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The Language of Heaven: How to build a bilingual church

Hispanic Americans account for half the US population growth in the past two decades, and nowhere is that trend more pronounced than South Florida—arguably the heartland of Latino culture in the US.

With this in mind, churches often embrace one of two strategies to engage Spanish-speakers in their communities. One is to have an interpreter translate English-language services or hire a Spanish-speaking staff pastor. Another is to invite a Spanish-language church to meet in their facility, effectively sharing resources but rarely intermingling the two congregations.

Virgil Sierra, pastor of Vertical Church in Sunrise, Florida, had a different idea. His dream was to build a uniquely bilingual church—one congregation, two languages, with equal attention paid to speakers of each language. The concept of a bilingual church may sound simple, but the execution is where it can get messy.

Virgil’s parents moved from Cartagena, Colombia, to South Florida, and he was born a year later. They came to Christ when he was two and a half years old. With a passion for learning and teaching the Scriptures, Virgilio Sierra, Sr., led Bible studies in the family’s home for eight years. In April of 1994, they founded Iglesia Cristiana Buenas Noticias de Fe (Good News of Faith Christian Church), a primarily Spanish-speaking congregation.

Virgil grew up a self-described “chair-stacking PK,” eventually became a youth leader and then worship pastor. Along the way, he started a Spanish Christian band called “Contagious” that toured South and Central America and the States. Virgil also earned a master’s degree in occupational therapy, started a family and became the executive pastor of the church his father led.

As his father began considering retirement, he had conversations with Virgil about the possibility of taking leadership of the church.

“I was feeling a tug,” Virgil recalls, “and my dad was delegating more to me. Little by little I was gaining the church’s trust, and we began having conversations about next steps.”

The elder Virgilio passed the baton to his son in 2015, and “Pastor Virg,” as he is known, began looking closely at the unique needs of the church and community. He observed what he saw as a generational gap between himself and the congregation.

At the root of the issue, Virgil and his wife Gislaine sensed that the Spanish-language services were not meeting the needs of families—many of which were composed of second-generation Latinos who were accustomed to speaking English at school, in their jobs and with their friends.

This dynamic led young people to leave the church in search of English-speaking congregations. Virgil also recognized that some of the same families included members who only spoke Spanish. Clearly, allowing the church to become monolingual—either Spanish or English—would mean overlooking the needs of a large part of the congregation.

The solution he landed on was to relaunch Buenas Noticias de Fe as a truly bilingual church, renamed Vertical (a word which is spelled the same in Spanish and English). Virgil was not alone in the process. He enlisted the help of ARC (Association of Related Churches), an organization that provides support and guidance to church planters in the US and around the world.

Early on, Virgil began casting a vision for new systems and a new organizational structure built around four simple words: “one church; two languages.”

“We were getting clarity of vision,” Virgil says, “but the organization we inherited didn’t have a lot of structure.

This began a journey of intentionally shaping every aspect of Vertical Church/Iglesia Vertical to meet the needs of Spanish-only speakers, English-only speakers and bilingual congregants. No one is second class, and no effort is spared to create a meaningful experience for attendees.

“Yes, there are English churches with a Spanish ministry and vice versa,” Virgil notes. “We’re a place where there’s both.”

From a practical standpoint, this innovative approach requires doubling nearly everything—from services (three in Spanish, two in English) to programming (think worship slides, marketing, small group curriculum, etc.).

“Everything we do, we do in both English and Spanish,” he says. “Same exact experience, worship, preaching, announcements. Same vision.”

Duplicate programming requires attention to detail and sensitivity to guard against bias toward either English or Spanish. From the choice of worship music to the titles of sermon series, each aspect is crafted so it works well in either language.

When asked if the level of planning required for bilingual ministry hinders Holy Spirit spontaneity, Virgil notes that, when the planning is done well, it actually leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work.

“Yes, there’s a high level of intentionality and planning,” he admits. “But we are responsive to the Holy Spirit. God is a God of order, but the Spirit will move us into areas that are unexpected.”

At the heart of Virgil and Gislaine’s vision is a desire to have a multigenerational church.

“Often kids grow up and don’t identify with the Spanish church they grew up in,” Virgil notes. “So we have a multigenerational church that keeps families together.”

Vertical has 85 life groups. Half are Spanish, and half are English. Since many in the church are bilingual, some go to Spanish service and then an English life group and vice versa. Students and kids ministry are predominantly in English, as most young people are bilingual.

Virgil references Jim Collins’ business classic, Good to Great, in which the author identifies the markers of great companies. Collins’ research points to a common thread he calls the “hedgehog concept,” which is based upon an ancient Greek parable that says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 

Vertical’s “one big thing”? Doing church in two languages.

“It’s not easy, Virgil admits, “but it’s possible.”

Beyond the complexities of bilingual worship, preaching and programming, the biggest challenge—and the one to which Virgil devotes nearly all his energies to these days—is building a great team of leaders to support the vision.

“My wife and I realized that we needed people who could catch the DNA and culture,” he says. “Our focus is to build an all-star bilingual team.”

Although Vertical has many people who are monolingual (either Spanish or English speaking), the key leaders needed to be able to lead and build teams in both languages. At first, Virgil notes, he didn’t think it was possible to find the people that would fit the requirements.

“We had convinced ourselves that we were alone,” he recalls, “but the Holy Spirit said, ‘They’re there. You just need to discover them.’ Then God started pointing people out to us.”

They began with volunteers who fit the requirements, but since then, God has sent more and more people who catch the vision. Part-time volunteers became full-time employees, and the church staff has doubled.

In addition to developing and deploying a team of bilingual leaders, Virgil is the main communicator for the church, keeps an eye on financial strategy and casts a vision for replicating Vertical’s model of ministry elsewhere, such as at its daughter church in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Ultimately, Virgil’s vision is to grow the “best bilingual church in the world.” He explains that his goal is not to build a name for the church but to be a point of reference for other churches, as the ministry context in the US—and around the world—becomes increasingly multi-cultural and multi-lingual.

Another misconception of a bilingual church like Vertical is that it is also bicultural. Virgil notes that, while many in the church may share the same language, the church reflects the diverse cultures of South Florida, which include Spanish speakers from South America, Central America and the Caribbean. 

There are cultural idiosyncrasies to each one, but their common values are what bring them together.

“It’s a beautiful representation of what heaven is like.” Virgil says. “People come to our church and say, ‘This is what we were praying for, but didn’t know it existed.’”

Vertical may be one of the first churches of its kind, but, if Virgil has his way, it won’t be the last.

 

This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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