The Common Good

What If U.S. Christianity Needs More Immigrants?

Sign at immigration rally, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com
Sign at immigration rally, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com

Evangelicals around the country are praying for Congress to bring fair and just immigration reform to a vote. Often, advocates within the Christian community voice concern for the “least of these” — the unauthorized immigrants who are living in the shadows. But churches shouldn’t view Congress’ critical immigration decision as simply a matter of compassion for the “other;” immigration might be the lifeline that American Christianity needs.

Much has been written about the way that growing numbers of “millennials” are walking away from the church. The music, programming, and even vocabulary of many Christian churches seems aimed at solving the puzzle of how to keep young people interested in faith and keep them sitting in the pews. Yet while it seems millennials are walking out the front door of U.S. congregations, another group is knocking at the back door: immigrant Christians.

It’s a commonly held belief that immigration brings non-Christians to our communities — and often, congregations use outreach to immigrants as a means of evangelism. But that belief isn’t exactly founded. In fact, it’s estimated 60 percent of the immigrants who currently are arriving in the U.S. already are Christian. And of the 43 million U.S. residents born in another country, 74 percent are Christian. So for many immigrants, coming to America doesn’t change their faith; rather, immigrants are changing American Christianity.

Seventy-one percent of the growth among American Catholics since 1960 is fueled by Hispanics. About one in four Latinos is Protestant, and there are three times as many Latino Protestants in the U.S. as Episcopalians.

Most of those are Evangelical and Pentecostal. Since the Hispanic community is projected to grow to 106 million by 2050, their presence will quite literally change the face of American Christianity.

Other ethnic groups are having a similar impact. 

Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., and almost half of Asian immigrants are Christians. African immigrants bring vibrant, non-Western expressions of Christianity to our shores.

If it were somehow possible to deport the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States, the result would deprive countless congregations and parishes of their growing religious vitality. Politicians continue to treat immigration as a problem to be solved rather than a gift to be embraced. When so many established (mostly white) congregations in the U.S. are struggling to retain their members, immigrant Christians are providing hopeful stories of growth and vitality. 

Global trends will ensure migration will shape the world’s future. Those who believe religious vitality strengthens communities and serves the common good should be leading the efforts to welcome immigrants to America, offer a path to citizenship and keep their families together. 

It’s time for the church to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform because of the Bible’s clear instructions to care for the stranger and foreigner in our midst, and for the sake of the church’s future vitality.

The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. His latest book, From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, was featured at the 2013 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington. This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press.

Image: Sign at immigration rally, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com

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