Earlier this week I was fortunate to attend a workshop on Multicultural Churches presented by Dr Soong-Chan Rah at Northeastern Seminary here in Rochester, NY. Dr. Rah is widely recognised as a leading academic in the field of multiethnic churches. He has directly planted and ministered in a multiethnic church in Cambridge, MA and now teaches courses related to urban and multiethnic churches. In 2010 he published a popular book, Many Colors, advocating the need for churches and church leaders to understand the influence of culture and the need to develop Cultural Intelligence.
Over the next few weeks I plan to reflect on the material Dr. Rah presented at this workshop.
The Changing Face of Global Christianity
In 1900 83% of Christians were located in Europe and North America. These primarily white continents infused Christianity with values and practices that were meaningful to that population.
By 2050 sociologists project that a mere 28% of Christians will be located in Europe and North America. Even in these continents many of the churches will be predominantly filled with non-white members. For example, the largest church currently in Kiev, Russia is a Nigerian congregation.
Globally, God’s kingdom is growing, not shrinking. But the church of today and tomorrow looks very different from the church of yesteryear. By 2050 Africa will contain 29% of global Christians, Latin America will be home to 22% and Asia will have 20% of all Christians.
The forms and rituals of the predominantly white European church will also need to evolve to reflect this movement in global church demographics. Each of these cultures needs to find it’s individual voice with which to worship and serve God.
The Changing Face of American Christianity
As a result of immigration (legal and illegal) and birth-rate American society has changed dramatically since the 1960’s. In 2008 one-third of the American population were minorities of various backgrounds. By 2011 half of all births were within minority communities. At that rate, by 2023 one half of all children in the US will be racial minorities. As the trend continues, by 2042 the historically dominant white racial group will make up less than 50% of the US population.
Stephen Warner has observed, “The new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society, but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.” Elsewhere he noted,
Above all, the new immigrants make it decreasingly plausible for Americans to think of Christianity as a white person’s religion. . . . And although it may not be apparent in many congregations, American Christians are increasingly people of color.
There is no reason to think that this trend will reverse itself any time soon. Predominantly white churches will increasingly look like anomalies in this changing landscape. The question monocultural churches must address is whether they will embrace this racial diversification of Christianity, or resist it.
The Changing Face of Boston
Dr Rah illustrated the transition the American church is experiencing by using Boston as a case study. New England has long been recognised as the prime example of increasing secularisation and diminishing Christian presence. However, Dr Rah contends that much of this decrease in church attendance is primarily predominantly located within the white portion of society.
In 1970 the city proper of Boston was home to about 300 churches. Many of these historic churches no longer exist. In most cases their buildings have been repurposed or demolished.
However, this does not mean that God has fled Boston. Dr Rah cited a recent survey that listed 600 churches within the city limits of Boston. The difference is that these churches do not meet in stately buildings on prominent street corners. The churches are mostly found within ethnic, immigrant communities, and over half these churches hold their services in a language other than English.
According to a 2009 report commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, by 2007 minority racial groups made up a majority (50.1%) of the city of Boston’s population. The demise of most of those 300 churches was not tied to a decline in Christianity, but the churches failure to engage the highly spiritual immigrant and other minority communities.
Between 2001-06 at least 98 new churches were planted in Boston. 76 of these churches responded to survey and reported that while 50% of those new churches worship in a language other than English, many of them, even with a majority non-white attendance, also have English services.
The Christian world is changing. American society is changing. Our cities are changing.
The big question for established churches is, “Will existing churches allow God to infuse them with new life and cultures, or will God need to raise up new churches to continue his mission in the changing landscape of American cities.”