The “Browning Church” and God’s Renewal

illustration in grass and people

As a Latino growing up as the son of an undocumented pastor, my experience was very different from those who surrounded me. I felt that I could not identify with my peers, and I always felt out of place. My White peers accepted me, in a way, by my being [part of their denomination], but I was not accepted because of my skin color, my race, or my father’s undocumented status. I wanted to believe in what my family and church taught me as truth, but I slowly drifted away from my beliefs as a result of the testimony I received from the Anglo church and their members.…I find myself conflicted with my identity.

This note was written to me by a student in a religious studies course on the history of the Brown Church. His conflict of cultural and religious identity presages the future of Christianity in the United States. As the North American church has diversified through immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa in recent years, a reactionary movement of White Christian nationalism has arisen, which conflates the church with US civil religion and rejects immigrant Christians as undesirable newcomers and even illegitimate believers. The result is that millions of Latina/o young adults, as well as millennials and Gen Zers of all cultural backgrounds, are fleeing the church, repelled by the increasingly explicit equation of Christianity with White nationalism. At the same time, however, the opposite pole of progressive Euro-American Christianity is likewise experiencing strong downturn. Some elements of this politically progressive expression of Christianity limit faith to social activism, while de-emphasizing personal transformation and deep spiritual encounter with the Holy Spirit.  The fundamentalist-modernist debates of a century ago seem to have reached the end of a road as their contemporary denominational progenies do not seem to possess within themselves what is required to successfully address the pressing problems and spiritual hunger of our current day. New wineskins are needed. As in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, however, hope sometimes springs from unexpected and forsaken places, such as Galilee of the Gentiles, and the rapidly growing immigrant church holds much promise for the future revitalization of Christianity in North America.

At the same time that the United States is experiencing such a marked collapse in formal religious identification, it is also experiencing a diversity explosion, reminiscent of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem with people from every language, tongue, tribe, and nation. The United States is in the early stages of a profound racial and ethnic “mestizaje,” or cultural mixture, in which cultural groups from every continent on the globe are freely mixing in a historically unprecedented way. This rapid trend toward cultural diversity is also reflected in the changing demographics of the US church. The North American church is “browning,” as Caucasian representation is in decline and as all other ethnic groups are together increasing.1 Immigration from places such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia is fueling this rapid ecclesial change, and today, one in three American evangelicals is a person of color. As part of these rapid changes, grassroots expressions of church are gradually replacing the formal structures and practices of Euro-American Christendom. These domestic trends coincide with the fact that the global pendulum of Christianity has already swung in the direction of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The expression that Christianity is a “White man’s religion” is already not true. The present and future face of the church of Jesus of Nazareth is “brown,” and Christianity is returning to its historical origins as a faith of the marginalized born in the Near East.

In order to participate in the coming renewal, we must together prayerfully discern the new wineskins that God is creating. Christian sisters and brothers from the Majority World bring with them a vibrant personal faith driven by radical dependence on Jesus made necessary by suffering and the struggle to survive. There’s an “abuelita faith” that has been tested and purified by many testimonies of God’s faithfulness and passed down to successive generations.2 As part of these new wineskins, Christian immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia are redefining the US church in practice, polity, and theology. Global theologians also bring distinct perspectives that have the potential to address many of the burning spiritual and social questions facing the North American church. A related question for exploration is how these immigrant churches will learn from, and relate to, both the Black and Native American churches that have borne the racial burden and heat of the day for people of color throughout the history of the United States.

At the same time, it is important to note that although immigrant churches represent much hope for the revitalization of the US church, they also possess ticking time bombs that, if left unchecked, might also sabotage the long-term revival of the US church. Examples include the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism, which were exported from the US church in recent years, and which many immigrants bring with them. Some immigrants also carry beliefs and practices which have yet to be decolonized, and it is all too easy for some to assimilate dangerous US theologies through denominational and social ties. Moreover, like every other ethnic group, our immigrant communities possess cultural sins which require the sanctification of Jesus.

Such potential pitfalls notwithstanding, a sense of hope quickly rises when one imagines the diverse “glory and honor” or cultural treasure of the Global South as metaphorical jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, jacinth, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, gold, and silver (Rev 21:26).  Ecclesial hope springs from the diversity explosion which will increasingly define North American church life and society. Christian immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia possess thriving faith and vast treasuries of community cultural wealth, which hold promise to revive the church of North America and address the most divisive cultural and political issues of our day.

Robert Chao Romero

Robert Chao Romero is an associate professor in the UCLA departments of Chicana/o Studies and Central America Studies and of Asian American Studies. He is the author of several books, including The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 and Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity. Dr. Romero also holds a PhD from UCLA and a JD from UC Berkeley and is an attorney, an ordained minister, and a faith-rooted community organizer.

As a Latino growing up as the son of an undocumented pastor, my experience was very different from those who surrounded me. I felt that I could not identify with my peers, and I always felt out of place. My White peers accepted me, in a way, by my being [part of their denomination], but I was not accepted because of my skin color, my race, or my father’s undocumented status. I wanted to believe in what my family and church taught me as truth, but I slowly drifted away from my beliefs as a result of the testimony I received from the Anglo church and their members.…I find myself conflicted with my identity.

This note was written to me by a student in a religious studies course on the history of the Brown Church. His conflict of cultural and religious identity presages the future of Christianity in the United States. As the North American church has diversified through immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa in recent years, a reactionary movement of White Christian nationalism has arisen, which conflates the church with US civil religion and rejects immigrant Christians as undesirable newcomers and even illegitimate believers. The result is that millions of Latina/o young adults, as well as millennials and Gen Zers of all cultural backgrounds, are fleeing the church, repelled by the increasingly explicit equation of Christianity with White nationalism. At the same time, however, the opposite pole of progressive Euro-American Christianity is likewise experiencing strong downturn. Some elements of this politically progressive expression of Christianity limit faith to social activism, while de-emphasizing personal transformation and deep spiritual encounter with the Holy Spirit.  The fundamentalist-modernist debates of a century ago seem to have reached the end of a road as their contemporary denominational progenies do not seem to possess within themselves what is required to successfully address the pressing problems and spiritual hunger of our current day. New wineskins are needed. As in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, however, hope sometimes springs from unexpected and forsaken places, such as Galilee of the Gentiles, and the rapidly growing immigrant church holds much promise for the future revitalization of Christianity in North America.

At the same time that the United States is experiencing such a marked collapse in formal religious identification, it is also experiencing a diversity explosion, reminiscent of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem with people from every language, tongue, tribe, and nation. The United States is in the early stages of a profound racial and ethnic “mestizaje,” or cultural mixture, in which cultural groups from every continent on the globe are freely mixing in a historically unprecedented way. This rapid trend toward cultural diversity is also reflected in the changing demographics of the US church. The North American church is “browning,” as Caucasian representation is in decline and as all other ethnic groups are together increasing.1 Immigration from places such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia is fueling this rapid ecclesial change, and today, one in three American evangelicals is a person of color. As part of these rapid changes, grassroots expressions of church are gradually replacing the formal structures and practices of Euro-American Christendom. These domestic trends coincide with the fact that the global pendulum of Christianity has already swung in the direction of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The expression that Christianity is a “White man’s religion” is already not true. The present and future face of the church of Jesus of Nazareth is “brown,” and Christianity is returning to its historical origins as a faith of the marginalized born in the Near East.

In order to participate in the coming renewal, we must together prayerfully discern the new wineskins that God is creating. Christian sisters and brothers from the Majority World bring with them a vibrant personal faith driven by radical dependence on Jesus made necessary by suffering and the struggle to survive. There’s an “abuelita faith” that has been tested and purified by many testimonies of God’s faithfulness and passed down to successive generations.2 As part of these new wineskins, Christian immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia are redefining the US church in practice, polity, and theology. Global theologians also bring distinct perspectives that have the potential to address many of the burning spiritual and social questions facing the North American church. A related question for exploration is how these immigrant churches will learn from, and relate to, both the Black and Native American churches that have borne the racial burden and heat of the day for people of color throughout the history of the United States.

At the same time, it is important to note that although immigrant churches represent much hope for the revitalization of the US church, they also possess ticking time bombs that, if left unchecked, might also sabotage the long-term revival of the US church. Examples include the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism, which were exported from the US church in recent years, and which many immigrants bring with them. Some immigrants also carry beliefs and practices which have yet to be decolonized, and it is all too easy for some to assimilate dangerous US theologies through denominational and social ties. Moreover, like every other ethnic group, our immigrant communities possess cultural sins which require the sanctification of Jesus.

Such potential pitfalls notwithstanding, a sense of hope quickly rises when one imagines the diverse “glory and honor” or cultural treasure of the Global South as metaphorical jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, jacinth, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, gold, and silver (Rev 21:26).  Ecclesial hope springs from the diversity explosion which will increasingly define North American church life and society. Christian immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia possess thriving faith and vast treasuries of community cultural wealth, which hold promise to revive the church of North America and address the most divisive cultural and political issues of our day.

Written By

Robert Chao Romero is an associate professor in the UCLA departments of Chicana/o Studies and Central America Studies and of Asian American Studies. He is the author of several books, including The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 and Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity. Dr. Romero also holds a PhD from UCLA and a JD from UC Berkeley and is an attorney, an ordained minister, and a faith-rooted community organizer.

Originally published

January 27, 2023

Up Next
Fuller Magazine: Issue 24

Sebastian Kim, academic dean for the Korean Studies Center, writes about the historical formation of different Korean theologies and the importance of dialogue between these traditions for shaping the church today.