A new opportunity for church growth: will we miss it?

There’s more proof out this week that North American culture continues to shift, transforming both church and society. Specifically, several recent studies reveal how multiculturalism is shaping Christian community, and also being ignored by it.

Take Britain for example. Christianity has been in decline there for decades, as is evidenced in dwindling church attendance. The phenomena is well documented and often interpreted as a foreshadow of America’s own future. Indeed, a Pew study from 2012 reveals that, for the first time in our country’s history, Protestantism is no longer the majority faith tradition and, conversely, there has been a steady rise in the “unaffiliated” (those who don’t identify with any organized religion).

Back to Britain. Though there have been catastrophic losses for the Church of England, the trend seems to be reversing, but not in a way that anyone could have predicted. A survey of London has revealed a significant increase in church participation between 2005, when average weekly attendance was 620,000, and 2013, when it had risen to 720,000. That is an astounding growth of 17 percent!

What could be happening here? Are the church growth strategies inherited from the ‘80s finally paying off? Have Anglicans been working overtime to attract more parishioners? Have evangelicals been creatively proselytizing?

The recent increase doesn’t seem to be the result of any innovative growth strategy. In fact, data shows that the “Fresh Expressions” campaign, initiated a decade ago to revitalize the Church of England (and now popular in the U.S.), hasn’t curbed the decline in attendance. It appears that pouring resources into new forms of evangelism and progressive church plants hasn’t been any more effective than traditional church structures. There are actually fewer self-described Christians in London now than ever before.

No, the rise of church attendance in London isn’t due to a strategic initiative carefully crafted by the established church, but rather, it has come through a surprising means – immigration. As London has grown into a global city, it has also become the home to Christians from all over the world, including Filipino Catholics, Brazilian Pentecostals, Caribbean evangelicals, African charismatics and more. With 40 percent of the city’s population born outside of Britain, Sunday morning worship can be found in many different languages, representing a host of ethnic groups.

The conclusion is startling – church attendance in London is on the uprise because Christians from all over the globe are settling there and establishing strong, committed worship gatherings.

And don’t forget: what happens in Britain is a sign of our own future in America.

But are American churchgoers ready for the influx of other global Christians and their unique forms of worship?

The American Values Atlas (AVA) released new data this week revealing the attitudes of Christians in the U.S. by affiliation. The study asked 50,000 Americans about their perception of immigration. Overall, 55 percent of respondents said that immigrants “strengthen” the country, and 36 percent reported that they create a “burden,” signaling that a majority of Americans view immigration positively. But a big revelation came when the AVA disaggregated the data by religious affiliation. Though the vast majority of Americans see the issue favorably, there was one religious group shown to think negatively of immigration. Only one.

White evangelicals reported the exact opposite of the national average, with 56 percent responding that immigrants are a “burden” and 36 percent indicating “strengthen.” Every other religious affiliation was more favorable than not toward immigrants.

Additionally, one other finding of the AVA is relevant here. In line with national trends, evangelicalism is becoming less white. While 66 percent of all evangelicals are non-Hispanic whites, only 52 percent of those under 30 are. In just a few years, there will not be any majority ethnic religious group in the U.S.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Darren Duerksen, teaches in intercultural studies at Fresno Pacific University and agrees with the recent findings:

It’s an amazing reality that has also come to the U.S. A friend of mine in New Jersey says that churches in his area would completely be on the decline except for immigrant congregations. And churches like the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God in North America don’t want to remain an “immigrant church.” They have a strong vision for reaching out to the communities around them and becoming multiethnic churches. Many incredible lessons here…

There are, indeed, many lessons to be learned from the globalization of Christianity in the West. I can think of several.

  1. North America continues on a trend toward multiculturalism and the U.S. will look less and less white in the coming years.
  2. Generally a favorable issue, a majority of Americans think immigrants will help strengthen our society.
  3. The only religiously-affiliated group that looks at immigration negatively is white evangelicals, who are driven politically and theologically to oppose reform, even though they only make up 18 percent of the total population.
  4. Growth in church attendance and commitment will likely not come through existing institutional structures or strategic plans, but by the influx of foreign believers who have very different theology and worship practices than American Christians.

One final note of caution seems appropriate. In all of our efforts to counter declining church attendance, it’s possible that we will unknowingly miss the work that God wants to do in us through the arrival of immigrant churches. American Christians have long prayed for revitalization. Nearly every denomination is investing huge amounts of money and resources to plant churches. Amazingly, the very thing we’ve been praying for may now be on our doorstep.

I pray, as a white evangelical, that we won’t miss the movement of God – or worse yet, stand in opposition to it. No doubt, we will be uncomfortable with new colors, smells, traditions and foods, but a fresh movement of Spirit always comes with disruption.

Get ready to be disrupted.

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