Research explores immigrants' faith

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)--The largest Southern Baptist study ever conducted on ministry among first-generation immigrant groups is being undertaken by the North American Mission Board and LifeWay Research.

The research project, which will be translated into 20 languages, is surveying 24 key denominations and 114 other denominations representing 300 or more U.S. and Canadian churches on their ministries for first-generation immigrants in the United States and Canada. LifeWay researchers also are conducting interviews with para-church organizations, missions and evangelism professors, missionaries working with first-generation immigrants, ethnic and multicultural church pastors, first-generation believers and lay leaders who interact with internationals on a regular basis.

The need for the unprecedented, comprehensive study -- officially called "A Survey and Analysis of First Generation Immigrants in North America with Implications for their Receptivity to the Gospel" -- stems from the fact that between 1970 and 2005, the foreign-born population in the United States doubled from about 5 percent to more than 12 percent. By 2050, half the U.S. population is expected to be of a different race than non-Hispanic white. Twenty percent of Canada's population is foreign-born and in Toronto more than half the residents were born outside the United States or Canada.

"Out of all the people groups in North America -- and there are 587 based on ethnicity and language -- we need to decide which groups to address first," said Van Kicklighter, senior church planting strategist for NAMB in Alpharetta, Ga. "Who are the most receptive? Which groups are most readily engaged in the Gospel or spiritual things?"

Because NAMB's resources are limited, Southern Baptists must set priorities and parameters as they roll out outreach ministries aimed at first-generation immigrants, Kicklighter said.

"Focusing on first-generation immigrants is a matter of scope and magnitude," he noted. "We need to prioritize and focus on the people God is already at work with -- the people God seems to be ripening and priming for evangelizing and church planting.

"We want to determine not only who's out there, but add to our knowledge about what denominations or para-church groups are already out there working among people groups," Kicklighter added. "We want to learn who has a passion for reaching them. What are the effective methods being used to reach people for Christ -- Scripture distribution, Bible studies, acts of compassion, etc.?"

Kicklighter said information from the survey will be shared with NAMB's partners and will become a key tool used in planning mission resources.

"I can see our state partners building strategies from this data," Kicklighter said. "It will impact where we assign missionaries and among what groups of people. It will help us build databases of best practices and methods for church planting and evangelism."

The research also will dovetail with the current National Evangelism Initiative, "God's Plan for Sharing" (GPS), by helping Southern Baptist churches become more aware of unreached people groups in their communities, Kicklighter said.

"It will spur Southern Baptists to start praying for unreached people groups -- to sow and engage folks with the Gospel, resulting in a harvest," he said. "As GPS results in harvesting people for the Kingdom who are not being reached by an existing church, that's a huge church planting opportunity for us. We see lots of synergy between church planting and the final survey results."

For too many, "'reaching North America' in the SBC has meant reaching people like us," said missiologist Ed Stetzer, who directs LifeWay Research.

"Most past strategies have been built around plans to reach people of only one or maybe two cultures," Stetzer said. "The immigrants arriving on our shores not only speak unfamiliar languages but also bring cultures and belief systems that many have difficulty understanding, including the North American church.

"It takes a much higher level of engagement to reach who is really here, not just the people we see," Stetzer added. "We're glad NAMB cares enough to ask the hard questions, dig deep and learn more about the receptivity of first-generation immigrants in North America."

Immigrants coming to the United States reflect growing religious diversity, according to research conducted by NAMB's Center for Missional Research. A 2001 study showed that Catholics made up 35 percent of all new legal immigrants arriving from outside the U.S.; Orthodox Christians, 13 percent; Protestants, 15 percent; Muslims, 12 percent; Jews, 1 percent; Buddhists, 5 percent; Hindus, 7 percent; and no religious affiliation, 12 percent.

While earlier waves of immigration created a three-way religious division in the United States among Protestants, Catholics and Jews, today's additional religions -- especially Islam and Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism -- have broadened the religious landscape of North America.

The survey began in December and NAMB's goal is to have a preliminary draft to present at the entity's summer leadership meeting with state Southern Baptist leaders next July in Atlanta, Kicklighter said.


Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.

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