Exploring the tapestry of Latina church youth ministry

Roslyn Hernández Image Roslyn Hernández | Sep 21, 2023

The Latina/o community is one of the fastest-growing in the United States. Pew Research found that 25% of Gen Z are Latino/a, and Gen Alpha is set to mirror this trend. And while some research has been done on Latinas/os and faith, very little academic literature focuses on the specific needs of youth ministry leaders in the Latina church.

This is why the Fuller Youth Institute, Fuller Centro Latino, and the Brown Church Institute teamed up to find answers to this central research question: What are the unique contextual needs of Hispanic and Latino/a youth ministers?

From this research project we've produced the report, Investigating the Contextual Needs of Latina/o Youth Pastors and Youth Workers!

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To celebrate the launch of Investigating the Contextual Needs of Latina/o Youth Pastors and Youth Workers, Alexia Salvatierra, Robert Chao Romero, Juan Martinez Benavides, and I gathered some of our reflections in response to what we've learned from the research.

Rev. Dr. Alexia Salvatierra is Academic Dean for Centro Latino and Associate Professor of Mission and Global Transformation. She has pastored English and Spanish-speaking congregations, served as a missionary and community organizer, and started and directed multiple community development organizations.

Dr. Robert Chao Romero is a Chinese-Latino American historian, immigration lawyer, author, and professor at UCLA engaging students and the Church on issues of race, social justice, and Christianity.

Juan Martinez Benavides has served as a youth leader in El Salvador and in the U.S. He serves as Recruitment and Communications Project Manager for Centro Latino at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Roslyn M. Hernández is DEI Manager and Content Producer at the Fuller Youth Institute. She has served in youth and young adult ministry, produces podcasts, writes about theology and culture, and is a spiritual director.

What are your initial reflections as you read the report?

Alexia: The report highlights that the needs of our community are so different from standard, dominant culture youth ministry needs. But the needs of the dominant culture are the focus of materials available through denominations. It really is important to have bilingual materials and models that respect the culture and unique needs of our youth and families.

Robert: I was impressed by this statistic and its implications: “only 2.5% of Hispanic churches have paid youth ministers.”

Although most traditional White churches are in decline, the U.S. Latina church is one of the fastest growing. And yet, almost all books and trainings about youth ministry are based upon White youth ministries with a paid youth pastor who creates weekly events for students. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Roslyn: It articulates what many leaders and church members have been thinking and feeling. But we haven’t been able to discuss some of these things together because we hadn’t named them, and there has been pain and defensiveness on both sides. The report lends language, neutrality, and understanding that will help leaders, adults, and young people have these conversations. This is the research we’ve been needing: research led by us, about us, and for us. It focuses on the Latina church we are a part of and care about, and understands the nuances and complexities of our cultures.

Juan: I think the report is a confirmation of a widespread feeling within the Latina church in the U.S. that something is not working well in intergenerational relationships. The diverse experiences and responses to the dynamics of cultural assimilation have had a strong impact on both young people and adult leadership within the church.

As someone who’s part of the Latina Church, what aspect of the report did you relate to the most?

Alexia: I remember ministering to and with the youth in a Spanish-speaking congregation in Central California. They simply couldn’t do activities suggested in standard denominational youth ministry models.

They had to work to help support the family, or care for younger siblings while their parents worked. They didn’t have money to go on field trips or to buy lunch on the road. They couldn't go on a mission trip outside the U.S. or a camp in another state because some members were undocumented. The denominational youth ministry materials did not speak to challenges they faced—like avoiding gang membership, or dealing with the reality of living in homes so crowded with siblings or recently arrived relatives that there was no space for them to do their homework. It was good to see those challenges named.

Robert: We found that Latina Churches need to create spaces where young Latinas/os feel safe to have hard conversations around issues of race and justice. I relate to this finding very strongly. I’ve been a professor for nearly two decades, and I’ve met so many students who lose their faith in Jesus because they don’t know how to connect it with the racial justice needs of their community. This breaks my heart more than anything.

Juan: Having grown up in Latin America, I almost always start from the differences between the church in Latin American and Latina church contexts in the US. Those differences exist. However, I was also struck by the similarities. For example, the desire young people have to dialogue more instead of continuing models where we “dictate what you should believe” is also present in Latin American church contexts. This is common ground across countries and contexts that we as adult faith leaders need to understand.

Intergenerational differences around language, culture, identity, and values are a central issue that’s emerged from the research. Have you witnessed practices in Latina churches, or from the Latina community cultural wealth, that can help bridge these gaps?

Alexia: An underlying issue that stood out to me is mutual lack of trust. It’s so connected, in my perspective, to the insecurity that both generations feel as Latinos/as in the U.S. Everyone is scared, but they deal with their fears differently—young people want a space to talk about difficult issues, and parents want to keep their heads down and focus on what they can handle, seeing the church as a refuge. Parents are afraid of being vulnerable with their children, and children feel like they can’t have tough conversations with their parents.

However, even while trust is lacking, there is so much love. Volunteer youth leaders are so generous, given their often difficult and stressful lives. Children respect their roots; they see the value in the culture of their parents and grandparents, even while they want to assimilate well enough to succeed. The sense of familia holds people together across divisions. Latino/a cultures are also so much less given to rigid categories—you can accept and love people you don't agree with.

Robert: I learned a big lesson from my friend, Pastor René Molina, Jr. His church thinks of the relationship between young people and elder church members as similar to that of a marriage. A healthy marriage has conflict, but has about five positive interactions to one negative interaction. In healthy marriages each spouse also looks after the best interests of the other spouse. This means that these relationships have healthy guidelines for conflict—and husband and wife not only care for each other, but also don’t easily abandon each other. This way of seeing relationality, that is so evident in parts of the Latina community understanding of familia, can be a great way to bridge intergenerational gaps.

Juan: In this challenge, bridges will always be necessary. By “bridges,” I mean people who have interpretation skills—not only at the level of language, but also at the level of culture and values. They are multi-cultural and multi-lingual leaders who are capable of facilitating spaces of mutuality and respect. The Latina church has “bridge” leaders, and we must invest heavily in them.

When leaders read this report, they might feel both validated and discouraged by concerns that emerged. What bright spots do you see in this report?

Alexia: A theme I see is that some of the issues are actually easily solvable. Everyone wants young people to succeed, which means that training immigrant adults to celebrate their hybridity as an asset can be a small first step.

Another bright spot that highlights small shifts relates to technology. Latino/a immigrants have a very high rate of Facebook and WhatsApp usage; it's not a huge step to learn other social media platforms.

On the note of cultural wealth, Latino/a culture is expressive and flexible; parents and grandparents can learn to have more honest and transparent conversations with young people. They all share trauma and it's not hard to imagine mutual and joint healing experiences.

Robert: Despite the lack of formal resources contextualized for Latina church realities, God’s work continues! Latina/o youth pastors don’t let this lack stop them. They make resources from scratch, and tailor existing resources. Most importantly, they depend upon the Holy Spirit and millions of young people continue to be transformed by Jesus every year! These youth leaders are so faithful with the loaves and fish they are given, and God multiplies!

Roslyn: I’ve heard concerns from older generations about young people leaving the church and an assumption that they’re leaving God. But what I’ve experienced, and what the report highlights, is that young Latinas/os actually want to know God more deeply and want to have a more integrated faith. We might leave churches that don’t feel safe, but we are not leaving God. We desire the church to be a safe space where our faith can speak to the realities and issues of our everyday lives.

Juan: The report itself is a sign of a current conversation happening more and more in the global Latina church about these issues. A bright spot I perceive is that churches are more open to dialogue about mental health and the role faith communities can play in understanding and promoting it.

How do you hope this report helps the Latina Church?

Alexia: I think that pastoral leaders are hungry for materials and models that will work. So many are reinventing the wheel, doing the best that they can with what they create. Creating materials that take all of these insights seriously could be a game-changer.

Robert: I grew up in the Latina church and I am the only person I know of, among many of my friends and relatives, who still goes to a Latina church. We met Jesus in our local church and learned many important things. But our church resisted cultural changes. Because of this, many went off to White churches where they met good people and followed Jesus, but something was always missing. So, I hope that this report helps the Latina Church to plan for God’s best future.

Roslyn: This report can help us see our needs clearly so we can get on the same page and work intergenerationally towards the same goal. We all want the same thing: we want the Latina church, and each member regardless of their age or cultural background, to flourish. For that to happen, we need to know what flourishing means for each of us and what it means in relationship with one another. I hope this report can ignite understanding, healing, support, and unity so the church can grow towards flourishing.

Juan: I hope this report continues to help our reflection on the future of the church begin with a greater sense of what theologian Jon Sobrino would call, “honesty of what is real.” Instead of starting from theoretical models of what “the church should be,” a better way is to start from what is in front of us. Then, we let the wisdom of the Spirit, present in the Scriptures, in the culture, and our traditions, shed light on the decisions we must make.

Tweet this: Everyone wants young people to succeed, which means that training immigrant adults to celebrate their hybridity as an asset can be a small first step.

Investigating the Contextual Needs of Latina/o Youth Pastors & Youth Workers

Fuller Centro Latino, The Brown Church Institute, and Fuller Youth Institute posed a central research question: What are the unique contextual needs of Hispanic/Latino youth ministers? Read 5 key findings about Latina/o youth ministry needs and practical recommendations to apply within Latina church youth ministry contexts.

Download the report

Roslyn Hernández Image
Roslyn Hernández

Roslyn Hernández is DEI Manager and Content Producer at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). She produces The FYI on Youth Ministry podcast, manages resource production, and provides support for research projects. Roslyn lived in México City as a child and grew up in the Central Valley of California. She holds a BA with majors in Film & Media Studies and Spanish, and a minor in Art History from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); and an MDiv with an emphasis on Youth, Family and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary. Roslyn is also a Spiritual Director and writer. She is passionate about decolonizing, public theology, pop culture, culinary traditions, nature, and tea.

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