In April 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story called simply “The Latino Reformation.” In it reporter Elisabeth Dias looked at what she called the remarkable growth of Latino evangelicals in the United States.

The timing of the story was perfect for Calvin College sociology professor Mark Mulder, who with Davidson sociology professor Gerardo Marti was applying for a significant grant from Lilly Endowment to study the very topic of Dias’ story: Latino Protestant congregations.

Mark Mulder, Professor of Sociology
Mark Mulder, Professor of Sociology

“We had a good proposal,” Mulder said, “and the topic of Latino evangelicals and their growing numbers is a really important one, but a cover story in a respected national magazine didn’t hurt.”

Last summer the pair learned that their proposal had been funded, and now Marti and Mulder are embarking on a three-year exploration of Latino Protestant congregations and their worship practices by way of ethnographic studies in 50 congregations across the U.S., an effort called the Latino Protestant Congregations Project.

They say that researchers across the country know distressingly little about Latino Protestant worship practices. Their upcoming project intends to change that via an ethnographic study that will feature such techniques as participant observation and semi-structured interviews.

Mulder and Marti believe that direct observation—what they call “ground-level observation”—and careful interviewing will challenge current assumptions and provide a roadmap for future study of one of the nation’s most dynamic and, they say, important religious sub-groups.

They point to a May 2014 story from the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project that released the results of a national survey on Latinos and religion under the headline “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States.”

Pew noted that while most Hispanics in the United States continue to be Catholic, “nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24%) are now former Catholics” with those former Catholics generally identifying as either religiously unaffiliated or Protestant. The survey also found that “among Hispanics who have left Catholicism and now identify as Protestants, more than a quarter (28%) are Pentecostal.”

The stories behind such stats are what Marti, Mulder and their team of 10 researchers want to examine further.

They plan to look at three strands of Protestantism (Evangelical, Pentecostal and Mainline) and within those categories will also look at such things as possible differences between first-generation immigrants as compared to longer-established populations, degrees of Catholic influence and resistance, and also worship liturgy, including styles of music and preaching.

On the project website they write: “Our research resists homogenizing ‘Latinos’ to be a singular ethnic or racial group but explicitly acknowledges that Hispanics in the United States are made of groups that are both recent and long-time residents with different countries of origin and different linguistic characteristics. In capturing the variety of Latino Protestantism, we wish to bring knowledge-driven attention to how important these churches are to the present and future of American religion.”

Thus each research fellow will focus on five local congregations in their geographic region (they range from California in the West to Texas in the Southwest to Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Midwest, to Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the East).

By the time the project is completed in 2017, Mulder expects that it will generate doctoral dissertations (some of the 10 fellows are PhD students), books, peer-reviewed journal articles, popular articles in religiously based periodicals and, perhaps, grist for the popular media mill, including journalists like Dias, who already has made one trip to Calvin’s campus to learn about the project.

For Mulder the project is a chance for him to expand his horizons as a researcher and sociologist. His primary research interest has been congregations and urban areas, but that work has often been, quite literally black and white.

“Quite a bit on African American congregations, quite a bit on white congregations,” he said, “but not much beyond that. Applying for the Lilly grant showed me a blind spot in my research, and I am glad to be addressing that.”