an ethos or way of thinking. I like Michael Patton’s categorization:
Fundamentalists: Separate from culture.
Evangelicals: Change the culture.
Emergers: We are the culture.
For many in the Latino AG circles, the sancocho mindset was “EvanFunde,” while for the second and third generations—like Luis and I—our DNA was more “EvangEmerge.” We even call ourselves “Progressive Pentecostals” because the first generation of Latino Pentecostal leaders had a social vision of transforming the community primarily through “Jesús y la Palabra” (Jesus and the Word) and not through advocacy, policy analysis, or engaging politicians in forums. This is the key difference between second- and third-generation Latino Pentecostals. The younger, emerging Latino Pentecostal population believe that just because a better world is expected, they should not accept all injustice with patience while waiting for the Lord’s second coming. This is where the affinity with the emergent conversation and many of Brian McLaren’s books come into play. The younger generation, like Luis and myself, and those growing up behind us, are more open to discussing options that deal with both systemic and structural sins in addition to personal sin.
A Few Challenges that Helped Us Be Open to Emergent
Leadership undefined: When we were growing up you were either “sanctioned” as a leader by someone giving you the title, or by being voted in con un vote de confianza (with a vote of confidence). Rarely did anyone really tell you as a leader what you would bear on your shoulders, what your responsibilities would be, etc. For the most part, leadership was undefined. Most thought (and still think), I am a leader when someone in authority says I am. This leads to people not feeling fulfilled in life because “the leader” (usually the pastor) did not acknowledge my leadership “call.” I have seen, firsthand, people who are convinced they are on the “pastor track” but because no one in their church agreed or appointed them to that role, they forced it to happen by going to a place where they would get that recognition or by making their “own place.”
Language wars: In the Latino community, you are considered a sell-out if you don’t speak Spanish as your primary language. You are considered less of a “Latino/a” if your ministry is outside the context of the Spanish congregation, denominational gatherings, etc. I remember I was denied going to the next level in the credentials process because I was told that I am known in the city but not in the “section” (meaning the Spanish community of my denomination). My bubble burst because I thought my “superiors” would have a kingdom perspective, but instead they had a survivalist one. Just because I don’t prefer to speak Spanish doesn’t mean I am any less of a Latina. Unfortunately, most of my people don’t share that perspective.
Generational differences: Michael Mata, adjunct assistant professor of urban ministries at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California, brought up this point in a popular blog a few years ago. Our parents’ generation needed leaders that would help them navigate the waters of a new land. They needed to learn how to survive. They needed to feel important in a society that didn’t care much for new strangers. The church leaders were their heroes: they nurtured them, held their hands, dubbed them “Deacon XYZ” as opposed to “Janitor ABC.” They went to church to feel accepted, important, and cared for. This generation does not feel they need their leaders in order to survive in this society. They were born here. This is all they know. They need leaders with vision who give back to the community and are not afraid to get their hands dirty outside the walls of the church. They (we) need leaders who know what is going on in the world—not leaders who have their heads stuck in the sand, waiting for God to return. This generation of believers believes in God and his return, we just want work toward making a difference in this society now. Preaching against the work of Satan alone is not going to do it for us. Living life as a Christian in the workplace or addressing hunger or domestic violence will. The generations are different—that is why the emergent conversation (and, in particular, Brian McLaren’s lastest focus on global crisis) resonates with us.
One-track mind: Finally, another challenge for the emergent conversation within the AG tradition is the demand that everything in the movement should have an evangelical emphasis. In 2004, the AG acknowledged a need for a paradigm shift with its “Vision for Transformation.” The denomination encouraged the formation of new types of churches that were community-focused, and encouraged the use of the arts to preach the message. Once again the goal was for evangelical evangelism—meaning an evangelism with the main goal of the salvation and transformation of individuals. Rick Warren says, “The message doesn’t change, but methods do.” Spanish AG churches have generally been conservative in their praxis. This changes slightly as we see more first- and second-generation Latinos lead churches; nevertheless, the exclusive emphasis of personal salvation usually overshadows a wholistic gospel or a Christian response to global crisis.
Is There a Futuro for an Emergent Latino Church?
There is certainly a future for emergent Latino churches, but perhaps not within the AG denomination. There may be too much historical and theological baggage to work through, while in the meantime, our overriding purpose of saving souls is time-sensitive. Personal experience leads me to this conclusion: We started our church plant in 2005, and by January 2008 we had to close our doors. Though a host of other issues influenced it, trying to fit a sancocho leadership style combined with an emergent ethos within our AG tradition ultimately collapsed us. We still have hope for independent, nondenominational churches led by second- and third-generation Latinos who can incorporate the emergent ethos, but it will take working through the cultural expectations of our own people to get them to stay in the church.
I do, however, believe that other support networks working alongside Latino AG pastors who are dipping their toes in the Emergent conversation can help. A good example is the Latino Leadership Circle in New York City, founded by a former AG minister who left the denomination and is now a staff minister at a nondenominational megachurch in New Jersey. This network has been a lifeline for Luis as a minister and as a follower of Christ. Its internal support component has allowed him to share life with Lutherans and Baptists, for example, as well as charismatic friends.
What Are You Prepared to Do?
In the movie The Untouchables, Elliot Ness is asked by colleague Jim Malone—who has been fatally shot a number of times by their enemy Al Capone—“What are you prepared to do?” Malone wanted Ness to stop at nothing, even if it meant crossing the fine line between legal and slightly illegal to go after Capone. The same question might be asked of Latino ministers in any denomination: what are we prepared to do? What are the boundary lines? Is the simple act of discussion (even if it is one framed around the emergent conversation) an illegal activity? Do we stay within the confines of a box defined by the AG tradition and risk being ineffective and unlearned while the world hungers for relevance and truth?
What are you prepared to do? This is a question every minister should struggle with. It may very well be the question that launches an emergent Latino church conversation!
Article can be at Fuller Theological Seminary News and Notes Fall 2008