Can we be more than an ethnic church?
That's the question I've been pondering since reading an article in this morning's Star Tribune about the loss of ethnic identity in Minnesota. The author, focusing in particular on the descendants of German, Norwegian, and Swedish immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, points to recent census data suggesting that the emerging generation is less cognizant of, or interested in, their ethnic heritage.
Outside of the upper Midwest, where Scandinavian ethnic identity has been fairly strong, folks may wonder why this matters. But when I think about how closely church participation - certainly among Lutherans but also many Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholic congregations - I wonder about what this spells for church attendance. Many of our congregations, after all, were either stared as immigrant churches or as off-shoots of those churches, and this is true not only in the Midwest but also across the country. Moreover, lots of congregations continue to celebrate ethnic holidays, whether Fasnacht (or Mardi Gras) just before Lent, Santa Lucia Day in Advent, or Kwanza at the New Year.
How much do we connect church, in other words, with our ethnic identity? Or, to put it another way, how much of our commitment to going to church arose from our family traditions, traditions that include church participation but also Christmas celebrations, ethnic holidays and foods, tales about our grandparents, and more?
Again, this isn't just limited, I think, to Midwestern Lutherans. African Americans have had a very close and cultural tie to what is regularly called "the Black Church," and as the emerging generation of African Americans derives less of its identity from being African American or connects less with the part of their past that closely ties being African American to going to church, attendance of young people in these congregations is also slipping. Similarly, many of the immigrant congregations that are experiencing growth - Hmong and Ethiopian in the Twin Cities, for instance - do so in part because the religious and ethnic dimensions of their congregations are tied so closely together.
Elizabeth Eaton, the new presiding bishop of the ELCA, acknowledged in her remarks just after her election that the ELCA absolutely has to move beyond its primary or founding ethnic identity if it is to have a future, and she's absolutely right. But when ethnicity and faith is tied together, how do we go about that? And if ethnic identity is diminishing among those whose immigration story is now several generations past, how we help people connect to their faith for the sake of the faith and how it helps them navigate their lives in a changed and changing world?
Well, these are just a few of the questions stirred up in me by the article. I'd be interested in your own take on ethnic heritage and faith. Do you have family traditions that are important to you? Are you aware of the ethnic roots of your congregation? How do we both cherish our heritage and imagine a different and vibrant future where persons of all cultures feel welcome? Thanks for being willing to share your insights and experiences in the comments.