Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Yesterday, cities were in the nations. Today, the nations are in the cities, urban ministry pioneer Ray Bakke has observed. But to reach those nations, or peoples, for Christ, we need to understand who they are, where they are and how they are moving and changing.
“The epicenter of the urban wave in North America is ethnic minorities,” Troy Bush told pastors, lay church leaders and others during a session of “ethnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center,” held Oct. 20-22 at Park Slope Community Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. “How are we going to tap into this, not only to reach them with the Gospel, but to mobilize them so that they will be the ones reaching people groups? … We must recognize what God is doing in our cities and seize the day.”
Bush, a former missionary to Moscow, leads the Dehoney Center for Urban Ministry Training at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He also directs The Rebuild Initiative, a national urban leadership and church-planting network based in Atlanta, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in America. While working with the North American Mission Board, he directed church planting in Baltimore, another city undergoing major ethnic change.
Using new data about urban immigrants in America from the Brookings Institution, Bush examined some key changes in the decade between 2000 and 2010. The number of foreign-born people in the United States reached 40 million in 2010, a 28 percent increase since 2000 — and about 13 percent of the nation’s total population. More than a third of new immigrants during the decade came from Asia, while the fastest-growing group came from Africa.
Immigrants living in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas increased 27 percent during the period. The five cities with the largest foreign-born populations: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Houston. But the top five’s share of the total immigrant population dipped from 43 percent to 38 percent during the decade. The fastest growth came in smaller and mid-sized cities.
The Brookings study reports: “A swath of metro areas from Scranton (Pa.) stretching southwest to Indianapolis and Little Rock and sweeping east to encompass most of the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic — including states and localities that have been flashpoints in the immigration debate — saw growth rates on the order of three times that of the 100-largest-metro-areas rate. These include Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville and Indianapolis, all of which passed the 100,000 mark for total foreign-born population by 2010.”
“These aren’t your Chicagos, L.A.’s, New Yorks, your normal gateway cities for immigrants,” Bush said. “These are medium-size cities. … Many [immigrants and refugees] coming from places like Somalia are only passing through LaGuardia or JFK [airports in New York] as they go straight to Louisville, straight to Kansas City, straight to Memphis. They’re bypassing these large cities right from the start.”
Similarly, the state with the fastest-growing immigrant population isn’t California or New York, but North Carolina. Number two: Georgia — followed by Arkansas, Nevada and Tennessee.
“So when we think strategically about where we’re going to engage unreached people groups, it’s OK to think about coming to Atlanta,” Bush said. “It really is. Why? Because they’re coming there! The largest Hindu temple in the entire U.S. is in Atlanta, in Gwinnett County.”
Another key trend: New immigrants are increasingly settling in the suburbs of metro areas rather than traditional inner-city ethnic enclaves as they seek better neighborhoods, jobs and schools. By 2010, slightly more than half of all immigrants could be found in suburbs.
“The younger generations that are moving in today, almost regardless of where they are coming from, are skipping completely over the center city. They’re actually starting in the suburbs,” said Bush. “They’re not going into ethnic enclaves that once made up the cores of those cities.”
Perhaps even more significant is the increase of second-generation immigrants in the cities and the nation at large. More than half of the children in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco are second-generation — i.e., U.S.-born but with at least one foreign-born parent. They now account for more than 11 percent of the national population.
“This is a wave that we’ve really, really got to get on the radar,” Bush urged. “But here’s the thing to watch: Second-generation immigrant children represent 25 percent of all of the children under 18 in the United States. It is an enormous wave that is beginning to crash down on us.”
Second-gens often leave their parents’ homes, neighborhoods and ethnic communities. They move around (a trait that also typifies many new immigrants). They change. Their worldviews change. They create new patterns and cultures. In some cases, they actually form new people groups. “New American ethnic groups are forming more quickly than ever before [and they are] the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrants,” write Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, authors of Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation.
Bottom line: There’s no simple formula for reaching the “nations in the cities.” But any number of creative ministries can meet specific needs. Bush cited 11 different church-planting models that work effectively in different contexts. There surely are more.
“No one church can get its arms completely around any metro, especially a larger metro,” Bush said. “So what I encourage churches to do is begin in their own neighborhoods, geographically and relationally. Because in many cases, through their work and their play, they’re encountering many of the different ethnic groups that are coming into their communities. The census is certainly a good starting point, but relief agencies and especially immigration agencies are actively looking for church partners who will come alongside as they’re bringing in peoples — many of whom are coming from closed countries and unreached people groups.”
What ultimately works, regardless of location or context, is Jesus Christ’s model of disciple-making.
“There are no two cities that are exactly the same, but when it comes down to it, the heart of everything we need to do comes back to proclaiming the Gospel, displaying the Gospel and making disciples that congregate into reproducing, multiplying churches. That core is central whether we’re in Moscow or we’re in Mumbai,” Bush said.
“We need to model how to live as believers with immigrants. We need to share meals with them. We need to share life together. Our homes need to be places where we invite them not to come for a meal but to come for a month. … They see how you cling to Christ when there’s nothing else to cling to. It’s not just something you talk about in a Bible study. It’s who you are as a disciple.”
(ethnéCITY, co-sponsored by IMB and the North American Mission Board, reflects the reality that national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world. Two more ethnéCITY conferences are set for Nov. 17-19 in Houston and May 3-5 in Vancouver. To find out more or register, visit www.ethnecity.com.)