Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director
I live in one of the fasting growing cities in America. By September of this year, Nashville, Tennessee will top the 1.9 million resident mark. In fact, each day, the population of Nashville increases by 82 residents. That’s 574 each week or roughly 2500 each month. Such stats might be frightening to some but exciting to others. Think about it… if you are in the real estate or construction business you have to think that the surge in population will mean a tremendous boost to your business. Fast food chains, car dealers, health providers and others will have to step up their game. So will the church. While most mainline denominations bemoan the downsizing of congregations, contributions, and influence, maybe they should be rejoicing at the opportunities that are about to knock at their doors. To be sure, the same old song and dance won’t lure new faces to church each week. Like everything else, the church will need to adapt radically. I’m not suggesting that we water down our theology or throw out all we know about ushering people into the presence of God. But there will have to be new strategies, new settings, new services, and new attitudes. The fields are white unto harvest… they are just not “mostly white” like they once were.
Since 2012, Nashville has had the fastest-growing immigrant population of any American city. 12% of the ever-growing population was born outside of the United States. It is home to the nation’s largest Kurdish population. Folks are coming to Nashville from places like Somalia, Burma, and Honduras. According to my friends at the Nashville Baptist Association, this past week, like every other week, worship happens across our city in 87 different languages. That statistic resonates with what Metro Schools has learned about its student population. Currently, 30% of students enrolled in Metro Schools speak a language other than English at home. (That’s 1 out of every three.) The ramifications for how we do church and how we engage our city as people of faith are enormous.
For years, the strategy has been helping others learn how to conform to our image. Maybe now we should think about the ways to conform our image into faces that are welcoming, engaging, and compassionate. We have to get to the point where we no longer demand uniformity of skin tone, hair color, clothing styles, or worship practices. We will learn how to become more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual or we will continue a slow fade into irrelevance. The world has come to us and we need to be ready. Rather than fear the change, we should rejoice in what God is doing.
Let me encourage you and your church to do at least three things.
First, take your family and go to a strange church where the majority of people don’t speak your language or share your ethnicity. Just go and worship one week. See how it feels to be the minority. Take on the experience of not understanding the language, the style of worship, or the cultural nuances. And as awkward as you feel, think about how you are expecting immigrants and refugees to suddenly embrace your home church as God’s gift to the world. You have to think like an outsider or you will never understand their worldview. And if you care about sharing the love of Christ with them, you will have to adjust and accommodate, even if doing so makes you uncomfortable. And by the way, a warm smile, a firm handshake, and a welcoming hug don’t demand Google translation to get the point across.
Second, when you have the opportunity to hire new staff, don’t hire to match current need, but future need. That will take some vision and courage on your part. One of my closest friends in ministry pastored a church in a rapidly transitioning section of Birmingham. The area around the church was in constant flux. The once all-white population soon became mixed racially. So, when the time came to hire a new youth minister, the church intentionally hired an African-American minister to reach kids in the neighborhood who were foundering without the love of Christ and the support of a two-parent home. When it came time to hire a new Music director, they went with a Hispanic guy because of the Latino population in the church field. It took a lot of courage and grace to make that happen. And my friend took a lot of grief along the way. But the church is alive and well today, and yes, it is very different in every way.
Third, consider the full embrace your congregation could offer an immigrant family. It’s easy to talk about welcoming the stranger in our midst. It is quite another thing to invest the time, energy, and resources it takes to make that happen. What if your church had the vision of making a difference in life of a least one immigrant family this year? What if you determined to make a difference… a real difference? What if you helped that family with housing and language skills? What if you helped them find a job and buy a car? What if you helped them find the path to citizenship and learned to converse with them in their native language? What if you helped them navigate the school system and provided all that the children needed to be successful in class? And… what if every church in the city did the same?
As you look ahead ask this simple question in terms of what God will do in our city… Will the Kingdom grow because of me, or in spite of me? The world is coming. We must be ready. Embrace the challenge.