White Flight, Minority Growth: The Changing Face of American and Grand Rapids Christianity

A week ago my wife, Melinda, and I attended a lecture at Calvin College by Shoon-Chan Rah entitled “The Next evangelicalism and the Changing Face of American Christians.” It was based on his similarly titled book by IVP, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. It was a very interesting, wide-ranging lecture on the ‘fate’ of evangelicalism, or it’s changing ‘face.’

Here were some thoughts from the notes I took on my iPhone:

  • Regarding US diversification, by 2043 more than 50% nonwhite minority.
  • The Pew and ARIS religious survey reports suggest a decline of evangelicalism and Christianity. Show Christianity is in danger and in decline.
  • 17.5% go to church in 2005. Mainline lost 25% in 25 years. Evangelical numbers flat and keeping up with popular trends.
  • The decline in evangelicalism is in white evangelicalism. That’s what the Pew and ARIS show. Only reason evangelicals surviving is because of ethnic minority increase. Large and increasing denominations are stable and increasing because of nonwhites. Surviving because they are ethnically diverse. Smaller and declining denominations are 89-96% white, i.e mainline protestant. Baptists 64% white and pentacostals 58% white, which are increasing in size.
  • There is a decline and collapse in Evangelicalism among white attendance and commitment. The silent story is increase an vitality among ethnic nonwhites. The story isn’t that evangelicalism is declining. The story is that it is declining among whites. Dying white churches and being replaced by nonwhite churches.

The lecture was an eye-opening glimpse into the future face of America, not to mention Her current face.

Afterward Melinda and I went to a local coffee shop to discuss our thoughts. We both came away with a similar feeling: while we appreciated Dr. Rah’s revelations regarding current evangelicalism, we thought he painted a more rosy picture than it deserves. We both were excited to see that massive shift away from an Anglo-Western domination toward a diverse portrait, but we wondered about the white community that is leaving the church en mass.

Now, here me out: I celebrate the diversification of evangelicalism in general and Western Michigan evangelicalism in particular. Near our house in Alger Heights there are a myriad of storefront hispanic and black churches that fit under the evangelical umbrella and several more throughout the city amidst the dominant form of “white” Christianity. This diversity is one of the reasons I have fallen in love with my city. I am excited about the increase in ethnic minorities who are coming to Christ and finding expression within the larger body of Christ.

A linger question remains: How are we to respond to the changes in our white evangelical Grand Rapids church community?

Let’s face it: for a long time (really long time!) Grand Rapids and the broader West Michigan area has been demographically white. Really Dutch and really white! Look at the statistics for three West Michigan counties from 2000 (From US Census QuickFacts):

KENT
White persons, percent, 2000 86.2
Black persons, percent, 2000 9.3
Asian persons, percent, 2000 2.1
Hispanic or Latino, 2000 9.5

OTTAWA
White persons, percent, 2000 94.7
Black persons, percent, 2000 1.5
Asian persons, percent, 2000 0.4
Hispanic or Latino, 2000 8.2

MUSKEGON
White persons, percent, 2000 83.3
Black persons, percent, 2000 13.4
Asian persons, percent, 2000 0.5
Hispanic or Latino, 2000 4.5

AVERAGE
White persons, percent, 2000 88.07
Black persons, percent, 2000 8.07
Asian persons, percent, 2000 1.07
Hispanic or Latino, 2000 7.4

Like I said. White :)

My guess is that these demographic averages across West Michigan will shift when the new census data is released later this year and our area will still be mostly white. While I am super excited about the ethnic shifts that have taken place and are occurring in my city, I’m still concerned with the analysis from Rah, Pew, and ARIS that shows a massive decline among whites in mainline and evangelical Protestantism.

I am not saying I am concerned with whites at the expense of ethnic minorities. Instead, it seems like (at least for Dr. Rah) there isn’t a concern for what is occurring in this particular demographic because so much good and growth and occurring in other demographics, in ethnic minority communities. Perhaps I misunderstood Rah, but it seemed as though he was saying the story isn’t so bleak because there is massive growth among minorities, even though it really is bleak for the white demographic.

It seems that if the national trends hold true for Grand Rapids, there could be major problems for the Grand Rapids church. Perhaps those problems have already been manifesting themselves. While the Grand Rapids church isn’t exclusively demographically white, it is by and large made up of white people. National churches that are majority white are hemorrhaging. National churches that are diverse are stable and/or growing. National churches that are ethnic minorities are growing. It seems as though the same could (and perhaps is) be said of Grand Rapids.

Perhaps I am making too much of these statistics and worrying too much about an entire demographic of people. Perhaps not.

Any thoughts? Specifically, do you think, demographically speaking, whites are exodusing from the Grand Rapids church in the same way they are nation wide. If so, why is that the case and what can be done about it? What are the problems this demographic has with the Church, especially in our area?

These are the lingering, hyperlocal questions that remain from Dr. Rah’s lecture



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