The 6.5 million people in the greater Houston area now surpass New York City and Los Angeles as the most racially and ethnically diverse urban area in the U.S. That's the site where a broad spectrum of U.S. church leaders met this week to consider the impact of immigration on their congregations, and on the rapidly changing expressions of Christianity within North American culture.
The group gathered at the annual convocation of Christian Churches Together in the USA, which includes the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, several Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, the Orthodox Churches, some Historic Black churches, and nearly all the major historic Protestant denominations. All of these are experiencing the impact of immigration. Most dramatically, for instance, 54 percent of millennials — those born after 1982 — who are Catholic are Latinos. Of the 44 million people living in the United States who were born in another country, 74 percent are Christian, while only 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent Buddhist, and 3 percent Hindu.
While church leaders in the U.S. have expressed united support for the reform of U.S. immigration laws, this is the first time an ecumenical body has gathered to examine together the actual consequences of immigration on the life and witness of its churches.
Much of those pockets of growth and vitality in American Christianity today come from these more recent residents of the U.S. Yet, such immigrant groups bring expressions of Christianity shaped by their non-Western cultures, often exhibiting spiritually saturated worldviews affecting their daily experiences. Many are Pentecostal, as this form of Christianity is now growing worldwide at three times the rate of overall growth in world Christianity, with 1 in 4 Christians now part of the Pentecostal movement.
One in 3 Catholics in the United States is now Hispanic, and striking growth has occurred in the numbers of Asian and African Catholics as well. Father Daniel Groody, a well-known expert on global immigration, spoke powerfully about both the practical and the theological challenges this presents. He echoed a Vatican statement calling migration “the birth pangs of a new humanity.” Representatives from the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops pointed to the growing number of parishes in the U.S.— more than one third — now functioning as multi-cultural worshipping communities.
All these trends are affecting how Christianity of all forms is expressed and practiced in the U.S., often presenting serious challenges to long-established Christian traditions in this culture. In New York City, an estimated 2,000 immigrant congregations have been formed by those from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Moreover, 1 out of every 10 persons living in New York City today is likely to be a Pentecostal.
The dramatic shift of Christianity’s center of gravity from the global North to the global South is being experienced within the major urban areas of the U.S. through the movements of global migration. World Christianity is coming to our doorstep. Further, the wide impact of Pope Francis comes in part because for the first time in 1,200 years, he is a pope from the global South.
Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns, a noted Pentecostal scholar and author, told the CCT convocation that immigration means that hospitality is now at the center of Christian ethics. Similarly, Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor and immigration activist in California, spoke of the “gifts of the immigrant church” so needed for the health and spirituality maturity of the established white church. Salvatierra explained the radical implications of what it means to belong to one another “as one body.”
Soong-Chan Rah, who teaches at North Park Theological Seminary and is the author of The Next Evangelicalism, described changing demographics in the U.S., citing that by 2011, the majority of births were to those of “minority” cultures, and that by 2042, there will no longer be a white or Anglo majority in the United States. That presently describes the reality in Houston. In this process, Soong Chan Rah said, we are witnessing “the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
At the closing worship, as participants expressed their words and prayers of response to these four days, Andy Murray, a participant from Pennsylvania in the Church of the Brethren, spoke of experiencing “a banquet for the mind and the heart.” And a prayerful reflection simply stated, “We are being brought together by an issue that is close to the heart of God.”
Rev. Carlos Malave, Executive Director of CCTUSA, summarized the significance of the gathering with these words:
"Key Church leaders from all traditions met in Houston to reflect on the impact and how immigrants are radically transforming the Church in the United States. New immigrants, a majority of which profess the Christian faith, are major actors in the transformation of American life and culture. The Church cannot minimize the crucial role it plays in leading God's people in this transformation of our society."
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson , one of the founders of Christian Churches Together, chaired the Planning Committee for this meeting. His most recent book is From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. He served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America for 17 years, and has been involved in the ministry of Sojourners as staff and a member of its board since its earliest days.
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