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Are Millennials really leaving the church? Yes ― but mostly white Millennials

All the hand-wringing stories about young people leaving religion overlooks the vibrancy and growth of multiethnic churches

May 21, 2014

NASHVILLE

Almost every day, it seems, there’s a new story about how “Millennials are leaving the church.” But there’s a problem with these trend pieces: They aren’t true. American Christianity still has plenty of Millennials — they’re just not necessarily in white churches.

Instead, they’re found in places like Iglesia de Dios, a 3,000-member Hispanic megachurch in Nashville. The church was started in the mid-1990s by the Rev. Jose Rodriguez, a native of Venezuala who moved to Nashville in order to get better medical care for one of his children.

The early services drew a handful of people. But fueled by immigration, word of mouth, and a “come as you are” approach to worship, it’s grown slowly and steadily into a megachurch. Today Iglesia de Dios has six services on the weekends, including one in English, for second-generation immigrants and some of their English-speaking neighbors.

“Our church here — we are very young,” says 27-year old Josué Rodriguez, the church’s associate pastor. “There are very few elderly people. And our youth services are the biggest services we have.”

Transformation Church, a multiethnic congregation in Indian Land, S.C., has also grown by attracting young Millennials to worship. Started four years ago by the Rev. Derwin Gray, Transformation Church now draws about 2,500 people to its weekend services.

“What I see among Millennials are African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos who are vibrantly growing in faith and leading the future of what the church will become,” says Gray.

About a third of young (18-29 year old) Americans — and more than half of younger Christians — are people of color, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute. White Christians, on the other hand, make up only a quarter of younger Americans. In fact there are more Nones — those with no religion — than white Christians in this age group.

That’s a remarkable demographic change from older Americans, where nearly 7 in 10 are White Christians, according to PRRI. “What you have in American religion today are the nonwhite Christians and the Nones,” says Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

But the switch from most Christians being white to the majority being non-white has largely gone unnoticed. Instead, most of the focus has been on the idea that “young people are leaving the church.” That idea is true among white evangelicals, who show a dramatic decline in PRRI’s polling. Among Americans 65 and older, nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent) are evangelicals. That number drops to 1 in 10 for younger Americans.

Gray says that in the past, white Christians were in the majority, so they assumed what happened in their churches was happening in every church. So if the number of young people in their churches is going down, he says, they assumed it was a universal problem.

Gray explains that since the 1980s, white megachurches in particular grew using a technique known as the “homogeneous unit principle” — the idea that the best way to grow a church is to cater to one specific racial or social group. That’s left them cut off from other ethnic groups and unable to see the bigger picture of what’s happening in the demographics of American Christianity, says Gray.

“One of the dangers of being the majority culture is that you become complacent and you don’t listen,” says Gray. “You think your problems are everyone else’s problem.”

The future, says Gray, will belong to churches that are multiethnic, because that’s what God wants. He points to a section of the book of Revelation to make his point: “After this I looked,” says Revelation 7:9, “and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

“The reason that we should have multiethnic churches is not that the demographics of America is changing — but because it is at the heart of the gospel,” he says.

The Rev. Efrem Smith, a former church planter and author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church, agrees. Diversity used to be seen as a luxury by churches, says Smith, who is president of World Impact, a California-based evangelical nonprofit. Now, as America has become more diverse, it’s a necessity. “That’s good news,” he says. “It’s going to push us to a more authentic presentation of the gospel and a more authentic faith.”

But diversity will mean changes in how churches operate, says Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, associate professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Sánchez-Walsh says that while theology may unite believers over racial and ethnic lines, money and power may divide them.

“People don’t like to give up power,” she says. “They don’t do it easily. And demographic shifts are going to force people in power to deal with that.” Instead of becoming diverse churches, many white congregations may shrink and then close as their members age or die off, says Sánchez-Walsh. Then they’ll sell their building off to like-minded people of a different ethnic group.

The biggest hurdle of all, especially for Protestants, is that the different ethnic groups have set up insular church cultures and institutions. “You have a gigantic black church movement — they have their own media, they have their own colleges, and their own celebrity pastors,” says Sánchez-Walsh. “You have the same thing in the white evangelical and Pentecostal worlds. Then you have the smaller mainline circles. These are all circles that don’t intersect.

Still, there are some signs of success already. This past fall, the Mosaix Conference, a gathering of multiethic church leaders, drew more than 1,000 people. That’s up from about 30 people 10 years ago.

Immigration reform has also drawn support from Protestant and Catholic leaders alike, across racial and denominational lines. And pastors like Gray and Smith have begun to be featured as speakers at major pastors’ conferences around the country.

Author and blogger Kathy Khang, a regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says that more diverse voices are needed at pastors’ conferences and other Christian events. Those events, she says, haven’t quite caught up to the changing demographics among Christians.

But she’s hopeful for the future, despite fears among some church leaders that younger people are dropping out of church. “This is an opportunity for Christians to take a look at what they believe, and to ask, ‘Do we believe the Bible is good news for everyone?’” she says. “And if we do believe that, we have to find ways to communicate that good news with everyone.”

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Nashville-based Facts & Trends magazine and president of the Religion Newswriters Association.

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