Gospel & Culture blog
Dr. Tolle: Well I was studying the stories of people that have left first generation Hispanic churches and mainly these are 1.5 and second-generation young people - and seeing what their stories were that described their experiences as they ended up leaving those churches. And so I actually talked to a group of 1.5 and second-generation Hispanic young adults. And I also talked to another group of first generation Hispanic pastors. And I got all of their stories and was comparing them together.
Ken: leaving a church sounds like a negative thing like a church split. Is that what's going on? Were people disenchanted and you know leaving their Hispanic churches in droves or what?
Dr. Tolle: Sure, well we hear about church splits I hear all the time in the Christian world, but in this case know that the these weren't you know what we would typically consider maybe a higher level leader that you know hived off people to start another church. These were young people in their teenage years or just after their teenage years that, because of things that they had
Experienced, decided to separate or leave those churches.
Ken: And so what are they experiencing? What kind of what emerged as themes of why they're finding new churches?
Dr. Tolle: So the principal themes - we ended up seeing kind of three principal themes emerge from this study. The one was kind of actually a positive. One of them remaining as long as they did. And then the other two that were definitely more along the lines of why or they ended up going. So the one that had to do with them remaining was what I called
“involvement” - that they were heavily involved in those churches engaged
participating not just in attending activities. But in most cases actually
having roles and functions in the church. In some cases leadership in the church, and that was a very positive thing. But the negatives that kind of left to them going one of them had to do with authority. And in the context of authority, there were kind of two if we want to call them some “themes” that emerged in there. One was legalism and just heavy implementation of rules and requirements in the church environment. And then the second thing in authority was authoritarianism where the pastors were using kind of control or manipulation: things like shame and guilt in order to accomplish what the pastor wanted, but ended up impacting negatively those young people.
The other theme that contributed to them leaving was the theme of relationships. In many cases these young people even in smaller churches had no relationship with their senior pastor or a very minimal relationship with them. So and if they did have contact with the pastor it was typically very negative in nature
Ken: Yeah the legalism was interesting to me. D you have an example of what this legalism looks like? And someone who described legalism? Did they go to another church where it wasn't as legalistic? Or how did they experience
Dr Tolle: So of the participants in the study, they actually ended up in a variety of different church environments. They left and that was the good news that they actually ended up in church somewhere. But one of them went to a completely Anglo English-speaking church after five years of kind of looking around and figuring out where he and his wife wanted to go. And in that case that there wasn't much legalism in that new church. He talked about the heavy connection and relationship community that he was
grateful to find there in that church. Some others went to some Hispanic churches. But those Hispanic churches that they ended up at were a lot more. I'll use the word “free” - or open. A lot less rules. A lot more love as they would describe it. One of them though did end up returning later on not to the same church but a similar legalistic kind of authoritarian type of church. And their goal was actually in returning to a church like that to see if they could maybe have an impact and influence inside of that church
Ken: So what did the legalism look like was it don't drink don't smoke don't wear short shorts or what?
Dr Tolle: oh yes sure well I believe I you know I think the question in some cases depends on what we define as legalism right and so we might think you know don't drink don't smoke you know well there's a whole lot of churches and a lot of cultures and societies that that might you know carry that the these ones for them really want more along the lines of the way that they had to so to speak behave in church whether they were allowed to ask questions or not in church dress was a part of it for some of them especially one of the females in the study where they had to be in in you know long dresses and they were never allowed to wear pants and if they you know were to wear something else then they were you know in in rebellion against the Church of the leadership the rules that were established there so those were some of the elements that were found and then there was also some authoritarianism they were
Ken: What did your Hispanic young people that left these churches did they leave because they felt like authoritarianism was not their thing and they wanted to go to church with it was more egalitarian or?
Dr Tolle: you know I I don't think at their age when they left they would have analyzed things quite explicitly like what we're doing but in in in their terms they just had negative experiences and that authoritarianism was very negative for them you know. I I remember one situation where one young man had become a youth pastor of a church and his explicit given reason for leaving that church was when the senior pastor was leading some type of service one night or something and did you know what we call an altar call where
he invited people to come forward and respond to the message, and this youth pastor had invested years in a particular young lady who when he first came in his youth pastor was very closed to his leadership closed of listening to anything but over those years had really started opening up and responding and in this particular night she did not walk forward with the rest of whoever went to the front of the church with that altar call and the senior pastor literally in front of everybody called her out
Dr Tolle: And shamed her in front of everybody for not responding and and she was just a mess afterwards and for this young man to youth pastor he said that was you know like my words the straw that broke the camel's back to just that last thing that he was like I I can't do this and really
Ken: so you talked to the pastors as well?
Dr Tolle: Five pastors correct.
Ken: And what what's their impression there do they kind of get a sense of what you were feeling from these disenchanted youth where they basically say oh no they're all wrong there even though they don't know what they're talking about or or did they have a sense that there was a problem and that they were trying to address?
Dr Tolle: That's interesting so in in my interviews with them I of course addressed what the study is about. But I did not address anything of what the young people said
Ken: You didn't tell them, "By the way all young people think you guys are legalistic authoritarian.
Dr Tolle: No not at all. Okay and because I really wanted to hear their stories as well and how they had come to their own decisions and conclusions and so I of course asked the question why do you believe that that young people you know might but might leave churches. But it was very much in the context of their own stories and their own experiences so what I was actually very surprised about was how many of these passes pretty much all of them - I will say at whether on a small scale or large scale - all of them expressed their concern over the issue and all of them expressed many things that they believed contributed to why a young person might end up leaving a church with the first generation pastor. And so these were things they were already thinking about which was
actually quite impressive to me.
Ken: Yeah you didn't catch them off guard
Dr Tolle: No. And I thought I would but I did.
Ken: And so what did they think was going on?
Dr Tolle: You know interestingly they actually said a lot of the same things that the young people were saying and then added in some extra so they definitely dealt or communicated heavily about the use of authority legalism authoritarianism and also talked about the need to form relationships with the young people to invest in them on a personal level to let them know that they care about them. And it's not just about what the young people have to do or accomplish or be like but that have genuine relationships with them so they definitely address those similar topics that the young people have been addressing they had just a few more things like the use of technology and being more up-to-date on technology. they talked about language as well than the need to figure out how to incorporate more English into their church environment so those were a couple others that they addressed so you arrived did some recommendations what
Ken: What is your recommendation for churches with first gen Hispanic pastors? Or maybe even first gen Korean first gen Vietnamese?
Dr Tolle: For sure and you know, whatever other immigrant community in in Los Angeles what do they need to do to hold on to their young people absolutely well we obviously know that there's enough study out there about culture and society isn't and know that in the United States we're a bit more egalitarian and a bit more kind of even playing field so to speak with people whereas others are a lot more hierarchical so one of the recommendations really is that in combining the concept of authority and relationship that these pastors really do dive into relationship with young people in their church and maybe they're not going to be able to know everybody that's not necessary but if they maintain those connections open line of communication then they're going to have the respect and honor that those young people would want or can give to them you know a lot of times you know older people and I think this goes without saying have an expectation that young people would respect and honor them and that makes sense to a certain extent but in a more egalitarian society the people that are older a lot of times have to win that's rust and so they need to invest in that relationship and on the authority side to really consider whether their rules you know in a legalistic context actually contribute to the growth of people or just things from their own past experiences that they've continued but might be detrimental to the growth of the person and church context okay so address the legalism and the authoritarianism and maintain relationships absolutely
Ken: That's interesting. Win the respect rather than just demanding it or expecting it.
Dr Tolle: Correct yeah okay so you know if any churches that are doing this well that are holding on to their young people I mean or yeah what's a success story oh that's a that's a fantastic question you know I'll actually give a success story that may not be extremely explicit of my study but from one of the pastors that was actually in my study and he decided to implement some changes in his church to change it more from a more I'll just used the word traditional but I'm not talking about style so much but the authority and the relationship and those elements and to really try to make it something that young people would would enjoy being a part of him and he talked about how he believed that the transition was correct he just didn't do the transition very well and so he ended up losing a lot of people from his church he didn't do it very good for the young people he didn't do it very good for the adults so they left and so he ended up with a smaller group but in the last few years and as I've continued to talk to him after I finished you know the study and or the interview with him the church has continued to grow he is now actually posturing two separate congregations and with this change in style he's seen young people stepping up in his church more than ever before and these are both spanish-speaking churches so they haven't changed the language of the churches very interesting but by changing those other components young people are thriving inside of his churches I think that's very significant it's not it's not just switching to English it's not like having an English ministry solves it you can have an English ministry and still have a non-relational authoritarian legalistic church absolutely and this just having a drum set for instance if you may you may have a great first gen Hispanic church with a great contemporary worship then absolutely none and you might but those things in themselves don't seem to be the primary factors in this staying power of young people in those churches.
Ken: Well this very interesting. I suppose it's relevant to the first gen second gen experience across the US, and in other communities and not just to Latino churches absolutely and my hope is that this definitely can be used by churches of other cultures other ethnicities as well as they kind of analyze their own cultural context and see if you know some of these recommendations would be helpful to their environments.
Well thank you Dr. Tolle absolutely giving us insight into this phenomenon.
Dr Tolle: My pleasure .
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor