Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a four-part series from D.A. Horton on how American demographics are changing and how churches can adapt.
In this final installment, I use my missional context, Los Angeles County, as a case study for how to engage Latino youth with a missiological method.
Historically, Latinos in L.A. have been forced to exist on the margins of a society that’s classified them as a necessary other. Jesus’ followers must consider this since it relates to the identity of Latinos. It’s important to show how Scripture affirms the ethnic heritages of Latinos rather than ignoring them.
Affirming the Latino identity includes a robust interpretation of Galatians 3:26-29. Paul identifies three spaces where humans have sinfully built walls of segregation: ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status. Paul says the finished work of Jesus obliterates each of these walls, providing salvation for sinners and common fellowship within the Body of Christ regardless of man-made divisions. This truth supports the giving of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) where Christ commanded believers to make disciples from all ethnicities who will dwell in the multiethnic, multigenerational, and multilingual City of God (Revelation 5:8-10; 7:9, 21).
The flagship publication for Latino thought is Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, which has few published articles about religion. Of those few, the content is a reclaiming of indigenous spirituality and the rejection of Christianity as a western religion. According to El Plan De Aztlán, “Nationalism as the key to organization transcends all religious, political, class, and economic factions or boundaries. Nationalism is the common denominator that all members of La Raza can agree upon.” Aztlán is a mystical promised land for Latinos in the Southwestern region of the United States.
Followers of Jesus should acknowledge and express disdain for historic accounts of injustice and steer conversations toward the just God who cares for the afflicted, oppressed, and poor. Doing this while utilizing God’s ability to redeem mankind’s most vile actions would be a strong initial step towards beginning the dialogical method with Latinos. A rejection of nationalism in every form should also be shared. Luke 13:31-35 shows Jesus’ love for the people of His own ethnicity, land of promise they inhabited, and the holy city of Jerusalem, yet Jesus surrendered this love in submission to the Father’s will and placed His mission above His love for his nation and people. The beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice is that sinners not only from His ethnicity but all others can be saved from God’s wrath and citizenship in the City of God, not Aztlán, will be secured.
Latino culture in Los Angeles County has been affected by decades of what one scholar calls barrioization: political powerlessness, land loss, and proletarianization as the new capitalist system replaced the declining pastoral economy. Since the 1920’s Latino youth responded to the status quo by forming groups that provided protection and potential for upward mobility. Over time these groups would shape the framework for L.A.’s notorious gang culture. Gangs developed systems of organization and structure that produced codes of ethics enforced by the veteranos, the leaders of the gang hierarchy system. In 2007 Los Angeles County was home to over 1,300 street gangs with over 150,000 members with Latinos having the largest demographic of enrollees, double the number of African-Americans who are a distant second.
Obviously not everyone in L.A. is a gang member. However, since gang culture is so prevalent, the follower of Jesus must not be indifferent to how it’s shaped Latino culture. Engaging in dialogue with those you hope to reach, in this example with gang members, must be done with caution and in step with Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 10:16-42. Persecution is to be expected, yet the joys of seeing gospel impact and conversations take place are rewarding. Lastly, considerations regarding educational opportunities, learning a vocational trade, substance abuse counseling (or rehabilitation), and the possibility of a geographic relocation may need to become the financial responsibility of the local church. Providing pathways for ex-gang members to become not only effective ambassadors for Christ but also productive and honest citizens will become tangible expressions of the gospel’s power in real-time.
Latino youth are discovering a new-found desire to embrace the narrative of their ancestors. In doing so, they’re developing a view of the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) as an oppressor of their people. The historical events of colonization have residual effects on Latinos today. Scholars Colin Woodard and Rodolfo Acuña both say Catholic and Protestant churches have contributed to the oppression of Latinos in Los Angeles county.
Jesus’ followers should engage this conversation with care while mobilizing believers to engage Latino youth through social outreach in schools and local sports. Engaging socially will provide platforms for believers to explain the attributes of God to the youth they’re interacting with. Attributes such as mercy (Exodus 33:19) and justice (Isaiah 59:4-14) while engaging in acts of servant evangelism (Psalms 82:3). This introduces the biblical character of Jesus in place of the assumed “white colonizing oppressor”, since Jesus modeled mercy (Matthew 9:36; 20:30-34), justice (Matthew 12:18-21; 27:32-56), and servant evangelism (John 4:1-44; 6:1-71) on both spiritual and social levels.
Jesus followers do well to consider which holidays and cultural celebrations can be leveraged as missional opportunities. Las Posadas, which commemorates Mary and Joseph’s nine-night search for sanctuary, is one of the oldest holiday events in Los Angeles. It features a candlelight procession with sing-alongs, ballet folklorico, and children’s piñata breaking. Perhaps hosting “sanctuary dinners” for the community, giving a gospel-saturated sermonette on living in between the first and second advents, and offering those in attendance to place their trust in Christ would be great ways to reach out on mission. Another celebration is the Quinceañera. I have written about how our family engaged this tradition with a gospel-infused approach.
The Latino youth demographic causes the church of today to consider the church of tomorrow right now. As you engage, rest assured in the fact that God is the one who brings increase to our faithful efforts of sowing and watering gospel seeds. My prayer is that more Jesus followers will be faithful in meeting the needs of Latino youth, sharing the gospel liberally with them, and discipling those God adds to the faith. I pray we will educate them in the Scriptures and empower them to lead as God opens the door for them.
 See Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, “Pious Colonialism”, in Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism, and Culture, 57—58 as it relates to the process of transculturation.
 El Plan De Aztlán translated means “The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán” and was the manifesto the Chicano movement affirmed and operated by. More information can be found by reading, Rodolfo F. Acuna’s, The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches of Academe, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 44.
 El Plan De Aztlan, Aztlán, http://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/00W/chicano101-1/aztlan.htm
 Chicanos in a Changing Society, 101.
 Marcus Hoover, “Poverty & Prejudice: Gangs of All Colors”, May 28, 1999, EDGE (Ethics of Development in a Global Environment), https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/gangcolor/madness.htm
 Los Angeles Almanac, “Gang Populations – Los Angeles County & City”, http://www.lapdonline.org/get_informed/content_basic_view/1396