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Preaching Vertically and Horizontally: An Interview with Samuel Rodriquez

How to preach about salvation and justice at the same time
Preaching Vertically and Horizontally: An Interview with Samuel Rodriquez
Image: KevinCarden / Lightstock

Dr. Samuel Rodriguez is senior pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center, a multiethnic congregation in Sacramento, California, and president of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents over 40,000 member churches in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. PreachingToday.com's managing editor Matt Woodley caught up with Sam to talk preaching, the challenges of "The Lamb's Agenda," and the vital role of the Latino church in American Christianity.

You preached a message called "The Lamb's Agenda" on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That's also the title of your new book. Tell us about your big idea.

When we look at the cross, Christianity's central, universal symbol, it reminds us that we humans are both vertical and horizontal beings. As followers of Christ, the cross impacts us both vertically and horizontally. Vertically, it speaks to the fact that we stand connected to God and to divine truth—his kingdom, his glory. Horizontally, we also stand connected to family, culture, and society. Our community. Our lives are lived both vertically and horizontally, and the cross reflects that.

That's what the Lamb's Agenda is all about. It's about reconciling the vertical and the horizontal in our faith. It's about wedding sanctification with service, holiness with humility, orthodoxy with orthopraxy, righteousness with justice. To set it in an American context, it's about reconciling Billy Graham's message with Dr. King's march.

There is nothing more transformative, more catalytic than a prophetic voice issuing a clarion call of righteousness and justice.

In the twentieth century, American evangelicalism was divided between two different segments. Stereotypically, followers of Billy Graham were on one end of the spectrum and the followers of Dr. King were at the other. There were emphasizing spiritual evangelism as their primary message, and then there were those who were committed to transforming their communities. But this separation isn't natural. It doesn't have to be either or. Why can't we embrace both the vertical and the horizontal?

So my mission in life is simple. God's calling upon my life is to reconcile Billy Graham's message with Dr. King's march. It is to reconcile the vertical with the horizontal, righteousness with justice. And the nexus of that where those realities intersect is what I call the Lamb's Agenda. Why the Lamb's Agenda? Because nations stand polarized by politics, and I do believe the only agenda that can save America is not the donkeys or the elephants; it's only the agenda of the Lamb.

How does that agenda influence your preaching?

Every good sermon engages three different elements in the listener—the head, the heart, and the hands. Preachers need to speak to each of these, to communicate information, inspiration, and also practical impartation. When this happens, the vertical and the horizontal elements are naturally in alignment. The truth comes through, and so does the impact for your community. We are prompted to respond in worship on Sunday, but also stretch out our hands in compassion Monday through Saturday. We learn to live the gospel, to live out Matthew 25, the Good Samaritan parable. We learn to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, doing true religion every single day. It's incarnational. It's missional. It broadens the optics of our faith to make sure we don't suffer from any sort of spiritual or cultural myopia. It redeems the Christian narrative, making it completely holistic without sacrificing biblical truth on the altar of political expediency. All of our messages must be both vertical and horizontal. It should prompt us to get closer to God, but it should also prompt us to do something for your fellow man in the name of Jesus. I try to preach this every time I get up to speak.

Do you expect the same thing from guest preachers in your church?

Absolutely. When a guest comes in to speak we have an outline of certain things that the speaker needs to agree on. One of them is, of course, that their message adheres to biblical orthodoxy. But it also makes sure that they bring a message that goes both vertical and horizontal. Every single speaker understands that. Then we have a third dynamic, which is the fact that we're a multiethnic congregation. So we celebrate the diverse culture of the kingdom of God. And that to us is critical. We celebrate. We appreciate our diversity, and we celebrate that. But to us it's more about what we have in common than what keeps us apart. We want them to emphasize our commonalities, the things that unite Christians in our church.

Many white churches in America have very little awareness of the Latino churches around them. Can you educate us a bit?

Horizontally, Latinos are the fastest growing demographic and constituency in the major denominations in America. Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, Evangelical Free, etc. These denominations can all attest to the fact that the Latino community and the immigrant Latino church is the fastest growing segment within their denomination. As a matter of fact, if not for the Latino growth many of these denominations right now would be stagnating in terms of growth.

So the Hispanic church serves as the antidote to a declining white American church. Let me explain. Every single survey from Barna to Pew shows a disconnect with a large generation of Nones." White evangelical young people who no longer self-identify as evangelicals are straying from the church. The white American evangelical church is suffering. And if not for the Latino church revitalizing the collective American evangelical experience, the 21st century would have stood poised to have experienced the same sort of outcome that Europe is currently experiencing as it pertains to Christianity. Horizontally speaking, the Hispanic church may very well save American evangelicalism in the 21st century.

Vertically, we're a vibrant community more and more committed to biblical truth, more and more committed to preaching Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but, likewise, living out the gospel Monday through Saturday. So we are a "Lamb's Agenda" community. We're seeing great renewal. We're seeing great awakenings in different metropolitan areas, because of this wonderful growth in the Latino church.

And it's impacting culture broadly. Latino churches are no longer satisfied with ministries to Latinos. Now you have Hispanic pastors saying "we're not going to limit ourselves. We're not going to suffer from spiritual or cultural myopia. We're going to start an English speaking service." As a matter of fact, there are many pastors now, second generation, third generation, that are pastoring English multiethnic churches (like yours truly!) and without a Spanish congregation. This is a new reality in America, but it has undoubtedly fallen upon the Hispanic church to lead the way in contextualizing American Christianity in the twenty-first century.

What challenges face Latino churches right now?

Three main ones. First, the current challenge of immigration. A significant portion of our congregations consist of undocumented individuals. So when people say "let's deport them," well, you may very well be deporting the future of American Christianity. The church has to be careful what she asks for here. And by the way, it's not just one percent. In churches west of the Mississippi you're looking at anywhere between 25 to 35 or even 40 percent of Hispanic churches. That's significant. Half the church being deported. And if you go closer to the border that increases exponentially. So immigration is one of those obstacles.

The second challenge is education. There is an educational disparity that needs to be addressed both internally within the Hispanic community and externally with other Christians. We need to provide educational means—English acquisition courses, services in the context of the local church, etc.—to make sure that our young people are graduating from high school and pursuing higher education. I personally want to see a higher education Christian movement, meaning I want to see millions of Hispanic young people attending Christian colleges and universities. That's just part of my personal dream. I want our young people to be equipped with a Christian worldview in order to usher in what I anticipate will be the Third Awakening.

And the third challenge that we have is theological contextualization. Is there such an animal as a Hispanic Christian theological narrative? What does that look like? We need to think, to write, and to frame the optics of Hispanic evangelicalism in the 21st century. Because we are different. Of course there is orthodoxy and the Nicene Creed that we all adhere to, but there are some practical "white skin" differences that need to be framed and contextualized, discussed and presented by great scholars. We have great scholars already, but we need to frame Hispanic evangelical theology that is unique to our own experience.

Stereotypically, how does Latino preaching differ from Anglo preaching?

The vast majority of Hispanic preachers stem out of a Pentecostal charismatic background. Not just in the Protestant world, but 52 percent of Hispanic Catholics are also charismatic. So across the board, the Hispanic Christian community, including both Catholics and Protestants, is charismatic.

The terms I'd use to describe the difference in Latino and Anglo preaching is "logos" versus "rhema." There is a strong commitment towards the word without a doubt. It's a commitment to exegesis, biblical exposition. But, to frame it in a literary context, we are Cervantes' children, the children of Don Quixote. We are not Geoffrey Chaucer's children or Shakespeare's. Now what does this mean for those that have not read Cervantes? It means that we're passionate, allegorical, and very metaphorical. And because of this passionate, poetic bent, we embrace strong poetic cultural license (without surrendering biblical truth) in our services.

We emulate the Jesus model of sharing parables. We set parable context in a 21st century setting within the Hispanic community. Additionally, we bring allegory into our preaching. For example, in the story of the triumphal entry, Jesus sends his disciples for a colt. He says "You must go and untie it." When my Anglo brothers and sisters read this, they'll read it from a historical perspective. "There was a colt. Jesus told them to untie it." In the Latino community we would agree with that but then we would also ask, "What is God telling us right now about the colt? I think here's what God is telling us. That God provides a way to transport us into the next chapter of our lives. But it's not up to him to untie it. We must untie it." This story teaches us that the idea that God does everything for us is a theological misnomer. We have to meet him halfway sometimes.

The difference focuses on the daily application of the text. We call that rhematic preaching. And rhema means the revealed word and not just the logos word. OF course we have to be careful to make sure that there is a biblical orthodoxy applied to rhematic preaching. In other words, you can't deviate from the meaning or from the perceived meaning of the Scripture. Of course we're not the only ones that preach this way. African-Americans have engaged for such a very long time in rhematic preaching. But we do it with salsa sauce on top.

It sounds like exegesis and application are inseparable for you.

Exactly. That is correct. It is exegetical extrapolation for immediate application rather than application later on at the conclusion of your sermon. It's like the poles that carried the Ark of the Covenant. They were wood poles with a gold covering. The two elements served a single function. They were together. That's the way that Hispanics preach, you know. We carry the entire message on a pole that is both wood and gold. This helps us preach both vertically and horizontally, going back to the initial point of our conversation. Even our sermons are both vertical and horizontal, and it's hard to distinguish between the two directions sometimes

What encouragement would you give preachers?

There is nothing more transformative, more catalytic than a prophetic voice issuing a clarion call of righteousness and justice. There is nothing more powerful in America than the power brought forth via the conduit of an anointed preacher, committed to biblical truth, committed to holiness, humility, and committed to making those that follow us greater than ourselves.

Samuel Rodriguez is the president of The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the senior pastor of New Season Church in Sacramento, CA.

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