Learning: Why Are Immigrants Often So Religious?

As most of you know, when our family moved to Lynn we were a bit shocked.  We didn’t realize how many churches there would be in Lynn.  There are a lot!  And of course most of these churches are filled with immigrants: 1st and 2nd generation immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.  As I began to think more about the church in America, I began to realize that the role of immigrants is actually crucial to its history.  Why is it that immigrants are often so religious?  Why is faith such an important part of many coming here to America?  So far, I have three ideas:

1). Coming to America is a Faith Building Experience:  The Bible is filled with accounts of people traveling to a new place and drawing on their faith in God to help them.  Think of Abraham leaving Ur and traveling to Canaan – God was with him the whole way and Abraham’s faith was deepened by the experience.  Leaving your home often involves prayers of guidance and consecration.  The journey itself, with the deprivation and suffering that may occur, can draw a person closer to God, often with miracles occuring along the way.  And in the new country, the immigrant may give thanks to God for His help, renewing a commitment to live for Him.  As the sociologist Timothy writes, immigration can be a “theologizing experience.”

2). The Relationship of Church, Family and Ethnicity:  Another major motivation spurring immigrant religious participation is the companionship and friendship of those who share similar ethnic backgrounds.  When far from “home” and trying to make a new “home”, a person is an in-between place and that can be stressful.  Imagine you moved to North Africa or Vietnam next week, where would you find friends and community?  Probably with other American families living there.  Churches can serve to reinforce language, dress, architectural features from the home country, ethnic and national holidays, but most importantly social networks between families that help people feel comfortable as they adapt to a new place.  The Catholic Church in the U.S. has done a super job combining faith and ethnicity – just witness the variety of Catholic churches in New England:  Irish, Italian, French, Polish, Hispanic, Brazilian, etc. 

3).  The Rise of the Global South:  While we in the northern hemisphere have seen a plateau or decline in the numbers of practicing Christians in the last decades, Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia have seen much growth.  I have personally witnessed the growth of the church in Tanzania, with churches being planted non-stop.  Estimates are there will be 660 million Christians in Africa by 2050!  Churches in the Global South are generally conservative and highly evangelistic.  The reality is that immigrants coming from these parts of the world have a zeal, excitement and boldness that often puts the rest of us to shame.  It is no surprise that they seek to plant churches here in Lynn and other cities in New England.  They come from areas of the world where Christianity is thriving!

Before moving to Lynn, I have to admit that I never made the connection between immigrants and faith.  But now I have seen it with my own eyes.  Could immigrants be the key to revival here in New England?  Just might be!

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