“The new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity” (Warner, “Immigrants and the Faith They Bring“, 2004).
That’s a quote from an article written a little over 10 years ago. At the time, Stephen Warner, a sociologist, was making a fairly startling claim. Americans were starting to get the sense that immigration was changing things. After all, by that time, immigration had increased so much it eclipsed the first great wave of immigration to the United States that occurred back in the early 1900s. Many were pointing to the rise in pluralism in America. Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism were making their way to America, and fears began to crop up in Christian circles that these immigrants would wash over the country and the church would be replaced.
The face of American Christianity is changing.
Today, a decade after Warner’s statement, it is even more correct than it was then. Far from the fears that America would be “de-Christianized” by immigrants, the result of immigration has been changing the face of Christianity itself. Christianity is more vibrant than ever in many corners of the United States, but it just doesn’t look like the Christianity to which so many of us are accustomed. While white, Western, majority culture Christianity plateaus, immigration brings a swell of Christians from the developing world (where Christianity is experiencing massive gains) and establishes new Christian communities in our cities. Fact is, the majority of immigrants to the United States come as Christians.
In his book, The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah claims, “As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the twenty-first century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways.” In order to prove his point, Rah points to New England. Most evangelicals interested in North American church planting consider New England an area of significant decline and an especially hard place to plant. Boston has chewed up many potential church plants. And yet, Rah points out that the evangelical church is actually growing rapidly in Boston, it is just not majority culture church growth. In the last 30 years, he claims, the number of churches has doubled and over half of them currently speak a language other than English.
Despite the fact that traditional evangelical denominations and networks are renewing focus on planting in the U.S. and Canada, these efforts are still dwarfed by the immigrant populations coming here. Perhaps we have something to learn from our immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ.
And if it bothers you that American Christianity is changing colors, you may need to ask yourself why. For the confessional Christian who believes the greatest end of the global church is representation from every tribe, tongue, and nation, why would it bother us if the collection of local churches in our city began to represent that more accurately? Warner is right. American Christianity is quickly changing faces. The gospel may be spreading faster in your city in Spanish or Chinese right now than in English.
But pluralism is on the rise.
While the majority coming are Christian, they are not the only ones. Warner is correct concerning the shift inside of the church here in North America, but his statement too easily reduces the increase in pluralism. America may not be getting less Christian with the rapid growth of immigrant evangelicalism, but Christianity is not the only religion growing through immigration.
Last year, Pew Research noted that the United States admitted a record number of Muslim refugees. Concerning all immigrants (not just refugees), the majority now come from Asia. This includes surges in immigration from places like India, where many will come from a non-Christian background. In the years since Warner penned his statement, things have indeed shifted some.
My purpose is pointing out this increase is not to incite fear. Far from it. Instead, I pray that the churches in North America will see the hand of the Lord at work in the global movements of people. That those churches, whether traditional Western churches or budding immigrant churches, will take up the task of gospel proclamation to these new, unreached neighbors.
Majority culture Christians, we need to celebrate what God is doing in our new, vibrant immigration churches. We need to notice what God is doing by bringing millions of the least-reached within arms reach. Then, we need to work together to make disciples of every tribe, tongue, and nation for the glory of our King Jesus.