Diaspora worship service in Austin represents nationwide shift in church demographics

The interdenominational Diaspora Network sees immigrant churches as a “powerful force of renewal for the North American church.”

By Patrick M. DavisAugust 22, 2023 10:08 am,

It’s no secret that church attendance in the U.S. has been steadily declining for several decades.

Reports on American religious demographics often focus on the decline of Christianity and the rise of the “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated. But, under the radar, immigrant churches with powerful messages and ecstatic worship services are providing spiritual and material support for communities that have resettled in the U.S.

In Austin, an interdenominational group called the Diaspora Network connects and empowers these churches. The capital city is home to more than 150 diaspora churches that worship in at least 30 languages, according to the network.

Austin Vineyard Church doesn’t have a steeple or stained glass depictions of angels and saints. Its beige aluminum siding looks more like a warehouse than a place of worship. But as soon as I entered the building on a Friday night in late July, there was no mistaking where I was.

Patrick M. Davis / Texas Standard

Singers from the Good Shepherd Anglican Church share Nigerian worship music at the Nations Worship Service at Austin Vineyard Church.

Smiling churchgoers welcomed me as the smells of a multicultural potluck filled the air. Many congregants wore vibrant textiles from Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Soon after I arrived, the group’s excited chatter was drowned out by the sound of a Nigerian worship band.

The band leader introduced the first song and explained he would be singing in his native language.

“But God understands every language,” he said.

The Diaspora Network’s Nations Worship Service continued with scripture readings and worship songs in at least nine languages. Flags of many nations waved as Christian clergy from all over the world spoke and led prayers, while immigrants from at least a dozen different countries filled the sanctuary and spilled into the hallway.

Patrick M. Davis / Texas Standard

A multinational group of clergy and congregants recite the Bible verse First Corinthians 12:27 in nine languages. In English, the verse reads, “all of you together are Christ’s body and each of you is a part of it.”

In his opening speech at the service, Jonathan Kindberg, the network’s diaspora mobilizer, utilized numerous languages to welcome congregants and shared the motivating force behind his organization.

“We believe that diaspora – the global church presence in Austin and in the United States – represents one of the greatest hopes for renewal of the North American church,” he said.

For American church leaders like Kindberg, that renewal is sorely needed. According to a study by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, just 44% of Americans today identify as white and Christian, a number that’s been declining steadily for decades: In 1996, it was 65%.

At the same time, the number of religiously unaffiliated has risen steadily. The same study shows no significant change in the number of American Christians of color, but Kindberg said that may not be the whole story.

Patrick M. Davis / Texas Standard

Archbishop Joseph D’Souza of Hyderabad in India was the featured speaker at the Nations Worship Service. “Tear down the walls in the Christian church and do whatever you can to show that you are one humanity,” he said.

Kindberg said that declining rates of church attendance are primarily happening in what he called “non-immigrant spaces.” But a lack of official church structures and records can further obscure the impact and reach of immigrant churches.

“They’ll often exist on the margins, not necessarily owning church buildings or having full-time pastors,” Kindberg said.

These groups might be hard for demographers to track, but religious immigrants form vital mutual support networks at a time when they’re needed most. Syracuse University sociologist Prema Kurien said there is a logical reason why immigrant groups exhibit higher rates of religiosity.

“Immigration and relocation from a familiar context to something completely unfamiliar is a theologizing experience,” Kurien said. “It raises existential questions – things that people don’t think about when they are in their home country with a familiar community.”

Kurien said migration always happens through networks. Religious immigrant networks in the U.S. provide support systems that attract more immigrants from abroad, which in turn grows and strengthens those networks.

Patrick M. Davis / Texas Standard

Pastor John Monger and Dr. Benjamin Anyacho lead the congregation in prayer at the Nations Worship Service in late July.

Pastor John Monger has seen his congregation at International Restoration Church in Austin grow as a result of the support he provides for the Nepali and Bhutanese immigrant communities. Monger, who has baptized more than 300 people in Austin, started the church in a Nepal refugee camp, where he was sent after being exiled from his home country of Bhutan.

“I was kicked out from Bhutan because of my faith,” he said. “I was asked to deny Jesus, and I said, ‘I will not deny Jesus.’”

Monger spent more than 20 years in Nepal, sharing his message with refugees. Today, pastoring remains the core of Monger’s mission, but having an established congregation in Austin has allowed him to provide support to immigrants of all religions.

“We have a small center where we welcome refugees, immigrants and also local people,” he said. “If they are broken and confused in their life, without a job or house, we stand with them and then mentor them.”

Monger said converting people to Christianity is never his goal – but many in his congregation have become Christian after receiving his help. It seems his actions, more than his sermons, are the cause of growth at International Restoration Church.

“Without any conditions I really want to help them,” Monger said. “Helping is my great joy.”

Patrick M. Davis / Texas Standard

The Good Shepherd Anglican Church worship band leads the congregation in “The African Way.”

As I talked to immigrant clergy for this story, one theme kept coming up: what the American church is missing. They see the American church, and the U.S. in general, as having great material wealth but being poor in matters of spirit and heart.

One pastor likened the American church to a mansion with a beautiful fireplace, but no fire burning. The immigrant church, she said, is a tiny hut with a roaring fire inside.

I felt that fire at the Nations Worship Service. There was an intensity and urgency that I never experienced at my childhood Southern Baptist Church. I imagine many Americans who’ve left the church long for that intensity.

Neither demographers or church leaders can say for sure what American Christianity will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years. Constantly changing migration patterns are just one of many variables in the equation.

What is certain is that right now in Austin, Texas, the immigrant church is on fire.

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