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?
Bill Woolsey says
David, I really appreciate you sharing this knowledge. We church leaders need to heed and take a missionary approach.
David Luecke says
Thanks, Bill. Sometime I would like to hear more about your mission of planting churches.
Frank Janzow says
This is very helpful information, with real implications for ministry and mission. It seems to me that the age denominationalism is likely over. Remnants of European and early American bodies will no doubt remain, with folks committed to those traditions circling the wagons and doing okay for some time. But what kinds of churches and ministries will emerge in this time of cultural transition is a question. With the changing makeup of American populations will new immigrant churches thrive? Will there be, counter to sociological tendencies for birds of a feather to gather together, more multicultural and multiracial churches emerging? I would welcome that, but remain skeptical. And will the virtual church that has risen during the pandemic evolve and expand? I choose not to lament what is passing but to look forward with faith and expectation to see what the Spirit will spawn.
David Luecke says
Accurate description of the old circling the wagons. That may last for another generation or so on the way to becoming footnotes in church history. Community churches will be multi-racial. But I doubt they will be multi-cultural. Rather they will offer a new church culture where people from other church cultures will feel comfortable.
Rev. William F. Mugnolo says
I am both a Lutheran Pastor (LCMS) and a grandson of Italian immigrants. I remember that when I converted from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism at age 24 I wondered, for awhile, “Am I still really Italian?” I had to discover that I could be–and proudly so–a Lutheran of Italian ancestry (I like saying, to use a reference that international soccer fans would know, that I belong to “The Lutheran Church–Azzurri Synod”). Yes, ethnic ties are certainly significant. Jesus did not say, “Go make disciples of all humanity, but of all ethnoi (nations)–which is all “people groups”. This does seem to say that we are largely meant to reach people within their own cultural and ethnic framework. On the other hand, too much of this emphasis has often produced a “cultural Christianity” that falls so far short of the real thing. Too many of my own relatives were caught up in this and I’ve often wondered if they truly knew the Risen Lord who transcends culture, ethnicity, and, yes, our own sinfulness.
David Luecke says
Interesting to be an Italian Lutheran. I know another “transplant” who is doing very effective ministry. The homogeneity principle is true–people like to go to church with others like themselves. The challenge today is to find the common factor that defines “others like myself.” That is happening in suburbia, with families looking for community while the dealing with basic issues like careers, marriage and raising children. Suburban culture is a worthy ethnos.
Douglas Schoelles says
For Lutherans of all stripes, we have always been an immigrant church for nearly the entire 300 years in America. Lutheranism has struggled to evangelize in the American culture. Where Lutherans have struggled to plant new missions among Americans, they have excelled in planting churches among immigrant groups of diverse backgrounds). Lutheran congregations who emphasize biblical preaching and a sacramental approach to a living and vibrant faith will grow beyond the demographic declines.
David Luecke says
With their ethnicity Lutherans have always been “outsiders” to religion in America. I think the Bible turmoil in the 60s and 70s was outsiders wanting to come inside. But that happened when “liberal” seminaries were losing Biblical integrity and their graduates lost their basic message. The bright future for Lutherans will centered on congregations that move beyond traditional church culture to become more community oriented with more accessible worship and programs. The challenge in ministry now is to be seen as “happening” places offering substance.
John Kolb says
Here is a far out possibility. The pre-seminex movement was a call to the church to return to Biblical faith. The church as a whole was moving toward a legalistic human view in its theology. The seminex views were also of human thinking. This 1960-1970 clash of two human ideologies had the potential to revive the church. Both the seminex group and the more orthodox pursued the same idea of reviving faith and mission. However the clash did not accomplish renewal. Both left and right went off track and has produced decay of one sort or another. To each their own form. If we are to see and learn from what happened and what now exists, we need to call to the left and from the right to follow God’s Spirit and return to Biblical Christ centered faith. This faith is found in the confessions and not so much in dwellings on the confessions nor in the tight right practices. This life in Christ is not found in the desires to connect with contemporary tools. Repent and return to the Lord. He has redeemed us from our human whims and clashes.
because it was focused on
David Luecke says
I witnessed the Seminex event and knew the faculty as good Christian men. They got caught up in a questioning academic approach to the Scriptures. They were not “liberal” in the conventional sense. I sense you are not much into mission outreach. Why would you not want to use contemporary tools to reach those who don’t know Christ? Sue Wilson’s comments call for keeping biblical truth and changing the presentation. I think Paul would have approved.
Kristine McAfee says
I hope to see more congregations become more diverse and reflect our communities. However, I think the goal of a church shouldn’t necessarily be to become more diverse, but instead, to be a place of justice. The focus on a church should be in unity in Scripture and when unity is the goal, diversity will hopefully be the byproduct.
I also think it is interesting that studies show that diversification in churches is a one-way street. Blacks are joining predominantly White congregations, however, few Whites join predominantly Black churches. Why is this?
Lastly, for churches to be come more inclusive, it will require examination of doctrine and worship – and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
David Luecke says
I agree that unity in the Scriptural Gospel will bring diversity as a byproduct. Diversity happens on the way to achieving something else.
Good point about few Whites joining Black churches. I think a lot of that has to do with church cultures. Black church culture is different from the usual White church cultures, with different music and ways to respond. It is a matter of comfort. Only a strong sense of mission will beyond comfort levels.
Susanne Wilson says
While I see that already churches are expanding their outreach to a more diverse population, I also hope that you will tackle a more insidious, and growing, problem in Christianity, especially in the Western world, and the U.S. Here is the problem I see:
What you (I speak generically) want to believe that is in the Bible, and what you choose to believe about Christ, becomes your Christianity. We are losing biblical Christianity to a “create your own” Christianity.
I do not refer to things like infant baptism or trans-substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, etc. I refer to the historical existence of Jesus, whether He rose bodily from the dead, if He was actually the Son of God, whether He ever claimed to be God, whether He really died on the cross—and the list could go on and on. This internal growing trend of “buffet Christianity” is a greater threat to Christ’s Church than any interference from without. When Christianity can be whatever you please to believe, then we have a big problem. I belong to a Biblically sound Missouri Synod Lutheran church. (Please understand that I do not mean a church that rejects any worship changes made since the 1500’s. We are one of the black sheep LCMS churches that has a membership of over 2,500.) We are practicing new outreach to all people, but even in this church I have heard friends say, “Well, the Bible is just what men thought God wanted them to say, but it might not be true.” Thus we have church members proclaiming the right to abortion, and who honestly reject the truth that Jeus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The average Christian today, and the number is growing, is biblically illiterate, and that is a great danger to the faith. If you are ignorant (not stupid) of what God’s word says about Himself, then you are ripe for accepting anything told you by anyone.
I would love to read a future article in which you tackle this problem.
David Luecke says
All of what you say is true. But that is the culture we are called to minister to. Maintaining biblical integrity is a great challenge. Call the alternative “liberal.” But their message is not “sell,” as seen in their rapidly declining numbers. Most people have enough common sense to realize there is not much substance to be worthy of their attention. Actually it is a great time to be in ministry because there is so much hunger for deeper meaning out there. Biblical illiteracy is almost complete. Many young adults have never been in a sanctuary. But we believers have to earn the right to be heard. There is much hostility to institutional churches. Gaining access is the greatest challenge we face.
jeanne menich says
the cultural change has already happened in america on every level possible and that change is really changing how christians see god and see christ. what i have seen is a belief that says god accepts everything, including things that have been forbidden by the bible. the concept of sin is becoming passe. something that is what the “chumps” believe. in many ways, these changes are not happening because of infiltration of people of or immigration, but because we have allowed communist ideals and principals into our belief systems. beliefs that are totally contrary to what god has asked of us. this does not just include christians, but jews as well because we both are people of the bible.. unfortunately, many that are coming into our country accept the tenants of socialism/communism and still vote for those ideals. ideals that are being tauted by our government at the present time. we have seen a hatred of christianity taking hold all over the world and in america. unfortunately, there are many chrisitans that believe these principles are okay and by doing so infect the church body slowly with these ideas. i do not think most pastors understand how insidious this really is to the church. i have never heard a sermon addressing these issues. why? the answer is simple. most people do not talk out loud about these issues, but do so in individual conversations. ergo, pastors have no idea exactly what is happening in their congregations because most people know their pastors would not approve. more pastors need to hit these issues head on because as christians what we believe is either based on biblical principles or it isn’t.
David Luecke says
Hi, Jeanne. What you describe is out there. I am not sure there is a competitive ideology, like Communism. I do think many have lost their moorings. The hostility is harder to understand. But many churches have not been loving places, or have been boring and for someone else. I have found a helpful distinction between institution and intuition. Clearly, all institutions have gotten a bad reputation. This leaves people acting on the intuition of what will bring them a better life. Rather than describe the sins to church people, I would prefer to present the solution in Christ. The challenge is to earn the right to be heard.
It is helpful to visit multi- racial churches long enough to gain more than a glance as to why they work. I have been doing so at their Sunday evening service ( no conflict with my home congregation which doesn’t have one ) and am not only learning, I’m personally growing significantly from the experience. It’s eye opening!!
David Luecke says
Experience is a great teacher. Taste and you will see. Would sampling of other churches help others? I advocate doing so especially among those community churches that are growing. There is much to learn.
sue wilson says
We are finding that our institutional church is growing well. What we have done is maintain absolute biblical doctrine, but are willing to change its presentation. It would help if more churches were willing to adopt the use of band music, explain doctrine in words that the new generations understand instead of in a language that was clear 400 years ago. We have a congregation that is 75% active in ministry because our pastors understand that true doctrinal explanation and expression does not depend on rote repitition, but on new ways of explaining our faith. Unfortunately, especially in the LCMS, there are many chruches that refuse to move on from 1950 and into the 21st century, believing that it is “tradition” that is the Gospel instead of God’s Word. The church membership going into the community living as well as speaking Christ works wonders in the attitude toward the local church. Thanks for your e-letters. I am enjoying them very much.
David Luecke says
I like your distinction between maintaining biblical truth while changing its presentation. My phrase is to maintain the substance but be willing to change the style. We are talking about church cultures, which express substance but do so in many styles. Many in the LCMS are stuck in traditionalism, which becomes a barrier to a living witness.