Dying Immigrant Churches
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Dying Immigrant Churches
A classmate of mine explained that while immigrant churches desire to permanently serve the entire community with which they are affiliated, they often end up being relegated to first-generation immigrants and become unsustainable as the first generation dies off. While I was generally aware of the benefits and challenges associated with immigrants assimilating into the dominant culture, I was not familiar with how it impacted immigrant churches.
My colleague was passionate about this issue and he wanted to develop a sense of urgency about it among pastors of immigrant churches. Kotter viewed urgency on a complacency spectrum and mentioned nine reasons that organizations are complacent or lack urgency. Among these, there are several that may exist in a church. In a church which has no crisis, operates generally successful ministries, measures with the wrong standards, and hears only of its positives from the pastor, it is easy to see why people may become complacent. However, I don’t think any of these are the big issue with the immigrant churches. I think they face the same problems as dominant culture churches, attrition and growth, but are more limited in their ability to respond to them due to a third factor, assimilation. These three phenomena - attrition, assimilation, and growth - interact to create a perfect storm for immigrant churches.
People, and young people in particular, leave churches for a variety of reasons. This problem is not unique to immigrant churches. Packard and Ferguson noted that “there are both push and pull factors that draw people out of churches.” Young people often move away from their hometowns for careers, education, or military service. If they marry someone outside of the church, they are more likely to leave. If their personal values grow to be much different from those of the church, they are likely to choose to worship elsewhere. Often, young people feel a need to assert their independence by attending church separately from their parents. Finally, although Proverbs 22:6 (NKJV) instructs us to “train up a child in the way he should go… …[so] he will not depart from it,” and Hebrews 10:25 reminds us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” the lamentable reality is that some young adults do stop attending church for a season.
Compounding the effects of young people leaving churches is the historic emphasis on assimilation in American culture. Immigrant communities typically completely assimilate into the American mainstream within three generations. However, due to various educational and societal changes, that timeline may be compressed for current and future immigrants. Compulsory education laws, the widespread availability of language instruction, an interconnected global economy, and the advent of social media have all sped along the assimilation process and immigrants are now completely immersed in the dominant culture from before the time they arrive in the United States. This means that most immigrants are now completely assimilated by the second generation, even if the first generation immigrants never fully assimilate into the dominant culture.
While total assimilation is a long-term process, it begins immediately and the bulk of the process happens sooner rather than later. As young immigrants and those born in the United States make friends within the dominant culture, dress like the dominant culture, listen to the music of the dominant culture, eat the food of the dominant culture, work within the dominant culture, speak the language of the dominant culture, and begin to care about issues facing the dominant culture, they become part of the dominant culture, marry into the dominant culture, and raise their family within the dominant culture. While they are aware of their heritage, they are in many ways independent of it. Immigrant children manifest this independence several ways, including going to college, serving in the military, entering the workforce, moving to a dominant culture neighborhood, and joining a dominant culture church.
If one commonality of immigrant children, albeit unspoken, is to join a non-immigrant church once they are assimilated adults, then immigrant churches must look beyond them for growing the church and maintaining its relevance. Non-immigrant churches face the same problem of how to grow numerically when so many of their young people are leaving. Non-immigrant churches can draw members from other dominant culture churches that close, shift focus, or no longer meet the pastoral or community needs of certain congregants. They also bring in families that move into their area through a variety of evangelistic and ministerial outreaches. However, immigrant churches are limited in their ability to do this. The church is a place where people come together with like-minded believers to worship, fellowship, and hear the Word of God preached. Members of the dominant culture are not very likely to join the immigrant churches because they will not be able to worship, fellowship, or understand the preaching there.
If the young people are leaving and immigrant churches cannot rely on the growth strategies employed by the dominant culture churches, then do they have any hope of remaining relevant beyond the first generation? I could not answer with certainty, but my hunch is that it is possible. Immigrant churches could become dominant culture churches as their membership assimilates. This would not necessarily require a shift in beliefs as much as one of language and traditions. Many immigrant churches may not be interested in such a proposition, and I think the idea is unlikely to gain traction. Ultimately, these churches may be like many within the dominant culture which serve Christians in a particular community for a particular season, and then close their doors once the community dissolves or the season passes. This phenomenon is a gentle reminder that everything of this world is temporary and will one day vanish. We must focus instead on those things which are eternal and will endure beyond this life. I thank God that although these churches may not last forever, their impact and value to His kingdom are eternal.
Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.
Packard, J., & Ferguson, T. W. (2019). Being done: Why people leave the church, but not their faith. Sociological Perspectives, 62(4), 499–517. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731121418800270
The Holy Bible, New King James Version (1982). Thomas Nelson, Inc.