BEAUMONT, Texas – As Hispanic populations across the United States, many of which are traditionally Catholic, continue to increase, so do opportunities for Southern Baptist churches to address the spiritual questions of current and former Catholics.
Hispanics made up 38.1 percent of the population of Texas in 2011, the U.S. Census reports. This reflects a nearly 10 percent increase since 2006, when Hispanics accounted for 35.7 percent of all Texans, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts’ office.
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) has 193 cooperating churches listing Spanish as their primary or secondary language. Many of their members are former Catholics. Churches in southeast Texas such as Beaumont’s Calvary Baptist also attract people from French Catholic traditions, much like their neighbors in Louisiana a few miles east.
How, then, can a Baptist church, with sensitivity and wisdom, integrate former Catholics who have converted to evangelical faith?
In Beaumont, Texas, Calvary Baptist Church offers a Catholic Connection class twice annually. About 200 people have taken the four-week class since it began five years ago.
“We use the class to help people from a Catholic background understand the differences between the Catholic faith and the Protestant religion and our church’s beliefs,” said Cliff Ozmun, Calvary’s minister of education.
“It is not a formal pathway for new members,” Ozmun said, “but almost every term we offer it, people do join the church and are baptized.”
The Catholic Connection class is not intentionally promoted in the wider Beaumont area. “It is aimed at the Calvary community,” Ozmun emphasized. When enough from Calvary express interest, the class is offered.
“The class is not an evangelism tool for us. It is comparative theology,” said Ozmun, who noted that the last time the Catholic Connection class was offered, four individuals from a local group of Catholic apologists attended for the purpose of, in their words, providing “the Catholic response.”
“By the fourth week, they commended us,” Ozmun said. “It was not because we aligned with Catholic doctrine but because we taught the contrast in such a respectful way. They felt we were accurately presenting Catholicism.”
One person from the Catholic group even later approached Ozmun in a restaurant to say how much he had enjoyed the class.
Bill Morgan, Calvary’s minister to median adults, wrote the Catholic Connection class curriculum. Jim Robichau, a lay leader and former Catholic, teaches the course.
“We focus on a handful of things,” said Ozmun, including the authority of the Bible, the completeness of the canon, concepts of baptism, the purpose of communion, the doctrines of heaven and hell and the nature and role of confession.
Since Catholics and Baptists differ at several key doctrinal points, Mike Gonzales, SBTC director of language ministries, recommends focusing on the nature of the salvation experience when discipling former Catholics.
“A new believer who comes out of a Catholic background needs to understand that salvation is a spiritual experience” and not the result of adherence to the sacraments, Gonzales said.
“Scripture makes it clear that Jesus is the only mediator to God,” Gonzales added, citing 1 Timothy 2:5, John 14:6, John 10:9-10, Acts 4:12 and Hebrews 4:14-16.
Gonzales recommends discipling former Catholics with either Henry T. Blackaby’s Experiencing God
or John MacArthur’s Fundamentals of the Faith
in addition to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 confessional statement which is heavily referenced with scripture. Still, he noted, discipling former Catholics is much like discipling any new believers, Gonzales said.
“Discipling former Catholics is a process, not a program,” said Bruno Molina, SBTC language evangelism associate. Molina, a former Catholic himself, helps lead Hillcrest en Español, a Spanish fellowship at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Cedar Hill, just south of Dallas.
Integrating those from a Catholic background into Baptist fellowships is “not a matter of going through so many lessons” or simply helping them find their spiritual gifts, Molina said. “It must entail encouraging them to stay in the Word so they understand that everything flows from the Word, not just tradition (about the Word).”
Potential pitfalls occur when the old faith traditions collide with the new. Tension can arise as those with a longtime Catholic identity relate to family members and friends.
“It’s important to encourage former Catholics not to exclude themselves from previous relationships,” said Molina, who recalled his own experience with his traditionally Catholic family after he had trusted Christ as Savior.
“When I came home from the Army and was going to explain the gospel to my dad, I was so excited. I didn’t realize at the time that when I thought they heard that God loved them and had a plan for their salvation, what they really heard was that I was rejecting their culture and the way they had raised me,” Molina explained.
Despite the tension, it is important for former Catholics to include Catholic family members in celebrations of faith, Molina said. For example, while asking Catholic family members to attend one’s adult baptism may be awkward, it should be encouraged.
“That is a great opportunity to testify and help the family understand and experience true Christian fellowship,” Molina said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jane Rogers writes for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, news journal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Churches that wish to contact Cliff Ozmun, minister of education at Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont, may do so via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)