By Soong-Chan Rah
In April 2009, Newsweek magazine featured an article by Jon Meacham that describes what he perceives to be "The End of Christian America." Meacham asserts that "Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population," leading to the "end of a Christian America." In the opening paragraph of the Newsweek article, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, laments what he perceives to be a disturbing trend. "As Mohler saw it, the historic foundation of America's religious culture was cracking." Mohler is particularly disturbed by the decline of Christianity in New England, as he states: "to lose New England struck me as momentous."
As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the 21st century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways. Let's take for example the Northeastern city of Boston in a region of the country that Mohler believes we have "lost." In 1970, the city of Boston was home to about 200 churches. Thirty years later, there were 412 churches. The net gain in the number of churches was in the growth of the number of churches in the ethnic and immigrant communities. While only a handful of churches in 1970 held services in a language other than English, thirty years later, more than half of those churches held services in a language other than English.
Between 2001 and 2006, ninety-eight new churches were planted in the city of Boston. In a city the size of Boston, ninety-eight new church plants in a six-year-time period is not spiritual death, it is spiritual life and vitality. Of the ninety-eight churches planted during that six-year-time period, "76 of them reported the language of worship. Of those 76 churches, almost half of them . . . [have] non-English or bi-lingual [services], 19 worship in Spanish, 8 in Haitian Creole and 9 in Portuguese." The perception nationally was that Boston was spiritually dead, because there was noticeable decline among the white Christian community. In contrast, there has been significant growth among non-white Christians and churches.
When I was a pastor in Boston, I consistently heard the lament over the decline of Christianity in the city of Boston. However, the Boston I knew was filled with vibrant and exciting churches. New churches were being planted throughout the city. Christian programs and ministries were booming in the city. Boston is alive with spiritual revival, particularly among the ethnic minority communities. But very few seem to recognize this reality, even as this trend begins to appear nationally.
As sociologist R. Stephen Warner points out, "What many people have not heard . . . and need to hear is that the great majority of the newcomers are Christians. . . . This means that the new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity." Contrary to popular opinion, the Church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States. As we enter into a new era for American Christianity, we may indeed identify this era as a post-Western, post-white American Christianity. But we may also assert that this development may actually be the salvation of American Christianity rather than the decline and demise of American Christianity.
Instead of the collapse of evangelicalism we are actually seeing the revival of American Christianity in a vastly different form. Evangelicalism has been consistently portrayed in the media as a group of white, upper-middle class, suburban, Republicans. Is it any wonder that the black church will oftentimes refuse this designation? Or that other ethnic minority Christians feel marginalized from the very community that shares their basic values and beliefs?
But now there is a new era for Christianity in America. A Next Evangelicalism -- an evangelicalism that crosses across racial and ethnic lines with a shared value system rather than a political agenda. Evangelicalism is not dead, it is being redefined by a new constituency -- hopefully for the better.
Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Books, 2009). Follow his thoughts more closely at his website, ProfRah.com.
This article was first featured at the Cataylst website. Reprinted with permission of author.
8/6/2010 4:00:00 AM