Hiding in Plain Sight – The Gift of the Migrant Church
A recent Gallup Poll found that for the first time, fewer than fifty percent of Americans are not attending a place of worship - Behind Gallup's portrait of church decline (religionnews.com). What the research also finds is that church membership is being bolstered mainly by non-white Christians; i.e., migrant and African-American church-goers.
In Canada, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to us as we anecdotally know that immigrants from the global south show much more interest, passion, and engagement with matters of faith and church than those who have been born in Canada. Whether their enthusiasm is strengthened by persecution, dependence on God, non-existent social safety nets in their countries of origin, a collectivistic, inter-dependant culture, or just deeply embedded faith practices, we see it on display in the way they pray, worship, celebrate, and share their faith. North America is all the better for such an infusion of vibrant spirituality into its religious mosaic.
But, as in everything, there are both opportunities and challenges. Generally speaking, migrant communities of faith are seen as the “other”, much like migrants themselves. Unfamiliar forms of worship, of being community, food, and child-rearing practices are considered alien to deeply entrenched forms of congregational life and culture. With fear being the most common driver of established (many white-dominated) churches, members see immigrant communities as “threats” to the equilibrium of a system designed for uniformity, predictability, and constancy. Sadly, the opportunities presented in this unfolding phenomenon are overshadowed by the unwillingness to see God’s handiwork in moving people across the globe to achieve the ends that are only God’s to determine.
Migrant communities have their own challenges as well. Social theory and practice explain how culture plays a critical role in the choice that migrants make, in worship place and practices. However, there is an inbuilt threat in its execution. Migrant churches could easily go the way of their European predecessors if they rely solely on migration as their primary source of church growth and refuse to be intentional about being missional in their beliefs and practices. First generation worshippers find out very soon to their dismay that the next generation has very little connection to the church of their parents. Hence the ongoing dependence on new immigrants to shore up their numbers.
The reality is that migrant communities of faith will reshape the Canadian church over the next millennium. How this re-shaping process plays out will depend on both the established churches and new communities of faith to learn, adapt, and accept each other as a vital part of a whole with a common vision: a vision that is not limited to a denominational, cultural, or a tribal mindset but one that is kingdom focused, a vision of partnering in the Missio-Dei.
As Canada becomes visibly and culturally diverse, so will its religious landscape. As immigration and refugee quotas are expected to increase over the next decade and Canada attracts a global diaspora, as established churches experience decline and as the “no-religion” demographic grows rapidly, the focus of missionary organizations may have to turn inwards to adopt a more “Glocal” mindset. And immigrant communities of faith are certainly equipped to lead the way.
However, for migrant communities of faith to be accepted into the mainstream and help shape the future Canadian church together with its established counterparts, there’s work to be done: the hard work of challenging and dismantling racist attitudes and racist practices in our church systems: replacing assumptions and beliefs that have disempowered and chronically demobilized the church and rebuilding systems and structures that have stifled innovation and new ways of living into unfolding and rapidly changing realities.
Will we have eyes to see this gift hiding in plain sight?
Interested in learning more about the perceptions and experiences of those in your congregation via an anonymous and confidential survey, with an eye toward identifying areas of flourishing and points for development?
Consider taking the Flourishing Congregations Survey, a Canadian-based survey on the Canadian Church for the Canadian Church.
What We Are Reading
Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation
Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk
According to Smith and Adamczyk, “… the single, most powerful causal influence on the religious lives of American teenagers and young adults is the religious lives of their parents. Not their peers, not the media, not their youth group leaders or clergy, not their religious school teachers” (p. 1). For some, this might be surprising based on cultural scripts we have been told about teenagers and young adults. However, Smith and Adamczyk come to this conclusion in their book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation, grounded in empirical research with 215 religious parents from various faith traditions and the previous literature. (Non-religious parents were also interviewed.) The book explores a number of areas of intergenerational transmission of religious faith and practice that include the “hows” and “whys” of religious parents passing on the faith to their children, investigating how parenting styles interact with parent religiousness to shape effective religious transmission, showing how parents’ backgrounds were influenced by how they were parented, and disclosing how religious parents view their congregations and what they most look for in a local congregation.
Based on the literature and survey results, Smith and Adamczyk state that of the four parenting styles – authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and less engaged – the authoritative parenting style is the most effective in passing on the faith because “authoritative parents tend to be demanding and hold high standards of their children, but they also express high levels of warmth and communication with them” (p. 39). That is to say, parents talk (not preach) to their children about their religious practices and beliefs, what they mean, and why they are important as a normal part of everyday family life.
What might be the implications for congregations and religious leaders? The interviews with parents indicate that passing on the faith was primarily their responsibility and not that of the congregation. Yet parents do value, and for the most part are satisfied with, the work of congregations in supporting intergenerational religious transmission. From a parental perspective, religious leaders and congregations can be supportive by offering: formal religious education that engages their children in the faith, moral instruction, enjoyable religious activities, friendship, and community.
Overall, this book is strong with empirical data and unique in many of the topics it investigates. The findings will be of interest to religious leaders and educators, social scientists interested in the family, theologians, and religious parents themselves.
Dr. Arch Wong is Professor of Practical Theology at Ambrose University and Associate Director at Flourishing Congregations Institute.
Resources for Church Leaders
CONGREGATIONS AND THE PANDEMIC: AN INTERACTIVE ONLINE SESSION WITH DR. JOEL THIESSEN
Wednesday, June 16, 2021, 7:00–8:30pm PST
COVID-19 has both stunted and aided congregational flourishing in a variety of ways. In this interactive online session we will briefly explore some foundational elements to a flourishing congregation, before interacting with data on the complex interplay between the pandemic and religious and congregational life. We will give particular attention to questions, issues, and prospects that congregations might wish to give attention to upon resuming more “regular” in-person ministry activities. Register Here
Risk Assessment for Churches
Operating your church more safely in a time of respiratory infectious diseases can be a challenge. The ARCC is a set of tools to help church leaders improve their policies, assess their risk, learn more about controlling diseases, and know how to support people's mental health. Instill confidence in yourself, your congregation, the community and those in authority by visiting churcharcc.com
Resources for Safer Church Re-Opening
Want to increase confidence in your congregation and community; to increase your knowledge; and to share what you've learned over the past year?
Join Dr. Bridget Stirling (epidemiologist and former missionary), a team of public health specialists, and church leaders from around the world in the ARCC.
The Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches (ARCC) is a program that increases safety through Risk self-assessments and guidance, church-specific training and an interactive forum. Visit us at stirlingharmston.com
Researching the Impacts of Covid-19 on Congregations
Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.