Immigration has become a flash point in American political life, from debates over border security, to the protection of “dreamers” and a government shutdown. Religious voices have been steady interlocutors in these conversations. My own research looks into the ways that immigrants are influenced by, and in turn shape, the Christian landscape in the United States, with a particular focus on the Indian Christian community and evangelical megachurches. Nondenominational evangelical megachurches have become a ubiquitous feature of the American religious landscape, and there has been a lot of discussion about how they are “remaking” American religious traditions. But American evangelicalism has also had a profound impact on the church lives of contemporary immigrants and their children.
For at least a decade now, many of the large, mostly white megachurches have started emphasizing multiracialism. Using data from a large national study of Christian congregations in the United States, sociologists Mark Chaves and Shawna Anderson found a rise in multicultural churches between 1998 and 2012. In 1998, twenty percent of religious congregations were entirely white, while in 2012 that proportion had come down to 11 percent. It is likely to have gone down further in the subsequent period. More recently, geographers Caroline Nagel and Patricia Ehrkamp learned that megachurches in the American South have been intentionally reaching out to immigrants in the local population and have incorporated a theological mandate that emphasizes the importance of diversity in churches.
Who are the immigrants (and the children of immigrants) who are drawn to megachurches and what kind of churches did they attend earlier? What effect has their movement to megachurches had on their “home” churches? I examine these questions in my book, Ethnic Church Meets Megachurch: Indian American Christianity in Motion, based on research in the United States and in India. There are around 4 million people of Indian ancestry in the United States and surveys show that around 18 percent of them are Christians (in India, Christians are only around 2.3 percent of the population). A large number of Indian Christians hail from Kerala, a South Indian state where Christians comprise almost 20 percent of the population. My book focuses on the Eastern Reformed Mar Thoma denomination from Kerala, the best organized and most active of the Indian denominations in the United States. I was interested in studying the impact of American evangelicalism on Mar Thoma congregations, both because they have a large number of U.S. parishes, and because they uphold an ancient Eastern Christianity of Middle Eastern provenance, which is based on very different assumptions and practices from American evangelicalism.
I found that the widespread prevalence and dominance of American evangelicalism created an environment in which the traditional practices of the Mar Thoma church seemed alien to its American-born generation. Second-generation Mar Thoma Americans were influenced by nondenominational American evangelicalism and often rejected the “ethnic,” liturgical, and communal worship practices of the Mar Thoma. They argued that being a “closed” ethnic church was “not Christian” since “heaven is going to be multicultural.” But their attempts to introduce non-liturgical praise and worship services in English, open to individuals of all backgrounds, were resisted by members of the immigrant generation for whom the church functioned as an extended family and social community. Consequently, many second-generation Mar Thomites left the Mar Thoma church for large nondenominational churches once they reached adulthood. Others attended both Mar Thoma and evangelical church services. Yet others stayed in the Mar Thoma church, but worked to transform church practices to be closer to the evangelical church model.
Second-generation (and some first-generation) American Mar Thoma church members participated in a variety of evangelical institutions including campus groups, Bible study fellowships, and an array of evangelical churches. Television, websites, books, and radio provided other sources of influence. In interviews and conversations, however, the type of church that came up most frequently, and to which the Mar Thoma church was compared, was the large trans-denominational or nondenominational church—the U.S. megachurch. Most megachurches offer several services over the weekend, and sometimes even during the week, with slick multimedia presentations and contemporary music led by professional bands. They also have programming for a variety of age groups.
Describing the attraction of such churches, Vilja, a 1.5 generation (those born abroad who immigrated as young children) woman in her forties, explained that the youth in her Mar Thoma congregation liked “the short contemporary service, the music, pastors who are fluent in English, and sermons that are well put-together, and have life application.” Shobha, another young woman, a second-generation Mar Thoma American who had left the Mar Thoma church, was enthusiastic about the large nondenominational church she attended along with her husband. “They have an amazing band, and amazing musicians. And we just love worshiping there. It brings a lot of people from the community in because it’s like a free concert on Sunday morning—bagels and donuts too!”
Shobha’s description of the service at the megachurch that she attended as a “free concert on Sunday” is very apt. In these churches, the carefully choreographed, emotionally charged productions with dramatic mood lighting, video enhancement, and professional music are designed to create an uplifting atmosphere. This is probably why many of the Mar Thoma youth described such churches as being “on fire for Christ.” They contrasted this type of worship experience with the sedate, formal service and the off-key congregational singing in Mar Thoma churches. Evangelical megachurches are structured very differently from the Mar Thoma church. While the Mar Thoma churches are small and community-oriented, megachurches are large and often impersonal. But many of the second generation I interviewed thought that the lack of community orientation of these evangelical churches actually helped to foster spirituality. Although the older, immigrant generation said that it was important for them to know “the person who is sitting next to me in the pew,” the younger generation considered the social aspect of the Mar Thoma church a hindrance to being able to focus on God during the service.
The services at megachurches are also much shorter than at the Mar Thoma church, which means that people could fit in many other activities during the day. If they went to a Mar Thoma church on the other hand, most of Sunday was spent on the commute, the service, and church activities. Finally, the financial obligations for Mar Thomites attending megachurches were lower than at a Mar Thoma church. Due to these factors, in the United States, small, ethnic churches like the Mar Thoma face competition for their youth from large evangelical churches.
The immigrant and the American-born generation also understood the meaning of being Christian very differently. Those who immigrated to the United States from India generally interpreted being Christian as the outcome of being born and raised in a Christian family, sacralized by infant baptism into the church community. They also saw their religious and ethnic identity as intertwined—for them heritage, faith, and denomination were bound together and were all conferred by birth, as was the case of most other social groups in India. Second-generation Mar Thoma Americans, on the other hand, tended to view a Christian identity as the outcome of achieving a personal relationship with Christ, often beginning with a “born-again” experience. Like many other religiously oriented second-generation Asian Americans, almost all of the second-generation members who were regular churchgoers––whether they currently attended the Mar Thoma church or a non-ethnic church––separated their religious identity from their ethnic or sectarian identity, and said that their Christian identity was primary. Immigrants and their children also had very different conceptions about the church, its mission, and structure, as well as the role of the pastor, the type of sermons they wanted to hear, the language that should be used for worship services, the importance of liturgy, and even the type of worship songs sung in church. Consequently, disputes and misunderstandings were common between the two generations in the church.
American evangelicalism is also transforming the religious context in India. Charismatic, evangelical, or Pentecostal churches have risen up all over India in the past few decades. There are a large number and variety of such churches, locally called “New Generation Churches” in Kerala. Return migrations from the United States initiated some of the first evangelical nondenominational megachurches in the state. Many of the new churches in Kerala and around the country also seem to be thriving due to the contributions coming in from evangelicals in the West, particularly the United States. Consequently, international migrants and foreign connections have played an important role in initiating and sustaining these churches. People are drawn to the new generation churches because of the “intense spiritual experiences” they provide through the rousing singing, dancing, and the occasional faith-healing that takes place during services, as well as the practically oriented sermons and the charismatic preachers. The personal attention these churches are able to offer members who confront problems was another important factor. Many traditional, episcopal denominations in Kerala like the Mar Thoma find themselves without the resources to counter the global spread of nondenominational evangelicalism even in their home communities. Since these churches are based on very different socio-cultural ideas about personhood, autonomy, and spirituality, many of the ancient Eastern Christian churches in Kerala might find themselves eventually losing their rich history and traditions.
Immigrants may also bring about changes in American evangelical churches. In fact, it is possible that the new theological imperative toward diversity of these churches is due to the increasing presence of immigrants in the regions where American megachurches are located, including the American South. The American-born children of immigrants might also be starting to enter into some leadership positions in these churches. A 2015 study by Indian Christian leader and scholar, Sam George, shows that the overwhelming majority of second-generation Indian American pastors were not serving immigrant churches and that most were drawn to American evangelicalism. According to his survey, more than 100 second-generation Indian American Christians were serving in American evangelical churches and ministries (including several who held leadership positions), and another 200 who were studying in American seminaries were in the pipeline to work in American evangelical churches.
If white evangelical churches become more diverse and start to incorporate more non-white leaders, we may also begin to see some changes in the social and political outlooks of conservative white Americans. We have learned that Donald Trump won the presidency in part due to the strong support of white evangelicals. We have also been told that the anti-immigrant sentiment coursing through the United States provided a major impetus to the support for Trump. However, if megachurches are spearheading active outreach attempts to immigrants, it is possible that some white evangelicals may come to perceive a contradiction between the mandate to welcome immigrants into their congregation and anti-immigrant mobilizing. Perhaps, in turn, these changes could herald another seismic shift in American politics.
Prema Kurien is professor and chair of sociology at Syracuse University.