It’s a traditional Wednesday night Bible study at New Bethel Baptist Church, and the pews are partly filled. But online, more than 700 viewers are tuned in on Facebook Live.
The pastor asks, “Do you think there is an identity crisis in the church?” While attendees respond to that question in person at the church, online viewers made more than 60 comments and shared links for the next hour.
This is Bible study in the new millennium for New Bethel, which started integrating social media into worship last spring.
In recent years, church attendance for young adults ages 18 to 35 years old has been in decline across the United States, according to Pew reports. But while some historically black churches are closing their doors because the number of parishioners is declining, New Bethel and a few other churches in the District are winning over these millennials.
As Washington’s population increases and its racial demographics change, millennials of multiple ethnic backgrounds are finding their spiritual guidance and comfort in historically black churches, such as New Bethel, because these churches are addressing topics and using tools that matter to their generation.
“I was partying. I needed to turn my life around,” said Raygan Rogers, 27, a dialysis patient care technician, who recently added her name to the list of millennial members at New Bethel. “So I tried God out.”
She traded happy hours for these church pews in Shaw.
“The word was so good. It felt fresh,” Rogers said after her first Bible study at New Bethel. “The word of God woke up something in me that was asleep for a while.”
The pastor at New Bethel said that historically black churches such as his attract millennials because of their social and civil activities, technology engagement, and pastoral care.
“Historically black churches were created because there wasn’t a place for black people at white churches,” the Rev. Dexter Nutall said. “The millennials are very curious about God. They’re looking for community and real meaningful expressions of faith that transcend the sanctuary.”
While some historically black churches have moved into the suburbs in part because of membership decline, New Bethel’s membership has grown tremendously over the last few years, going from 300 to a little more than 1,300.
Nearly half the current members at the 116-year-old congregation are now millennials (ages 23 to 38) and post-millennials (22 and under). That has changed many aspects of the church, even the collection plate: Attendees use CashApp, a mobile app for sending money, to donate from their phones.
Reid Temple in downtown D.C. now offers casual Saturday evening services as an alternative to Sunday mornings, and even pays for Uber or Lyft to and from services. Union Temple Baptist in Anacostia created shorter 90-minute summer services in place of their regular two- to three-hour services. Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church downtown hosts rap sessions to get young adults’ feedback.
“The church will die if you don’t have millennials,” said the Rev. Jazmine Brooks, who holds the title of “innovation intern” at Metropolitan AME. Brooks, 24, said she joined the 180-year-old congregation because of its strong history of activism. “I want to be politically engaged in social justice,” she said.
Metropolitan AME was a place of worship for abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the late 1800s. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Martin Luther King Jr. all preached there.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, a Howard University professor who researches black churches, said young people are changing the culture of these congregations.
“Initially there was ‘don’t be on your phone in church’ thinking. But these churches have found a way to incorporate technology into the life of the church,” she said. “Now we hear pastors saying ‘tweet this and hashtag that’ in their sermons.”
One Sunday at New Bethel, when Nutall said, “Go to 1 Corinthians 9:23 in your Bibles,” nearly two-thirds of the congregation stared at the Bible apps on their phones. Most people also used their phones to digitally give during the offering session. The brass-and-velvet collection plate saw its first tithing envelope three rows from the back.
“When I’m having a hard time, Rev. Russ texts me Bible verses to help me through,” said April Taylor, 35, a member of Reid Temple.
Racial and civil justice issues also draw these churchgoers. The Rev. William Lamar IV of Metropolitan AME was arrested in June for civil disobedience outside the U.S. Supreme Court, during a prayer protest against the court’s ruling to uphold Ohio’s voter-purge law. Nutall held town halls with local police and activists after white supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville.
Church experts and millennials say they want to see leaders live what they preach on Sundays, by speaking out on injustice. “Most of the millennials have come out of the church because they aren’t getting their needs met,” said the Rev. Christine Wiley, a 30-year veteran pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, one of the first churches in the District to affirm same-sex marriage.
Some millennials say that sexual and racial identities play a significant role when it comes to choosing a house of worship. “I look like I am a part of the LGBTQ community, but everyone in the congregation was friendly,” said Tiara Habeebullah, 23, who recently started attending Metropolitan AME. “They smiled and hugged me. They genuinely cared.”
Habeebullah, who is a lesbian, wears a diamond nose ring and a short-faded, high-and-tight military haircut. She’s not a Christian but says she felt that Metropolitan AME is a place where she belongs. So she travels from Richmond to attend Sunday services.
She feels like a part of history and the new generation that will continue that legacy. “There was no black revolution,” she said, “that didn’t have the black church at the forefront of it.”