Can the Church Adapt to Demographic Reality?

My childhood was one of fun and adventure played out in the heart of East Africa. It was the era of Joy and George Adamson and their lioness Elsa of whom the film Born Free was based, and where mysterious people like “the crocodile man” roamed the shores of Lake Victoria. Looking back, the assorted exploits into and around the Serengeti plain of Tanzania are almost surreal. But two pictures from that time are still vivid in my mind, and today they will help describe the massive ethnic and cultural change sweeping North America. The pictures are that of a charging rhinoceros and a bumbling tourist. Let’s start with the rhinoceros.

The story begins on a typical multi-family hunting and camping expedition. This particular morning we clung to the rack of Uncle Rusty’s Land Rover 88 as he chased after a large grey rhinoceros. After a short run, she turned, snorted, and scuffled her feet, making it clear that she was done with her part of the adventure. We wisely headed back to camp.

Later that afternoon, we set out on foot to hunt small game. As we crested the hill we heard what sounded like an old steam locomotive. But there were no railroad tracks. We quickly realized that the sound came from the rhino we had tormented earlier, and she was headed straight for us at full throttle! Thankfully, the wind changed directions and the rhino lost our scent and was unable to find us.

The charging rhinoceros is the first picture. Keep that in mind as I describe the second creature I tried to avoid. Unlike the rhinoceros, these creatures walk on two legs, they came to experience all that Africa had to offer, and they were almost always attired in recently-purchased khaki safari outfits, 10-gallon cowboy hats, and boots. And when not visible, this creature could be easily identified by a boisterous voice that butchered a select set of Swahili words.

Yes, the second picture is that of a stereotypical American tourist.

The rhinoceros and the tourist represent two realities.

The charging rhinoceros represents the rapid ethnic and cultural change that North America faces. The tourist on the other hand represents the church. Let’s first look at the charging rhinoceros.

North America is in the midst of a period of massive ethnic and cultural change, which is charging down on us at an astounding pace. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center released in February 2008 projects that the U.S. population will climb to 438 million by 2050, and that the Hispanic population will triple during this time. These projections differ from U.S. government estimates and paint a dramatically divergent picture of North America than we know today. In a February 11, 2008 New York Times article entitled “Proportion of Immigrants in U.S. Rises,” Sam Roberts writes:

The projections show that by 2050:

  • Nearly one in five Americans will have been born outside the USA vs. one in eight in 2005. Sometime between 2020 and 2025, the percentage of foreign-born will surpass the historic peak reached a century ago during the last big immigration wave.
  • New immigrants and their children and grandchildren born in the USA will account for 82% of the population increase from 2005 to 2050.
  • Whites who are not Hispanic, now two-thirds of the population, will become a minority when their share drops to 47%. They made up 85% of the population in 1960.
  • Hispanics, already the largest minority group, will more than double their share of the population to 29%.
  • Blacks will remain 13% of the population. Asians will go to 9% from 5%.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that presently in Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas the non-Hispanic white population is no longer the majority. Maryland, Mississippi, Georgia, New York, and Arizona all have a minority population of greater than 39 percent.
This internationalization of North America represents a drastic shift away from Western European immigration and therefore a waning of the prominence of Western thought. As this change takes place, the Church increasingly finds it difficult to have a voice.
In addition, much of the new Hispanic population is not in the large urban areas as in the past. Rather the new Hispanic growth is in the same locales as the non-Hispanic white growth—in parts of the country that until now have not experienced this. And Hispanic immigration is following jobs into new growth areas. In other words, every corner of North America is changing ethnically and culturally.

This internationalization of North America represents a drastic shift away from Western European immigration and therefore a waning of the prominence of Western thought. As this change takes place, the Church increasingly finds it difficult to have a voice. Presbyterian churches have historically been comprised of people of Western European ancestry. Because the majority of early migration was heavily from Western Europe, the church prospered. In fact, within the non-Hispanic white majority, the PCA continues to grow at a steady pace as each year new churches are planted, and significant numbers of new members are added.

If we simply look at the non-Hispanic white and Korean numbers, we’re making progress. But if we compare our growth from all other ethnic and cultural groups to the overall population growth, we find that our impact is marginal, and that we face a serious challenge as the population ratio continues to change. Remember: The two groups whose population ratio will decrease are the non-Hispanic whites and Asians.

We are rapidly losing our ability to communicate to those around us and my fear is that we appear as bumbling tourists losing both our voice in culture and our gospel witness.
I am not concerned about the effects ethnic and cultural change is having on broader American culture. In fact I welcome the cultural and ethnic mix we see occurring around us. My concern, rather, lies in how our church will approach this change. Though we recognize and are addressing aspects of the changing culture, we are ignoring both the present and future reality. Those aware of the charging rhinoceros are often praying for a change in the wind with a hope that she will stop her charge and move elsewhere. Others are trusting in the political process.

Unfortunately, we are rapidly losing our ability to communicate to those around us and my fear is that we appear as bumbling tourists losing both our voice in culture and our gospel witness. If not addressed we will take on the persona of the stereotypical American tourist as we scream louder to a people who simply do not understand us.

The complexity of this issue is immense and cannot be solved in an article of this scope. A more thorough study—including the history of immigration in North America, the church’s place in it, and careful biblical and theological application—is essential to developing a long-term strategy. Nevertheless, here are some ideas on how you and your church can begin to embrace and rejoice in this rhinoceros-sized opportunity.

We Must Embrace Ethnic Change
Let me first offer an important principle: A charging rhinoceros is only dangerous if you get in its way or try to stop it.

Throughout U.S. history every wave of immigrants has faced strong resistance. Even my ancestors, early German immigrants, were labeled as “atheists and solid beer drinkers, heavy of girth and dull of mind.” Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin asked in his 1751 Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them?”

Our history is marked with those who tried to stop ethnic and cultural diversity, but none have succeeded. Our obligation then is to embrace what God is doing and learn how to be better equipped to have a gospel impact. If we want to be faithful to what God has called us to do, then we need to take an honest look at ourselves.

The problem with stereotypical American tourists is that they are insular. Brooks Peterson, in his book Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures, defines insular this way: “having a narrow provincial attitude about anything unfamiliar or different.” Most of us are slow to admit that we struggle with being closed-minded, and don’t know how to talk to people outside our culture. The truth is that many of us are highly suspicious of almost everyone outside our city’s limits. Unfortunately, if we struggle with insularity, we will struggle with gospel impact.

We Must Develop Cultural Intelligence
To overcome insularity we must develop what Peterson calls “cultural intelligence” (CQ). Though there is no one correct definition, let’s define CQ as, “The ability to read another culture’s ideas, feelings, and values, and develop the skills necessary to correctly interpret their unfamiliar and ambiguous actions or gestures.” Like the legs of a tripod, effective CQ has three primary ingredients: knowledge, awareness, and skills.

Knowledge of culture begins with a careful study of behaviors—the observable activities of a culture: language, food, music, clothing, art, pace of life, emotional display, eye contact, sports, etc. However, observable behavior is only the starting point. We must go deeper to know and understand the ideas and feelings of the culture. We must learn their values and core commitments. This takes time and effort, and is only accomplished through long-term relationships.

The second leg of the CQ tripod is awareness. Awareness falls into two categories: awareness of self and awareness of context. Awareness of self is difficult and requires a serious and honest assessment of both you and your culture. Unfortunately, most people view themselves as cultureless, while in fact nothing could be further from the truth as we have all been culturally groomed to think and behave in certain ways since birth. Awareness of self will probably be one of the most difficult steps in developing your CQ.
The second half of awareness is the ability to be in tune with cultural context. Being aware of your own cultural weaknesses or strengths and adapting them to a new situation is essential. This level of awareness allows you to adapt according to your knowledge and skills, forgoing the stereotypical tourist blunder. A common mistake is made when an individual may have a working knowledge of a specific Mexican culture, but walks into a room of Hispanics and assumes them all to be Mexican. The result will be alienation and probably insult.

The third leg of the tripod is the practical application of knowledge and awareness. Skills are the behaviors that emerge from the knowledge we have learned, coupled with our cultural awareness. Skills take time to develop and will only come as you apply what you have learned about a culture, mixing that with an increasing self-awareness. The best way to develop your CQ skills is with the help of someone outside your culture who will be brave and honest enough to speak the truth in love. Note that some cultures will find this very difficult and will tell you what they think you want to hear.

In summary, let me challenge you to see the rhinoceros of ethnic and cultural change as beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that as God gathers these people, our churches could look a lot like the picture we see in Revelation 7 of a vast ethnic and culturally-diverse multitude made up of peoples from around the world worshiping the Lamb. Let’s pray that God will give us a deep love for all He sends to us and the grace to develop a high cultural intelligence so that we can be winsome messengers of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine upon us, Selah
that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you.”

(Psalm 67:1-3 NIV)

Bob Orner is senior pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Newnan, Ga. He also serves as the Director of Training for Global Church Advancement (GCA). In this position Orner is responsible for providing vision and leadership for all training events and church planting networks in North America and internationally. For more about GCA go to www.gca.cc.

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