Faith Communities Today
New Fact Information
Although nearly seven in ten Adventist churches in the U.S. are reported to NOT have a strong racial/ethnic or national heritage that they are trying to preserve, still the Adventist denomination is twice as likely as other faiths in America to have congregations with a strong ethnic identity.
Nearly one in five (about 17%) of local churches reported that the statement “[our church has] a strong ethnic heritage that it is trying to preserve” describes them “very well” or “quite well.” This is really a two-part question, and not every respondent may have completely understood such a complicated question. Clearly there are some congregational leaders who said, “Yes, we have a strong ethnic or cultural heritage in this congregation; but, no, we are not seeking to preserve it.” They are more likely to have selected the “somewhat” or “slightly” responses.
There are three kinds of congregations that indicate it is “very” or “quite” true that they have a strong racial/ethnic or national heritage that they are trying to preserve:
1. The first are most (but not all) of the immigrant churches that have been planted in growing numbers over the past three decades—Hispanic, Caribbean, Korean and other congregations that are harvesting the influx of newly arriving people from the Caribbean basin, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
These congregations account for nearly half of the baptisms each year in the North American Division and focus on the most recent immigrants. They tend to identify strongly with those immigrants who are most interested in holding onto their “old world” language, culture, worship style and spiritual ethos. There are a few of these immigrant congregations who are less likely to agree with the “trying to preserve” part of the question who are more interested in helping immigrants learn English and assimilate into American culture and American Adventism.
2. Many (but not all) of the historically African American congregations are located primarily in the largest cities in the U.S. and throughout the rural and small-town South. Most of these congregations are healthy, growing churches and those in the metropolitan areas tend to be significantly larger than the median congregation in the North American Division. They are also more likely to be involved in their local community and its needs than is the average Adventist church in the U.S. They are proud of their African American heritage and their Adventist identity and have a strong sense of fellowship that the congregational leaders value and work to maintain. A number of these congregations have become predominately middle class, and some that spent decades in inner city neighborhoods have moved to the suburbs or outer urban neighborhoods because of the significant number of people commuting from throughout the metro area to worship each Sabbath. A few of these congregations have developed a majority of members who are immigrants from the Caribbean and slowly taken on a different character over recent decades. In two major metropolitan areas, New York City and Miami, almost all of the historically African American congregations have become Caribbean immigrant churches.
3. There are still a handful of European ethnic congregations in the U.S., although in most cases they are no longer growing. The leaders of these congregations continue to work to preserve their language and culture. Immigrant churches have been a significant part of Adventist missionary strategy since the 1890s when a Swedish seminary, a German seminary and other foreign language schools were established in Clinton, Iowa. But, once changes in the political and economic context shut down the flow of newly arrived immigrants, the need for immigrant churches began to evaporate. The “second generation”—the sons and daughters of immigrants born in this country—became less interested in worship and evangelism in the “old” language. They got an American education, found success in mainstream careers, and significant numbers married outside their ethnic community. They experienced the same “second generation” issues in their faith that other Adventists born into the church experience. In addition, they discovered that although immigrant ministries are often well-suited for evangelism and church growth, they were not geared to sustain the faith of mature believers who wrestle with complex issues of religion and culture, faith and ethics. Eventually, the last Swedish Adventist Church in America closed down, and, if time lasts long enough, the same will likely be true for many of those in category 1 above.
Some possible discussion questions for your church board, Sabbath School class, or other group.
1. How well does the following statement describe our congregation: Our congregation has a strong racial/ethnic or national heritage that it is trying to preserve. Very well - quite well - somewhat - slightly - not at all
2. Are we a clearly multicultural congregation? If so, what effort will it take to preserve the balanced, multicultural character of our congregation? Is it important to us to make that effort?
3. Are we a “vanilla” congregation, predominately identified with mainstream, white American culture? Is this okay with us? Is it appropriate for the community we are called to reach? If so, are there characteristics other than ethnicity that are important to the culture of our target community, such as socioeconomic status, lifestyle, different family configurations, level of education, type of employment, etc.?4. For congregations in countries other than the United States: What unique considerations do we have that differ from those of the States? How can we address them creatively and with God-honoring intentionality?
New FACT Information, Center for Creative Ministry