Book Review: When Faith Catches Fire


When Faith bookThis book makes the case that the US church has a great deal to learn from Latin-American immigrant congregations. No argument there. It points out the passion and enthusiasm of Hispanic Christians, notes their frequent transition from traditional Catholic roots to the authors’ Pentecostal traditions, and asserts that the Latino church offers a uniquely well-integrated representation of Christianity’s dual movement: upward (toward God) and outward (in service to people).

The co-authors are Assemblies of God pastor Dr. Robert Crosby, founder of Teaming Life ministries, and Samuel Rodriguez, a Pentecostal preacher born in America to Puerto Rican parents. Rodriguez founded and serves as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), formed in 2001 by unification of several Hispanic church networks. NHCLC currently self-identifies as the largest network of Latin American churches (with evangelical theology) in the US.

The authors tend to place white and black US churches at poles, with new immigrants offering a better, middle way:

In too many cases, the white church just wanted to give people “hope” and the black church just wanted to give them “help.” Today, Latinos are instead underlining the need to do both … (pg. 91)

As a reader (Anglo), I find myself frequently pained by the authors’ apparent inability to see that US Anglo churches could have been learning these same lessons for decades from the African-American church. I found it particularly painful when the authors suggested that the “brown” Latino church could function as a “bridge builder” between white and black in America (with the caveat that the black church owes an apology to Hispanic immigrants … page 194).

What I hear (again, as an Anglo reader) is that many American Anglos find it difficult – for reasons both cultural and historic – to learn from black Americans. So, having come to a place where Anglo church leaders acknowledge the weaknesses in their own movements, they will not look to the black church for lessons. They will look elsewhere.

I do not have the right to speak on behalf of African-American Christians. Therefore, only as an outside observer, I will say that this book feels like it encourages spiritual disrespect of long-time Americans. In my view, this spiritual disrespect parallels the professional disrespect we have frequently observed in the US as next-wave immigrants threaten to displace longer residents in the job market.

The response to professional challenges has been disrespect in the form of nativism, closing the ranks, and, at one time, employment notices that rejected outright applicants from particular countries. I fear that this elevation of an immigrant church over a long-standing church network with similar spiritual characteristics will function similarly as a disrespectful challenge that only serves to harden dividing lines.

[An aside that I hope helps to make my point: I recall a mischievous moment in a talk by psychologist Kenneth Pargament (Anglo), now emeritus at Bowling Green. After reviewing data about the differential impact of worship services on various populations (attending church causes greater positive change in the mental health of African-Americans than of Anglos, it turns out), he impishly suggested that maybe the difference happens because there’s “more God” at an African-American service. And then, he as he started to outline the differences he had observed in black and white worship experiences … you had to wonder if he was really kidding.]

While the authors acknowledge the impact on Latino Christians of having an Argentine pope, they don’t acknowledge the valuable foundation that a catechism upbringing may have provided these first-generation Catholic-to-Pentecostal Christians. They even use a linguistic bridge to these new Christians’ faith heritage by coining the term “Passio Dei” to describe an enthusiastic passion for God. Catholic Christians are, of course, familiar with the Latinate phrase “Passio Christi,” which describes the sufferings Jesus endured during the week leading up to the crucifixion.

For those inexperienced in cross-cultural communications, Chapter 9 offers a valuable introduction to one tool for bridging into “honor-shame” cultures (such as those from Latin America, most of the world and even much of the US outside the Anglo middle class) . Katie Rawson’s Crossing Cultures with Jesus provides more detail and extensive examples.

Based on the study questions, I would suggest that this book is best for church leaders, not laypeople.

Have some people underestimated the impact of Latino Evangelicals? What is the danger of relegating Latino Evangelicals to a ‘voting bloc’?” pg. 151

The perspective is almost entirely Pentecostal, and offers limited vantages from outside the Anglo and Hispanic communities. There’s only so much that can be done in 224 pages … still, I find myself wishing for more.

I received a free, prepublication copy of “When Faith Catches Fire” from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

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About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com, churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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