A poll released earlier this year by Lifeway Research found that 90 percent of all Evangelicals say that “the Scripture has no impact on their views toward immigration reform.” In addition, 70 percent said that they had “never been encouraged by their church to reach out to immigrants.”
The first finding is a bit disconcerting, given how much God had to say in scripture to Israel about the treatment of foreigners in their midst. The second finding isn’t that surprising, given the contentious debate over immigration in this country.
But missing in all of this is any consideration of the impact that immigrants might have on American Christianity. In a recent episode of “BreakPoint This Week,” Russell Moore told me that it’s quite possible the leader of the next great awakening in the U.S. will be an immigrant.
Joseph Castleberry would no doubt agree. Castleberry, the president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, has a new book out entitled “The New Pilgrims: How Immigrants are Renewing America’s Faith.”
The title and subtitle may come as a surprise to those of us who are unfamiliar with the people who have immigrated to the U.S. over the past few decades. The threat of Islamist extremists garners the headlines, but it also obscures the fact that the overwhelming majority of people coming here are at least nominally Christian, and many of them are much more than that.
As Castleberry puts it, while “Immigrants confess Christianity in only slightly higher numbers than native-born Americans, [75 percent to 70 percent] . . . a close look at the faith of immigrants today reveals an amazing intensity and sincerity that will compound their effect on America’s faith.”
According to Castleberry, “Christian immigrants offer a great advantage to America that other nations do not enjoy, and even if the percentage of Christians in America does not increase in the future, the content of American faith will definitely show the influence of these new ‘high-octane’ American believers.”
This stands in marked contrast to places like Europe and Canada, where non-Christian majorities among immigrants will probably accelerate the post-Christianization of those societies.
By way of example of how immigrants can “shore up” American Christianity, Castleberry cites the experience of his own denomination, the Assemblies of God. In 2001, nearly 71 percent of the denomination was white Americans. By 2012, that percentage had dropped to under 60 percent. By 2020, it’s estimated the Assemblies of God will be a “majority-minority” denomination.
All of this, mind you, has happened while the Assemblies of God has experienced steady growth. The demographic change lies in the fact that much of that growth has occurred among immigrants, especially Latino immigrants.
In the Catholic Church, “immigrants from Latin America, the Philippines, and Africa keep parishes open and even thriving. In 2014, Hispanics made up almost half of all Catholics under age forty, with 54 percent of young Catholics being non-white.”
As for the “high octane” part, Castleberry cites research from the likes of Pew and Phillip Jenkins about the explosion of Pentecostalism and the Catholic Charismatic movement in Latin America and the Philippines. By some estimates, a third or more of the people in countries like Guatemala, Brazil, and the Philippines are members of one of these movements.
The story Castleberry tells flies in the face of the “Christianity in decline” meme being spread by what Castleberry calls the “secularist Europhilic elites who dominate traditional communications media.” Ouch.
In reality, he thinks the meme has it exactly backwards.
Now granted, these facts do not make immigration reform any easier to figure out. Nor does it ever justify law-breaking. But it should tell us that Christianity in this country, far from being in decline, is being infused right now with a new vitality. And that’s encouraging news.
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.