When Jonathan Velasquez attends church with his parents, he wears headphones to hear the sermon translated from Spanish to English. It is one of several steps that Centro Cristiano Internacional in Germantown, one of the largest evangelical Hispanic churches in the Washington region, has taken to keep younger members from leaving the church.
“I feel like Spanish church has more energy,” said Velasquez, 16, who goes to church with his parents and brother. “The translator puts energy to the words the pastor is preaching. The people who sing, they jump around a lot. They run around the stage. It’s way more fun.”
For years, non-Hispanic churches in the Washington area have been adding Spanishlanguage ministries in response to a growing number of newly arrived Hispanic immigrants. Now, in recent years, as the immigrant population has matured, churches such as Centro Cristiano have begun incorporating more English into their services. Many are also discarding conservative traditions brought from Latin America governing dress, gender roles and behavior.
The trend began in other areas of the country, areas with older and larger Hispanic populations, such as San Antonio and Los Angeles. In the Washington area, which is home to the nation’s 12th-largest Hispanic population, estimated at 800,000, the changes are being driven by the children and grandchildren of immigrants who settled here in the 1980s and ’90s, many from Central America.
The decision of Spanishlanguage churches to provide English translation “is really simple,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “They don’t want to lose the next generation. It is a matter of survival.”
Unlike their immigrant parents who strive to learn English, some younger English-speaking and bilingual Hispanics are so immersed in the American culture that they are choosing to join mainstream English-language churches. But many still enjoy strong ties to their families’ native countries and prefer houses of worship with a strong Latino heritage.
Some local pastors say they view the transition as inevitable at a time of a profound shift among Hispanics. Studies show that they are attending church at a lower rate today than they did 20 years ago, echoing the trend among all Americans. Younger generations of Latinos are also not nearly as socially conservative as their parents.
“You realize that this community is changing, and you ask yourself, ‘How am I going to preach in English?’ ” said Javier Gomez, who has been pastor at CCI for 11 years. “You have a choice: to die out or embrace the change.”
In addition to translating Spanish into English through headphones, the church translates from English into Spanish when children speak before the 600-member congregation.
With the majority of the church’s 200 children born in the United States, efforts to carry out the children’s Sunday school in Spanish — partly to preserve the language and Hispanic culture — have slowly faded, said Gomez, 42. Ten years ago, most Sunday school teachers spoke almost exclusively in Spanish, but now all of them are bilingual.
“The kids speak three languages,” said Gomez, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador two decades ago and has three U.S.-born children. “English, Spanish and Spanglish.”
The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical association with 40,000 member churches, is projecting that by 2025 the Latino church will be mostly bilingual.
“You will have a hard time finding any Latino church that only preaches in one language,” Rodriguez said. In coming years, he said, “We are going to start churches where English is the language.”
Right now, many Hispanic churches, including El Ministerio Cristo No Esta Muerto El Esta Vivo in Fairfax County are taking the two-microphone approach, with the pastor preaching in Spanish and someone interpreting.
Johan Salazar, 30, a native of Peru who came to the United States at age 7, is usually on call to step up next to the pastor, Ricardo Palacios, if translation is needed. But he said, now with the young church members speaking more English than Spanish, demand is growing for headphones to quietly relay translations that would not interfere with the services.
Some churches are abandoning conservative traditions they inherited from their mother churches in Central and South America. Among the strictest are prohibitions against women’s wearing pants, jewelry or makeup.
Ten years ago, Nery España’s church, Iglesia Restauracion Elim in Clinton, had separate seating for men and women, and women were encouraged to wear long dresses and cover their heads during the service.
España, a leader of a local coalition of Hispanic pastors, said he saw young people leave the church as soon as they became independent. And his own children grew up speaking English, and met friends whose churches offered more-contemporary Christian practices. The church responded by adding a weekly youth service in English, incorporating livelier worship events, and changing the message from one heavily focused on repentance to one that places more emphasis on practical life lessons, such as how to serve the community as a Christian. Men and women sit together. Women wear pants and makeup, and sometimes they address the congregation from the pulpit.
España said Iglesia Restauracion Elim has paid a steep price for those changes, losing the more-conservative members who disagreed with them, he said.
“We bring our Latin American culture, and traditions, but the reality is that we are in another country,” said España, a native of Guatemala, who has been pastor of the church for about two decades. “So far, the Hispanic evangelical church has survived with the immigrant population, but what about our children and grandchildren who are born here? . . . If I want to be their pastor, I have to have an open mind.”
In the Washington area, economic status and education may also factor into the changes. The region’s Hispanics have among the highest household incomes and highest levels of educational attainment compared with Hispanics nationwide, and those two factors are associated with faster assimilation.
“They have better jobs, better earnings . . . and they are meeting more non-Latino people who they want to bring to their dynamic church,” said Daniel Rodriguez, a professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University in California and the author of “A Future for the Latino Church: Models for Multilingual, Multigenerational Hispanic Congregations.” At that point, he said, they adopt a motto that says, “ ‘This is not your abuela’s [grandmother’s] church,’ but you know it has Latino flavor simply because they say abuela there. But it is going to be in English, and no one is going to shame you for not speaking Español.”
According to the Barna Group, a major researcher on U.S. faith trends, more than half of the country’s churchgoing Hispanics usually attend worship in English, although about two-thirds of Latinos not born in the United States prefer Spanish-language services. But an overwhelming number of all U.S. Latinos say it is important that the church they attend understands and appreciates the Hispanic perspective.
At CCI, whose members come from 23 nationalities, Gomez often makes references to fútbol, stirring the crowd with the mention of the long-standing rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two top most popular professional soccer clubs among Hispanics. The music accompanying worship is a combination of Christian hits in English from bands such as Hillsong United and in Spanish from such performers as Mexican singer Marcos Witt, a former pastor at Joel Osteen’s mega-church in Houston.
Gomez urges his flock to learn English, to vote and to serve their local communities. His sermons make use of examples from both the immigrant and Hispanic American experiences. And he emphasizes the importance of Latino youth in the future of the church, often encouraging them to aspire to success.
“Your parents worked very hard so you could have a better future,” he said on a recent Sunday, talking about God’s purpose. “Don’t dream about being like them. Repeat after me, ‘I want to be better than my parents.’ You are going to accomplish more than they did, and you are going to do it in a shorter time.”
Luisa Gonzalez, 24, of Aspen Hill, a nursing student at Montgomery College, said she likes the integration of the English into the experience at CCI. Now, she said, she can invite her Englishspeaking college friends to Sunday service.
Gonzalez, a native of Colombia, came to the Washington area nine years ago, and she is one of the five interpreters at CCI. Demand, she says, has only gone up.