The new face of faith

Posted in Testimony

On a December morning, the polished sounds of bongos and electric keyboards emanate from Congregación León de Judá, a 1,500 member church in an ethnically diverse Boston neighborhood. It's a mainline American Baptist Churches congregation, though maybe not one prior generations would recognize.

The 36,000-square-foot complex looks more suited for offices than offerings, but on this day, 500 pack the sanctuary for an upbeat, bilingual service. A high-stepping man leads a praise chorus. Laypeople take turns praying: one in Spanish, then another in English. Dozens approach the stage for prayer. Hands rise and eyelids fall. After an hour, some 75 English speakers representing 15 countries head downstairs to continue worship in their language.

Another 15 go to a window-filled room where a new Anglican Church in North America congregation, started by León de Judá, is gathering for the first time. Ministries here are growing so fast – 500 new members in the past five years – that a 40,000-square-foot building is rising next door to help house it all.

For new members like Ted Best, who emigrated from Barbados 30 years ago, and William Leslie from Dominica (both English-speaking countries), the church's Hispanic roots were no barrier. They like being part of a dynamic congregation that provides outlets for compassion and immigrants' hopes.
"We want to be part of a church that is growing," says Mr. Leslie, who does outreach work for León de Judá, from visiting hospitals to sharing information in subways. "We want to touch the community for Jesus, and this church has advanced that cause."

Much of the church growth in secular New England stems from immigrants and the cultures they create in pursuit of spiritual grounding. Researchers at the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), a Boston-based Christian organization that studies urban ministries, call it a "quiet revival." It is often overlooked because the Religion Census tracks only denominations, yet nondenominational churches account for some of the fastest-filling pews, or folding chairs, as the case may more often be.

EGC data show that Boston has spawned more than 100 Hispanic evangelical churches in the past 40 years, up from just a handful in the 1970s. EGC's census also found 65 Haitian churches in greater Boston, including at least one with more than 500 members.

"A storefront church might not look that big, but they have 100 to 200 people coming each week," says Rudy Mitchell, a senior researcher at EGC. "A big old church might only have 50 people attending even though they have a big building."

Where growth is happening inside traditional denominations, such as at León de Judá, immigrant connections often play a central role. Half of the Southern Baptists' 325 churches in New England are non-English speaking. They worship instead in Spanish, Portuguese, or Haitian Creole.

What's more, internationally minded denominations are benefitting from having built churches, schools, and hospitals abroad for decades. Seventh-day Adventists operate more than 7,800 schools around the world. Thus, Brazilians who immigrate to Massachusetts often plug into a local Seventh-day Adventist church led by an immigrant pastor who knows their homeland and speaks their native language, according to Edwin Hernandez of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

Immigrant vitality is driving growth in other more secular regions as well. Steve Lewis, academic dean at Bangor Theological Seminary, spent most of his career in Oregon, the sixth least religious state.

"The growth in churches in areas that are generally in decline are coming from ethnic congregations," says Mr. Lewis. "In Portland, Ore., there are churches with Romanians, Ukrainians, Eastern Europeans, and thousands of people go to them. You have churches in decline in that region, but these [ethnic] churches are buying warehouses and remodeling them."

Many of the religious groups with international ties investing in steeples and schools in New England are reaping quick returns. Since relocating from Rhode Island to a long-vacant campus in Haverhill, Mass., in 2008, the Assemblies of God's Zion Bible College has doubled enrollment, from 200 to 400.

"People don't like the aura of past religions in many cases, where the church looks like it's a club," says Charles Crabtree, president of Zion, which will be renamed Northpoint Bible College on Jan. 1. "But when we go out, build churches, and are in the neighborhoods expressing the love of Christ, it's amazing how many people respond."

t Congregación León de Judá, Kelvin Carroll has found a path for continuing enrichment that began in Alabama. He'd long worshiped in emotional black Baptist churches, he says, but discovered more dimensions to faith when he joined a biracial church in Dothan, Ala., led by two pastors, one black and one white.

Now a transplant to Quincy, Mass., where he works 14-hour days at Wal-Mart and Home Depot, Mr. Carroll expects he'll learn even more about the Bible and discipleship through an English ministry hosted by a Spanish-speaking congregation. "I'm here because I wanted to see the Spanish part of it," says Carroll. "It helps me in the ministry to know each culture and how they serve God."

Even in some churches experiencing fewer people in the pews, activity in the name of God is thriving in other ways. The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire saw average attendance drop 20 percent from 2000 to 2010.

"The churches and the pews have been emptying, but they're starting to come back," says the Right Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, who will become Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire in January. "Maybe not on Sunday morning, but I see people coming together for prayer groups, for Bible study, for partnering together to serve those who are most at risk in our society. When you look at those metrics, the church is very alive."

It is alive on Sunday mornings and afternoons, too, in buildings that don't look like churches. No steeple or stained glass adorns León de Judá, but that doesn't keep the people from rejoicing. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is," sings the hand-waving congregation as a projector displays lyrics on a wall, "there is freedom."

Excerpts reprinted from The Christian Science Monitor: Who's filling America's church pews (Publishing Date: December 23, 2012)


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