Scholars and other observers of American religion are realizing that immigration is more likely to replenish the declining ranks of Christian churches than create sizable blocs of world religions in the country.
In Christian Century magazine (Feb. 10), sociologist R. Stephen Warner writes that the “new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.” Warner notes that recent research shows two-thirds of immigrants are Christian and that even outside of the traditionally Christian immigrant sending countries, (such as Mexico) there is a large of segment of Christian immigrants, such as those from China, India and the Middle East.
Warner adds that with recent studies showing a large defection of mainly native-born Christians to the “no-religion” category, the Christian immigration is having a replenishing effect on the churches. While evangelicals and Catholics stand to gain the greatest percentage of adherents, the effect is also evident in the mainline churches.
Much of the recent mainline growth in immigrant communities is due to a change of strategy. The greater use of lay pastors in mainline denominations is spurring these churches’ expansion into new ethnic and immigrant communities, reports the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 18).
The decision by mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), to let laypeople baptize and preside at communion a few years ago to save ailing rural congregations is having the unintended effect of creating new urban ministries. These new churches are often led by laity who come out of immigrant and urban ethnic communities and can easily relate to the congregants in language and culture.
The link between lay pastors and expansion of ethnic congregations is suggested by church figures: Presbyterians have more than doubled the numbers of lay pastors since 1999 and during the same time have added black, Asian and Middle Eastern congregations while losing 126 largely white congregations. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of Asian lay pastors in the United Methodist Church has tripled from 19 to 59, while American Baptists and African Methodist Episcopalians are increasingly turning to pastors without seminary training to serve in urban immigrant congregations.
G. Jeffery MacDonald writes that the trend of forging new ties between immigrants and mainline churches “is helping many immigrants assimilate [as] denominational ties can help boost social status in an adopted country.” But he adds that the new approach is likely to challenge denominational cultures. The growth of lay pastors will go against the United Methodist pattern of moving clergy around every few years, as well as the emphasis that Presbyterians have put on a learned clergy trained in Greek and Hebrew.
There is, however, an attempt to rework seminary education and simplify the ordination process to meet the needs of the new immigrant clergy.
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