One Sunday late last summer, I saw a sign on the side of the road in Adelphi, Md. It was small, wedged between dozens of presidential campaign signs, and it was in Spanish: Iglesia de Dios del Evangelio Completo. Down the road I found another sign: Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Maryland. Soon I started seeing signs for Protestant Latino churches everywhere. There was even one right behind my apartment in Virginia. And so I decided to visit two of the largest Latino Protestant churches in the area—La Roca de la Eternidad in Adelphi and Iglesia Cuadrangular el Calvario in nearby Silver Spring.
What I discovered signaled a Latino Reformation. Both churches were doubling in size every few years. Many of the congregants were Catholic converts, and even more may have been undocumented. All were fervent believers—they sang with hands high, danced during worship, and often brought their own tambourines and flags to Sunday services. They were charismatic and believed in miracles. They told me their stories over tamales and café con leche—how they converted, how God healed their physical illnesses, and how their churches became refuges from hunger and homelessness. To the mainstream American culture, and even other white evangelical churches, they were invisible. But they were hiding in plain sight.
(MORE: Does Pope Francis’ Outreach to Non-Catholics Signal Deeper Reform?)
The story of both churches repeats itself across America and is our cover story this week (available to subscribers here). Latino evangelicals are one of the fastest growing segments of America’s churchgoing millions. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than two-thirds of the 52-million-plus Latinos in the US are Catholic; by 2030, that percentage could be closer to half, and many are joining evangelical Protestant ranks. It is difficult to track the numbers of the groundswell of these new Protestants. They often meet in storefronts or living rooms, and language barriers complicate the census process.
But there are also rising evangelical Latino megachurches. I met Pastor Wilfredo De Jesús, who leads the 17,000-strong New Life Covenant Church in Chicago. In 2000, just 100 people attended, and all were Spanish-speakers. Now it is the largest Assemblies of God church in the nation. The church has four campuses and nine of its 11 services are in English. Like the churches in Maryland, New Life is charismatic, but it has crossed the great divide into the American mainstream.
(MORE: TIME’s New Cover Story on The Latino Reformation)
The rise of the Latino Protestants—the evangélicos, as they are called—is a challenge for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the US. Richard Land, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, challenged his pastors four years ago to ignore the Latino reformation at their peril. “Because if you left [Washington, DC], and drove all the way to LA, and you took the southern route, there wouldn’t be one town you’d pass that doesn’t have a Baptist church with an iglesia bautista attached to it.” Land estimates that 40 percent of Latino Southern Baptists are undocumented, and that is something his brethren cannot ignore. “They came here to work, we’re evangelistic, we shared the gospel with them, they became Baptist.”
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church in California and of Purpose Driven Life fame, put the Latino church growth best. “The greatest growth of all is coming in the Pentecostal or charismatic churches,” he said. “It is the untold story.”