The headline for this column is misleading. The “next America” actually is the “now America.” To paraphrase the late cartoon character Pogo, “We have seen the future, and it is here.”
And it means most Baptist congregations and their denomination must change radically or die.
The complexion of the “now America” appears in a new report, “States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974-2060.” It was prepared by a bipartisan collaboration — the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Center for American Progress — and a demographer from the Brookings Institution.
“States of Change” explores the implications of demographic trends for national and state politics. But its data create a sobering sociological map for Baptists and similar faith groups. The report tracks population changes across the past 40 years and reveals trends for the coming 45 years.
Population shifts are under way, with the nation heading toward majority-minority status. “Majority-minority” occurs when the white population no longer is the majority and no single group is the majority.
“The scale of race-ethnic transformation is stunning,” the report observes. “In 1980, the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today, that proportion has fallen to 63 percent, and by 2060, it is projected to be less than 44 percent.
“Hispanics were 6 percent in 1980, are 17 percent today and should be 29 percent by 2060. Asians/Others were just 2 percent in 1980, are 8 percent today and should be 15 percent by 2060. Blacks, however, should be stable at 12 percent to 13 percent over the time period.”
The number of states with majority-minority populations “captures the magnitude of these shifts” better than any other factor, the report adds.
Majority-minority populations already exist Texas, California, Hawaii and New Mexico. By 2060, 22 states are expected to have majority-minority populations. They include seven of the largest states and 11 of the top 15. Those 22 states account for about two-thirds of the U.S. population. Ten other states’ populations are expected to be at least 40 percent minority by 2060.
“States of Change” also documents other trends that will challenge the church across coming decades.
The nation’s generational composition will continue to evolve. Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) no longer comprise the largest generation. At 24 percent of the population, they trail the Millennials (1981-2000), with 27 percent. By 2060, the Boomers will be gone.
The nation’s children will be “superdiverse.” The Millennials are 44 percent minority race/ethnicity, and Post-Millennials (born since 2000) are 49 percent minority. The next two generations will be 57 percent minority and 64 percent minority.
Simultaneously, the nation will age. In 1980, 27 percent of the population was under 18, and 11 percent was over age 65. Today, children make up 24 percent of the population, and seniors comprise 15 percent. By 2060, Americans 65 and older will out-number children, 23 percent to 20 percent.
Meanwhile, family structure will continue to shift. In 1970, 70 percent of adult citizens were married, and 30 percent were single. Today, those percentages are 52 percent married and 48 percent unmarried. The researchers could not make long-range projections for marital status, but “trend data on marital status do indicate continued, albeit slowing, growth in the unmarried population,” their report notes.
Combined, all these trends portend escalating change for Baptists at the congregational and denominational level. If we cannot adapt to — and, better yet, leverage — this change, many of our churches and perhaps conventions will die out.
The keys to leveraging change are extending hospitality and blessing new leadership.
Increasingly, Baptists worship in congregations whose neighborhoods’ demography has changed, is changing or will change. Ideally, those churches will become multi-ethnic or perhaps transition from one dominant ethnicity, to multi-ethnic, to another ethnicity. Churches should study trends and pay attention to their neighbors, as well as city planners, business leaders, school officials and others with their fingers on the pulse of their communities. We should start transitioning long before the racial/ethnic balance of neighborhoods change.
This begins by making people of all races, ethnicities and classes feel welcome. It’s difficult work, but it’s vital, and it reflects the spirit of Christ. A pivotal element of hospitality is blessing leadership — actually recruiting and installing leaders from minorities well ahead of situational trends. For example, if church visitors in a transitional neighborhood see lay and clergy leadership from the rising group in place, they know the congregation loves and cares for them. They begin to feel welcomed and at home.
Another alternative will be to utilize church campuses for multiple congregations. The facilities for a predominantly Anglo church, for example, can become the home of two or more congregations, all sharing space. They also can collaborate on community ministries and worship together occasionally. This arrangement isn’t as ideal as a merged multi-ethnic congregation, but it is a splendid witness to Christian fellowship and racial harmony. Besides, it expresses stewardship of resources, since together the groups can afford facilities and ministries they could not afford alone.
The same must happen within state and national organizations, but on a larger scale. This includes elevating minority leadership, redoubling efforts to educate minority students for congregational and denominational leadership and multiplying efforts to plant more churches that reflect racial and ethnic diversity.
The destinies of millions of Americans now living and, especially, yet to come rest on how we prepare for the future that already is upon us.
The idea for this editorial originated in a column by Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post, “The ‘next America’ is now.”
Photo: U.S. Navy by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Dennis Cantrell/Wikimedia Commons