| July 8, 2009
The Faith of Hispanics Is Changing
By Mike McManus
Carlos Penaloza grew up Catholic in Bolivia. In fact, his grandfather became a
Catholic priest after a divorce. However, he says "I was a Catholic by
tradition, not by conviction."
"Catholicism had no real meaning for us. We would go to church once or twice a
year. We were just nominal Catholics. However, in 1972 a young evangelist,
Julio Rudial, came preaching a new Gospel with a lot of signs and wonders,
confirmed by the media. I saw many in wheelchairs who were healed.
"It produced a great revival. The whole country was shaken by the power
of God. I was among them. I came in contact with the Gospel's powerful message.
It was no longer ritual or religion, but it gave you something real. It
transformed your life, literally. You were flooded by God's love."
He won a scholarship to Portland Bible College, which brought him to this
country. Pastor Penaloza returned to Bolivia and built a church with 12,000
members. However, his four children became ill with a genetic disease, which
brought him back to America for treatment. Tragically, all four "have gone to
be with the Lord," but "God's grace was sufficient" for him to survive. He now
pastors Ekklesia USA, a church meeting in a Falls Church, VA high school where
weekly attendance is now 600.
His story, of moving from nominal Catholicism to deeply committed
evangelicalism, is now the life experience of millions of Hispanic Americans.
U.S. Hispanics, who now outnumber African-Americans, "are assimilating the faith
of the Caucasian population faster than anyone would have predicted, essentially
mirroring the faith of America's white population," according to a new Barna
By comparing the faith of Hispanics today with their faith profile of 15 years
ago, those who call themselves Catholic have fallen by 25 percent. By contrast,
there has been a 17 percent increase of born-again Christians.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Hispanic church attendance is up 10 percent in an
average week. Why? Those who claim their faith is very important in their life
have grown in 15 years by 10 percent, and those who feel a "responsibility to
share their religious belief with others" is also up 10 percent.
As faith becomes a more important part of one's life, the necessity to nurture
it through church attendance is heightened, and the desire to share it grows
Barna also identified a 9 percent drop in the belief that a good person can earn
their way into Heaven among Hispanics and an 8 percent increase in the
conviction that "God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe
who still rules the world today."
Similarly, the proportion of Hispanics who believe that the Bible is accurate in
all that it teaches is up by 6 percent over what Hispanics said in a 1994 Barna
Survey, and 5 percent more Hispanics read the Bible weekly.
The result of these changes in the faith of Hispanics is "nearly identical" with
the total U.S. population in the importance of faith in their lives, the
perceived accuracy of the Bible, feeling responsible to share their faith with
others, church attendance and Bible reading.
However, the shift of Hispanics from the Catholic faith to Protestantism, should
not be overstated. The Pew Research Center reports that 72% of Latinos say they
are still Catholic, and only 13 percent became Protestant. Robert Mills of Pew
says the shift of Latinos is no larger than denominational changes of Americans
in general. However, Pew estimates are based on the memory of respondents, not
polls taken 15 years apart, like those of Barna.
The growth of Hispanics in America is a major reason that the number of
Catholics grew in 2008 by one million to 68 million. That makes Catholicism the
largest faith by far in the U.S., 22 percent of the population.
Catholics outnumber all of the 15 million members of 52 denominations affiliated
with the National Association of Evangelicals (Assemblies of God, Nazarenes,
Pentecostals) -- AND all 45 million members of 35 Protestant denominations
affiliated with the National Council of Churches (Methodists, Presbyterians,
African-American churches, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans).
Father Allan Deck of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, reports that
many Latinos are becoming affiliated with the Catholic Charismatic or
Thus, there are multiple currents happening simultaneously.
Unquestionably however, the paucity of Catholic priests makes faith a more
nominal experience for many Hispanics who attend large Catholic churches.
And the passion of Hispanic evangelicals such as Pastor Carlos Penaloza,
is attracting millions to smaller but growing Pentecostal churches like
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