Future Faith: Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future

In the previous post about Future Faith I discussed the first challenge of revitalizing withering congregations. I discussed the question of whether churches will be locked into a parochial story of their gradual demise or liberated by a global story that is bringing new life into its midst from unexpected places.

Today I am discussing the second challenge of embracing the color of the future.

It seems to be the case that when people talk about the “Nones” they are talking mostly about whites. Just go to one of Portland’s fabulous downtown coffee shops such as Floyd’s, Barista, or Spella Caffe on a Sunday morning and look at who’s sipping a latte instead of singing in church. They’re mostly young, hip, urban, and white.

Pockets of growth and vitality among many different denominational groups are being driven by nonwhite believers.

Those in mainline Protestant churches steadily declined in number, from forty-one million in 2007 to thirty-six million in 2014 according to the Pew study. But during that same period, the percentage of nonwhites among those denominations increased from 9 percent to 14 percent *.

Decades earlier, the Reformed Church of America had established distinct racial-ethnic councils. Later, they committed themselves to antiracism training, instituted a new Commission on Race and Ethnicity, held summit meetings on “building a multiracial future,” and increased the racial diversity of their staff. Then, for the first time in their recent history, they adopted a new confession of faith.

The Belhar Confession came as a gift from the church in South Africa, born out of the struggle against apartheid, and declared that racial reconciliation, unity, and justice were essential dimensions of Christian faith.

Denominations across the US religious landscape must embrace a multiracial future, with all the changes in power and participation that this necessitates, or they will dwindle as self-protective white minorities.

White Protestants are in decline. From 1991 to 2014, their total number decreased by 33 percent *. At the same time, nonwhite racial-ethnic groups are becoming places of growth as well as fresh religious vitality within the changing US religious landscape.

Consider this: Among all those in the United States who are sixty-five or older today, nearly two-thirds are either white Protestants, white Catholics, or white evangelicals. But among those who are eighteen to twenty-nine, white believers make up only 28 percent of that total group *.

The commitment to challenge existing patterns of thought and structure, and to reconfigure the understanding of faith in a postmodern and post-Christian context, resonates deeply with millennials, as well as many others in the broader Christian world.

One of the issues frequently discussed about the emerging church movement is the extent of its racial diversity, or lack thereof. It’s a question that its own thought leaders have directly engaged. In some ways, we’re drawn back to the basic question about the “Nones”—how much is this a largely white phenomenon, and to what extent are efforts responding to this reality centered only in the progressive, white Christian community?

The above mentioned paragraph made me wonder if we as a predominantly white reformed church in Southern Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church, should focus on the white majority or shift focus to those that are non-white that have not heard the gospel, or does not have a place of refuge, of worship? Or, should it be an either-or-argument, or rather an and-and-argument? How can a predominantly white church focus on the marginalised without losing its current members? Maybe just doing the Gospel?

The other emerging reality in the US religious landscape that often has gone unnoticed is the growth of multiracial congregations.

In 2008 only 350,000 congregations in the US, only about 7 percent met that definition of being multiracial. But in recent years, Michael O. Emerson, one of the leading authors and researchers of multiracial congregations, has documented a marked increase in such congregations to 13.7 percent of US congregations.

Middle Collegiate Church vision reaches to a multiracial future. Long embodying that reality, for the past decade Middle and its lead pastor, Rev. Jacqui Lewis, have hosted an annual conference bringing together pastors and practitioners working in multiracial contexts and advocating for justice.

Public schools are found to be six times more diverse than the average US congregation. As long as such disparities persist, a younger generation, in particular, will find it unnatural to participate in churches preaching a message of reconciliation and love with a membership far less racially diverse than the schools they attended.

Central to the story of the Pentecost in Acts 2 and the early church, crossing the cultural and racial boundaries between Jew and Greek, producing congregations such as the one in Antioch with dramatic racial and cultural diversity reflected in its leadership (see Acts 13:1–2).

David Roozen’s study, “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving,” One striking finding was this: multiethnic congregations showed more spiritual vitality than their primarily white counterparts. Here’s what the study said: Racial/ethnic congregations remain more energized than congregations in which a majority of its members are white whether looking at vitality or attendance growth *. This important empirical observation shouldn’t lead to simplistic conclusions, denying, for instance, the evident spirituality and vitality found in any number of primarily white and growing congregations. Findings like these are always matters of percentages and degrees. In this case, for instance, 43.3 percent of multiethnic congregations were found to have high vitality, contrasted to 24 percent of majority white congregations. Further, 53.6 percent of multiethnic congregations showed growth in attendance, compared to 29 percent of the mostly white congregations that have long predominated in the US religious landscape. Those percentages are almost 2 to 1 contrasts, revealing a significant difference.

So, what is the color of America’s religious future?

  • Clearly, white will no longer be dominant.
  • Statistically, places of growth that are occurring within established denominations across the board in the United States—Catholic, evangelical, Pentecostal, and mainline Protestant—are being driven decisively by emerging nonwhite groups.
  • Spiritually, multi ethnic expressions of the church, increasing in number and influence, are more likely to exhibit vitality and growth.

The North American church must embrace the changing color of its future with a decisive shift in its dynamics of power or face a life as a dwindling white minority clinging to places of protective refuge.

discussion guide

  • What is a “None”? Do you know any? How has your faith community talked about the “Nones”?
  • Why does the author suggest that denominations and faith communities focus on being more multiracially diverse and aware?
  • What strategies or examples of racial diversity did the author provide? In what ways do these examples help or encourage your own faith community to become more racially diverse?
  • What is your reaction to the author’s statement that “the North American church must embrace the changing color of its future with its decisive shift in its dynamics of power”? If you agree with the statement, what might that mean for your faith community now and in the future?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?


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