For 15 years, Harry Li and I have been friends and colleagues, sharing responsibilities as pastors of the Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas. In fact, we often say that, together, we make one fine pastor.
As a former tenured professor at the University of Idaho and an accomplished researcher with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Harry has a rare combination of gifting: a pastor’s heart and keen analytical skills. He is also co-author with me of Leading a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church. Recently, I asked him to assess the current state of the American church given our increasingly diverse society. Here’s what he had to say.
Having been at Mosaic since 2002, I’ve consulted with dozens of businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions and churches. The common struggle I see with organizations that are predominantly white or otherwise homogeneous is that their leadership is managing decline as it relates to finding new employees, constituents, students or congregants. If these organizations do not soon take intentional steps to promote a spirit of inclusion, they will become irrelevant or, worse yet, will likely soon die.
Of course, many issues affect decline in church attendance or organizational health as it pertains to congregations today. Nevertheless, one undeniable fact many evangelicals are either unaware of or choose to ignore is that the population of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. is currently stagnant, and within the next 10 years will begin a serious decline. Projected to decrease by 16 million people over the next 45 years, from 62 to 43 percent of the total population, this group is getting smaller. Thus, churches maintaining all-white uniformity are vying for ever-larger pieces of a shrinking pie, especially when considering that many church-planting strategies focus on geographical areas composed of largely white affluence.
Think about it: Much of the growth or decline of mainly white churches today mirrors the population shifts of whites around the country. In economic and gaming theory, it is called a zero-sum game—one church increases while another decreases by the same amount. In this way, reported church growth is commonly based on white transfers from one church to another in the same way that much of white population growth (and decline) is now observable from city to city. We can try denying or downplaying this trend, but at the end of the day, this is largely true.
Meanwhile, ethnic populations continue to expand. Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, became majority-minority in 2010, one in which the non-Hispanic white population decreased by 6 percent from the previous census period and became less than 50 percent of the city’s total population. Yet ethnic populations were marked by high, double-digit and in some cases triple-digit growth over the same 10 years.
Famed demographer William Frey says that America “is on the cusp of becoming a country with no racial majority, and new minorities are poised to exert a profound impact on U.S. society, the economy and politics.” In case you haven’t noticed, ethnic minorities are already exerting a profound impact on the U.S. church. Over the next 10 to 20 years, the most effective local church leaders will have learned how to bring diverse people together and lead others that don’t share similar ethnic, economic, cultural or political backgrounds.
I believe the coming age will provide the local church with its greatest opportunity for true, new growth and leadership development in our lifetime. Therefore, as you consider the trajectory of your ministerial career, are you willing to lean in to the future?
If not, I suggest you should get used to managing decline.