Bloomberg News, in a June 12 report in their online edition, notes:
The U.S. continued its transformation into a majority-minority nation last year, with Census Bureau data showing non-Hispanic whites making up the lowest percentage of the population in American history. (The Census Bureau counts what we traditionally call Caucasians to be non-Hispanic whites.)
The estimates released on June 12 capture several milestones in the country’s demographic makeup. For the first time in more than a century, deaths outpaced births among white Americans. Almost half, 49.9 percent, of the nation’s children younger than 5 were minorities as of July 1. And the nation’s total minority population grew 21 times faster than whites. When I read that first sentence I had to stop and carefully read it again. As it settled in I began to think about the church in America before I thought of anything else. (I am a minister of the gospel, and a trained missiologist, thus I care deeply about the future of the church in America.) Read this very slowly: For the first time in more than a century deaths outpaced births among white Americans. America’s white population is not only declining as the majority population, particularly because of immigration, but it cannot keep pace because of a rapidly declining birth rate. “A natural decrease and eventual loss in the white population is baked into the cake of our older white population,” William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based policy research group, said in an e-mail. “It’s the younger, rapidly growing minority population that will be driving economic and demographic growth this century.” Again, the implications of these new demographic studies are immense in terms of the future of the Christian faith in America. I think we can safely say the following:
- White congregations will continue to decline in most of the nation. The only exceptions will be places where whites remain the majority population but these areas will likely be made up of aging “baby boomers” who may well hold on to their type of church while it slowly dies. More than 53% of the nations 3,143 counties had a “natural decrease” in the number of whites in 2010, according to Kenneth Johnson, a University of New Hampshire demographer. More than two-thirds of America’s counties registered a decrease in white people from 2011 to 2012.
- Minority, “browning” congregations will become the new norm. Minorities younger than 18 are expected to overtake the number of white children by 2019, the Census Bureau said last year. That is less than six years away. This means that over the next 25 years churches will be “browning” or they will (in most places) be declining. More and more “traditional” white congregations will be closing and merging.
- Multi-racial Americans were the fastest-growing racial group in 2012. Unless churches become increasingly welcoming of multi-racial families their future ministry is in jeopardy. This is not rocket science.
- Asians, the fastest-growing racial group from 2000-2010, climbed by 2.9% last year against a national population growth of only 0.75%. There are almost 314 million Americans.
- One of the more interesting demographic revelations, at least to me, is that the percentage of whites actually increased in heavily Hispanic places like Miami, as well as in heavily black places like New Orleans and Washington, DC. Significant shifts are taking place in some major urban centers. From what I can see, younger white Millennials are more eager and willing to live in cities where they are a minority than their parents were. This creates a whole new mission opportunity in some of our most populous urban areas. My own eyes tell me that many young urban professionals want to live in racially mixed neighborhoods in smaller homes, apartments and town homes. (Some of this, though not all, is driven by the economic downturn of the last five years.) If churches take their mission into these types of areas the future of the church might take on a whole new social and missional presence that is profoundly important for the future of Christianity in America.
Pew Research reported in 2008 that Protestants account for roughly half (51.3%) of the adult population and nearly two-in-three (65%) Christians in the United States. But American Protestantism is very diverse. It encompasses more than a dozen major denominational families, such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Pentecostals, all with unique beliefs, practices and histories. These denominational families, in turn, are composed of a host of different denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches in the USA and the National Baptist Convention, all Baptist but all very different. In what Pew calls a Landscape Survey (also published in 2008) the respected polling firm concluded:
Although scholars contributing to this research have adopted a variety of definitions of major religious groups and pursued various approaches to measuring change over time, this research arrives at a similar conclusion:
The proportion of the population that is Protestant has declined markedly in recent decades while the proportion of the population that is not affiliated with any particular religion has increased significantly.
Many doomsayers are telling us that the future of the church in America is in doubt. I do not buy that conclusion. What I wrote about in my two previous blogs about educating the next wave of church leaders applies here as well. The church must change! Our churches and institutions will likely be smaller, excepting a major Christian renewal movement that we pray for but simply cannot predict. But there is good news here as well. The “next” church might well be more effective and discipleship-focused than anything that I have seen in my lifetime (b. 1949). Let me put this very simply – I do not believe America is Western Europe. I do not believe the church will become anything like a mere 3-10% of our population, at least not in the foreseeable future. A major reason for my optimism, in the light of the demographics that I’ve presented, is that God is raising up a new kind of missional vision among younger Gen X and Millennial leaders. These new leaders can imagine a different church and they have the spiritual passion and will to invest their lives in the kind of changes that must come. They are not interested in culture wars, ecclesial programs that seek to attract consumers or in building person-centered empires. The Landscape Survey also discovered something that is very important to our conversation about “church next.” The religiously unaffiliated population is quite diverse. It is simply not accurate to describe this entire group as nonreligious or “secular.” A friend noted to me last week that there are at least two broad categories of unchurched Millennials: (1) Those who have walked away from church for varied reasons that have been discovered and discussed in other surveys, blogs and books; and, (2) Those who have never been actively involved in the church and thus they are, simply put, clueless about the Christian faith. Among this second category there are large numbers who will respond to the gospel if we learn how to be effective missional-ecumenists. It is also worth noting that a very significant percentage of those who are among the religiously non-affiliated say that religion is “somewhat or very important to their lives.” The more I actually meet and talk to these young adults the more my hope is increased for the future of the church in America. Personally, I meet “converts” from the second category that I named above – those never really active in the church – almost weekly. The stories of these converts inspire me and provide great hope. They are “seeking first the kingdom of God” as best they know how and they are totally turned off by culture wars, strong political ideologies and denominational disagreements. I believe these new converts, and some reverts, could become the first wave of a new awakening that many of us pray for daily. All thoughtful and prayerful Christians know that we need such an awakening now more than ever.