Skip Navigation

Make your church a melting pot

By Darby Jones

SUMMARY: Not too many years ago, Easter Sunday worshipers at West Nashville [Tenn.] United Methodist Church found a sparsely attended, predominantly White, older congregation, with very few children.

This year's Resurrection worship featured a Hispanic girl's interpretive choir, English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families blending their voices in joyful liturgy and song, and a sense of excitement for the future. What made the difference? The congregation chose to embrace its changing community.

Does your church reflect the community? The Latino population is the fastest-growing immigrant population in the United States. Almost 50 million Hispanics live in this country, according to the U.S. Census. By 2050, that number likely will jump to more than 100 million. Welcoming the immigrant population requires more than just opening your church doors.

West Nashville UMC shares the history of its three-year endeavor to expand its congregation into a vibrant, thriving church that welcomes the growing Hispanic community. Learn how they did it; the lessons they learned and why their melting pot plans constantly evolve.

Look around.
When West Nashville UMC looked around a few years ago, it found a small, but dedicated congregation made up of primarily older adults, baby boomers with high school and college-age youth, and few children who attended services.

"Our community does not look like our congregation," the Rev. Dennis Meaker noted. Something needed to happen. Angela Flanagan, lay pastor for Hispanic ministries, explains that to survive and thrive, the congregation made a financial commitment, selling the parsonage and investing the money in the church's ministries.

Turn outward.
Not one Hispanic member of the congregation just walked in off the streets. Take your ministries to the immigrant community, Flanagan advises. West Nashville works with the Pencil Foundation, which assists elementary schools. It also offers English-as-a-second-language classes and participates in community events such as health fairs to interact with the Hispanic population.

Amanda Bachus, who attends West Nashville UMC and serves as director of Spanish resources at United Methodist Communications, suggests connecting with local leaders and parent/teacher associations who can act as bridges to the immigrant population. Providing free services such as health clinics, tax-free space, meals and other incentives also encourages immigrants to engage with the church. "Not all of them will switch or change their [religious] traditions right away," she notes.

Involve the congregation.
Success in welcoming an immigrant population requires the cooperation of your congregation. Enlist dedicated volunteers and brainstorm to get their ideas for immigrant outreach and welcoming. Involve them in the actual ministries. West Nashville now offers a weekly Spanish class for anyone who wishes to communicate better with the Hispanic members.

Worship together.
West Nashville has a Spanish-only service every month or two. Otherwise, the congregation worships bilingually. "Having our worship together heightens our awareness of receiving those who look different than us," Bachus says. "It makes us understand that as children of God, we are one in Christ."

West Nashville UMC bought headsets and hired translators so the Spanish-speaking worshipers could hear a translation of the English portions of the service. If a song is brief, the congregation sings both English and Spanish versions. If it is a longer hymn or prayer, members sing or speak simultaneously in their own languages. The church recently purchased Spanish hymnals. However, even after the hymnals arrived, worship leaders continue to post songs and prayers translated into Spanish on the wall using PowerPoint and a projector during the service.

"Our regular translator," explains Meaker, "is a volunteer supplied by the Holy Spirit! He provides simultaneous translation of the sermon, prayers and other worship elements, as well as the announcements and joys and concerns. When a volunteer isn't available, we can obtain a translator from a translation service for about what you would pay an accompanist ($50 to $75). You can obtain translation equipment for a surprisingly low cost, and it can double as assistance for the hearing impaired by hooking the transmitter into the sound system and using another channel.

"Obviously, the slides are prepared in advance. I also provide an advance manuscript of the sermon to the translator because I want the translation of the sermon to be as close to the English meaning as possible, and that takes some advance thought for most translators.

"We translate as much as possible so those who do not speak English are not isolated," he adds. "People planning to try this might want to visit a foreign-language worship service to see how isolating it is to be shut out."

Celebrate cultures.
In the Latino population, some worship occasions, such as the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, are important for cultural reasons. Recognize those days with special celebrations and services. Also, consider having a spring fiesta or a Cinco de Mayo party so the entire congregation can share in traditions and have fun at the same time.

Interact with everyone.
Create an environment where members feel comfortable getting up from their seats and reaching out to pass the peace or to extend a greeting. Encourage members to ask questions of each other to learn more about their individual families and culture.

Don't forget the children.
The younger population serves as bridges to involving their parents. Invest in good teachers, passionate seminary interns and bilingual personnel to work with children's activities and programs during the summer and throughout the year, Bachus advises.

A multicultural church also can be attractive to non-immigrant families who want their children to interact in an environment of people from all backgrounds, Flanagan says.

Adapt and evolve.
The immigrant population often is transient, Flanagan notes. For example, last year's vacation Bible school involved 12 Spanish-speaking children. This year, none of those children attends the church because all of them have moved. Yet, despite the evolution, the West Nashville UMC Hispanic population is growing.

Each week, Flanagan says, the staff asks assesses the ministry and adjusts accordingly. "We make it up as we go along. That's the only thing that makes it work."

Longtime member Grace Horick comments: "For the past 21 years, I've had the pleasure of watching a generation of our children, including my own, grow up. Now, there's a whole new generation, and the prospect of watching all of them grow up takes some of the sting out of getting older. These parents are bringing our congregation the greatest gift they could bring us – their children. We're so glad to have these families join us. They are reinvigorating our church."

Retired high-school teacher Harry McMackin agrees. "I've been a Methodist since 1945, and I like the ritual just fine. However, I noticed that when Spanish is mixed into the Communion ritual and the Affirmation of Faith, it gives freshness to the service that I had not seen in years. I never thought of myself as one who likes learning new things, but it turns out, I do."

"I lived in San Antonio for many years, a city with a lot of Hispanic influence and a very active Latino life," says Gloria Gutierrez, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. "I moved to Nashville in 2006 and missed San Antonio terribly because until recently I had not found a group of Hispanics with whom I could interact and especially share my faith as a Christian. This changed when a dear friend, a member of the congregation, invited me to West Nashville UMC. It definitely has made a big difference in my life. Thanks for giving Hispanics the opportunity to express and pray in our own language."

A pastor's No. 1 rule, says Meaker, is "Don't mess with worship. Nothing will get a congregation worked up like changing the worship practices they have known for a long time."

However, he asserts, "West Nashville UMC messed with worship. We asked members to sing in Spanish, to listen to Scripture and prayers in Spanish, and to pass the peace of Christ in Spanish. The congregation embraced this affirmation that we are all one in Jesus Christ. The Communion liturgy asking God to make us 'one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to the world' has taken on a new meaning for the congregation."