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July 8, 2009
Column #1,454
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 Poll.

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 proportionately.

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 Pentecostal movement.

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 Ekklesia.

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