Big Changes in American Culture Are Coming

One of the popular books in my seminary days was The Secular City, in which Harvey Cox tried to work out a theology for the “post-religious” age that many sociologists had confidently assured was coming.  Since then, he says some religions seem to have gained a new lease on life.  Today it is secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction.  He eats this crow in his Fire From Heaven:  The Rise of Pentecostalism and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century.

Cox’s revision is complemented by Philip Jenkins recent The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  Jenkins offers a big picture view of the future of Christianity worldwide as well as in America. He is a Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Jenkins works mostly with demographic projections.  He found that in 1900, Europe, North America, and former lands of the Soviet Union accounted for 32% of the world’s population. By 2050 the population in those areas will be down to 10-12%.  In the next 50 years, “We will see a spectacular upsurge in Southern populations and a decisive shift of populations to the Southern continents.”

“As the nation [America] grows, its ethnic character will also become less European and less White, with all that implies for religious and cultural patterns.  American society is already moving from a Black and White affair to a multicolored reality.”

In Texas, “While the proportion of foreign-born was less than 3 percent in 1960, today it is 25 percent. In the 19th century, Anglos overwhelmed the whole continent, leaving the older Hispanic culture as shrinking islands of language and faith within the U.S. border.  Those islands now look more like bridgeheads from which new advances in Hispanic churches would someday occur.”

“The Christian presence is powerfully evident now in any Asian community in North America. Vancouver has a sizable Asian presence. It has around fifty Christian congregations labeled with some Asian ethnic title, such as ‘Chinese Pentecostal’ or ‘Korean Baptist’. That figure does not count distinct services in ethnic languages offered by mainstream Catholic or Protestant churches. In addition, thousands of Vancouver residents of Asian descent attend the English language mainstream Christian services. A similar picture can be found in Chinatowns and Little Saigons across the United States.”

As I was pulling these quotes out of Philip Jenkin’s book, I thought of my observations from the research I did on churches in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  Of eighteen churches in that historic neighborhood, seventeen had ethnic roots. For almost its entire history, Christianity grew among believers who shared language and cultural identities of many different ethnicities.

In America in the 21st century, most of those diverse ethnic roots are disappearing. Ministering today among people who have no post-ethnic shared identity is a new challenge. Typically, now their identity is shaped by common problems and yearnings of shared suburban life.

One of the lasting principles from the Church Growth Movement in the 1980s and 90s is that people like to go to church with others like themselves.  That was true in the early 20th century with European immigrants and their different languages and ethnic churches.  Those ethnic loyalties disappeared in the third and fourth generations.

Existing mainline Protestant churches have European backgrounds, and the more recent Evangelical churches were made up of Europeans in this country.  What will happen to those churches is predictable, now that newer immigrants are from Asia.  They are going to continue to decline, especially as their older generations pass on.

Get used to it.  Find ways to develop new networks ready to do ministry in the new reality.

What do you think will happen in the next several decades to traditional denominations that are usually White and Europe-oriented?  How will you and your church react?

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