The Gift of Our Changing Culture

To survive and thrive—and to be true to their calling—churches will have to be places that find a way to be for all people.

Timely comments from the Outreach magazine archives. 

Most of us have heard a variation of this statement: “The United States is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. To stay ‘relevant’ we must adapt to this new reality.”

I have often wondered exactly what this statement is supposed to mean for the church. Does it mean churches filled primarily with white or black people should somehow forget such folks and focus on other people? Does it mean churches should start playing some imagined stereotypical Hispanic music? It is never clear. Rather, it seems like the statement is typically more a veiled threat: Get hip (somehow) or disappear.

Let’s first carefully consider the facts of the demographic transitions occurring in the United States, and then let’s think just as carefully about what they mean for ministry.

Demographic Changes

Before 1965, the United States’ overtly racialized immigration laws ensured that most immigrants would be European. But in 1965, a new immigration act was put in place, opening up immigration to the world. The result has been clear. Before 1965, more than 90 percent of all immigrants to the United States were from Europe; since 1965, more than 90 percent have been from anywhere except Europe.

The changing immigration trends have impacted the racial and ethnic composition of the United States. In 1960, 85 percent of the population was white, and 11 percent was black.

Today, the white population has declined to 64 percent. The black population has increased to 12.5 percent. The percentage of Asians has increased from 0.5 percent in 1960 to 5 percent today. People of multiple racial groups, not measured in 1960, constitute about 3 percent of the U.S. population currently. Hispanics (now 16 percent of the U.S.) have grown the most dramatically, from less than 7 million in 1960 to more than 50 million in the 2010 census, a sevenfold increase. To put that number in perspective, now only Mexico has more Hispanics than the U.S.

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We must also consider the average ages of these groups. The white population—due to minimal immigration and very low birth rates (less than what is needed to replace itself)—is aging rapidly. Their concerns over time are moving from raising children, finding good schools and the like to health care, retirement and social security.

The other populations are growing and will continue to grow. They have higher birth rates and are generally buttressed yearly with thousands of young immigrants. Most important to these trends are Hispanics, who accounted for 56 percent of all U.S. population growth over the past decade.

Because nearly one-quarter of Americans under 18 are Hispanic, and due to the high birth rates of Hispanics, the Hispanic population will continue to grow substantially in number and percentage (even if immigration stopped today).

Whites remain a significant proportion of the older U.S. population, and thus remain overrepresented in positions of power and influence—from U.S. senators to CEOs to seminary presidents.

But this too will change, as people of color become an increasing percentage of the adult population. The election of Barack Obama is a predecessor of changes to come. Had the percentage of whites stayed the same as in prior elections, he would not have been elected president. The nonwhite vote, which overwhelmingly was cast for Obama, had grown large enough by 2008 to win him the election.

Implications for the Church

What do these demographic facts mean for the church? First, for “white churches” they will, on average, have older and older people, and there will be less people. More and more such congregations will have to close their doors, no matter how gifted their staff. Churches catering to Hispanics will grow, and many will grow substantially. Because most Hispanics are Catholic, Catholic parishes feel and will continue to feel the most direct impacts. But more importantly, the demographic changes suggest that an increasing number of churches should move to what I and others have argued is the biblical model: congregations that are not racial niches, but instead are multiracial and multiethnic. To survive and thrive—and to be true to their calling—churches will have to be places that find a way to be for all people.

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The demographic changes, however, are but a tangible reason to pursue multiracial ministry; there are (more importantly) biblical/theological reasons to change the way ministry is done. The fact that demographics are changing simply amplifies the call of God to reach and unify all people, working for justice and dignity.

This means we must witness a revolution in seminary training. Seminaries must now prepare their students for multiracial/ethnic/cultural ministry. This will not mean adding a course or two on “multicultural ministry.” It will mean overhauling how theological training is done. Perhaps some see such changes—those occurring and those to come—as threatening. But changes coming from the demographic revolution are truly an exciting time, a time we can see as a gift from God.

God is bringing the nations together, and we all have increasing opportunity to greatly expand our knowledge and experience of God as we engage with a wider expanse of God’s people.

My prediction: If we let God be in control, the demographic revolution will power us closer to our Creator, and will render the church of this nation (and many other nations experiencing similar demographic revolutions) more Christlike.

 

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Outreach magazine.

 

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As a Rice University sociology professor who teaches on race and ethnic relations, and as co-director of the Institute for Urban Research, Michael Emerson is in a unique position to observe the country’s shifting demographics. While many in society—and even in the church—watch these trends with growing alarm, Emerson sees in them an unprecedented opportunity for the American church. Emerson is the author of 10 books, including the award-winning "Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America" and "Transcending Racial Barriers" (both published by Oxford University Press).