by Dwight J. Zscheile
American has long been a nation of immigrants. Since the broadening of immigration policies in the 1960s, the U.S. has come to encompass a much wider array of cultures and people groups than the European-dominated earlier eras. This has unfolded not just in cities, but also in rural America. Migrant workers and immigrants constitute a major proportion of the workforce in many agricultural and food-processing industries. American suburbs are now also increasingly inhabited by immigrants. Whites are expected to be a minority in the U.S. by 2040 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).
One of the remarkable facets of the new waves of immigrants is that they are highly likely to be Christian. This reflects the growing vitality of Christianity in the majority world. In many cases, these immigrants come to the U.S. expecting it to be a Christian country. They are surprised to find that this is not really the case. Their response is often to embrace the posture of missionaries in their adopted land, as the scholar Jehu Hanciles has documented. They seek to share the gospel with Americans who may or may not have ever known it.
These immigrants typically bring culturally non-Western forms of Christianity to their American neighbors. For instance, worship in their churches often comes alive with dance, testimony, emotional expression, and embodied experiences of the Holy Spirit. This contrasts with the subdued, rationalistic expressions of Christianity many Americans are accustomed to (and many have rejected). When former colonies around the world gained independence from European powers in the twentieth century, the church flourished because the gospel was able to take root in local cultural vernaculars. Now in a remarkable historical turn, Christianity is being brought back to America and Western Europe by immigrants whose parents and grandparents helped to make it more fully indigenous to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
These trends point toward a significantly changed religious situation in America. We have entered a new apostolic age, where the church’s relationship to its surrounding environment more closely resembles the first few centuries of the church’s existence in the Roman Empire than the many intervening centuries of social, cultural, and political establishment in the Christendom era. Western societies where the church was most thoroughly established (such as the countries of northern Europe, including England, where the still legally established Church of England draws only a couple of percent of the population on a Sunday) are facing the worst crisis.
There are striking parallels between the emerging American situation and the environment of the first few centuries after Christ in the Mediterranean world. In those days, there was a widespread sense of uncertainty and spiritual hunger, especially for deep and ancient spiritual traditions. A global empire’s technological innovation, violence, and commercial exploitation fostered the displacement and movement of people groups throughout the region. In the increasingly urbanized centers of the Roman world, there was abundant cultural and religious diversity. Gaps in economic equality and cultural divisions were acute.
We live in a twenty-first-century world of globalization, economic displacement, unsustainable environmental destruction, religious conflict, terrorism, and major waves of global migration. Economic inequality is growing. Those who can afford to do so are turning away from their neighbors and surrounding communities to focus inward on an aesthetic life of pleasure-seeking and consumption. America is profoundly divided. Trust has eroded. For many people, there is a sense that the modern Western myths of technological progress and mastery have run their course. A new spiritual hunger has emerged as people seek meaning, purpose, community, and sustainable ways of living on this earth together amidst global diversity.
How might you church offer a different sense of belonging, meaning, purpose, and security than the dominant culture in America?
Dwight J. Zscheile is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. This essay is from his latest book, People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity (Morehouse, 2012). Image: Relief panel on the marble sarcophagus of Baebia Hertofila, “Communion Meal”, late-3rd century