Ethnic Churches & the Challenge of Reaching Second-Generation Americans

Approximately 50% of BCNE churches in Greater Boston are ethnic churches. And God is at work among them. In fact, some of the largest churches in Boston happen to be Asian, African-American and Haitian! Very impressively, most of the pioneers who planted these churches did so without the benefits of special training, financial support or church partnerships that many church planters receive today. Ethnic churches in Greater Boston are robust, and continue to multiply. I love attending the worship gatherings and enjoy having fellowship with the gifted pastors who lead these churches. Yet there is a unique, life-or-death challenge that virtually every ethnic church pastor faces:  the challenge of reaching second-generation Americans.

The Challenge Explained

Most ethnic churches begin by reaching those who have recently immigrated to the United States. For new immigrants, starting life over in a strange new country can be difficult and bewildering. First-generation immigrants deeply value churches where they can worship God and interact with others in the language and culture they are familiar with. Thus, preserving the culture of origin becomes a dominant characteristic of first-generation ethnic churches.

However, second generation Americans, i.e., those who are born in the United States to immigrant parents, begin assimilating into Western culture. By the time they are young adults, they often prefer attending English-speaking churches that are less ethnically distinct. As a result, a “silent exodus” of young people leaving ethnic churches is underway.[i]

The Significance of this Challenge

To be sure, this is an urgent issue for ethnic churches.[ii] Within just a few decades, the first generation of immigrants gradually grows old and dies. Unless ethnic churches have successfully adapted themselves to effectively reach and retain the second generation, they too will die. Researcher Mark Mullins writes, “The process of assimilation forces the churches to choose between accommodation and extinction.”[iii]

I have seen this sad reality occur within my own family history. When I was just a small boy, my grandfather was the pastor of a Czech-speaking church in Omaha. And although thousands of assimilated Czechoslovakian Americans continue to live in Omaha, the church my grandfather pastored failed to reach them. As a result, it no longer exists. Unless ethnic churches make the changes necessary to effectively reach the second generation, they will die.

Keys to Reaching Second-Generation Americans

Honestly speaking, for ethnic pastors whose churches have always valued preserving the culture of origin, stopping the silent exodus and reaching assimilated, second-generation Americans is easier said than done. Creating separate, English-language worship services is an important first step. Appointing gifted, second-generation leaders who understand the unique world of their peers is also key.

Thankfully, some of our pastors of ethnic churches in Greater Boston are highly effective in reaching second-generation Americans. Observing their ministry and learning from them can make the difference between life and death for many of our churches. Iron sharpens iron, and by helping one another, our ethnic pastors can overcome the challenge of reaching the second generation!

Sam Taylor serves as the Greater Boston regional coordinator at the Baptist Convention of New England.

[i] Helen Lee, The Silent Exodus, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/august12/6t9050.html

[ii] There are exceptions: ethnic churches in locations where there is a continued arrival of new immigrants can do well by maintaining their focus on the needs of first-generation immigrants.

[iii] Mark Mullins, The Life-Cycle of Ethnic Churches in Sociological Perspective, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. Vol. 14, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 321-334