Just a few weeks ago, evangelist Jefferson Bethke wrote a provocative essay for The Washington Post, arguing that church-going millennials were in crisis. Their desire to break free from the rigidness of their parents’ religion, he argued, has led them to an overemphasis on individual freedom. “If you care more about flaunting your Christian freedom than promoting Christian unity,” he wrote, “you’re probably not free. You are actually a slave to your so-called freedom.”
I was reminded of Bethke’s essay recently after reading about several high profile events that sparked intense debate on social media. First, news broke that a 26-year-old pastor was fired for attending a Rick Ross concert; then there were reports that a 16-year-old girl was removed from the church choir after her third pregnancy; and a pastor instructed women in his church to not wear weaves.
Each of these incidents got me thinking about the never-ending discussion about millennials leaving the church. This is reflected in data from a 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey, which states, “One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” But this also led me to wonder if the same goes for black millennials. Are they fleeing the black church in the same ways that we see happening in mainline Protestant churches?
In his 2010 “The Black Church is Dead” essay, Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude said, “The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead. Of course, many African Americans still go to church. According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.”
Glaude argued that the black church has been historically been much more conservative than acknowledged; that it’s not the monolith many describe it as, particularly with the growing popularity of figures like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren; and that the church’s emphasis on a social justice is more a byproduct of memory than reality.
Indeed, Christianity and culture have always clashed, but the church (the black church included) is seemingly in the fight of its life. More than ever before – the digitalized, global community we live in demands that the church constantly elevate how it will be relevant to this and emerging generations. As the church seeks to preserve tradition, it will constantly be faced with resistance from rebellious young people. Will it alienate them or find innovative ways to bring them into the fold? Does the church understand their needs?
In a recent article on CNN about why millennials are leaving the church,” Rachel Held Evans wrote, “We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers. You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”
Black millennials are no different in their yearning to be affirmed while also being deeply challenged. They, like any other generational group, want guidance about their sense of purpose, relationships and lifestyle. They want to know how to balance their faith with the cultural influences that shape them as a person.
Oftentimes, young people are viewed as pew fillers who need to be brought in to reflect a vibrant church ministry. Once they are in the church, there may often be an awkwardness about how to best meet their needs. Worship can either begin to look like a hip-hop concert or the young people are left to stand in the shadows of traditional worship and old time preaching.
Church leadership would be better off asking why so many youth and young adults are drawn to celebrities, places and ways of life that the church deems unhealthy for them. What is the lure? What are they getting from those things that they can’t find in the church and its leadership? Why isn’t religious life equally attractive? What is the church missing and is there a way to strike a healthy balance?
Grappling with those questions is the responsibility and imperative of faith leaders, but millennials also have a challenge in front of them: questioning their own rebellion.
Black millennials are experiencing economic and social benefits that previous generations only dreamt about. As a result, a need for faith in their lives may not have the same pull as it did in the past. Feeling judged and being told to check their generational habits at the door may not necessarily create a want for religious life either.
The church has to be careful in not neglecting the uniqueness of black millennials in its effort to maintain a unified body of believers. Otherwise, those who have not yet willingly left may soon feel pushed out.