A Modern Day Exodus
We’ve all heard the conversations of the rising unchurched population – one who neither belongs nor is connected to a church – for years. It’s certainly not a small group of disgruntled Christians. By 2050, the percentage of the U.S. population attending church will be nearly half of what it was in 1990. At the focus of the conversation is usually my generation, the millennials. In 2015, only 27% of millennials attended religious services on a regular basis 1.
Unsurprisingly, what is forgotten in the unchurched conversation is the nuanced experience of Black Church and Christendom. There’s church and there’s being churched. It can only be understood by being experienced. From Conservative Baptist to Full Gospel; from COGIC to PAW, the Black church is, still, a cornerstone of our lived experience – even for those who’ve left it behind.
It is no secret that Black folks are more religious than the U.S. population as a whole. 87% of Black folks describe themselves as a person of faith2. Yet, the echo of the exiting footsteps of millennials from the Black church has grown from a mumble into a roar. Two weeks ago, I sought to find the why and asked my village.
Unplugged: The Church Disconnect
Overwhelmingly, many Black Millennials simply don’t feel a connection to the church. They often don’t feel fulfilled by worship services, auxiliary ministries, and sermons that do not resonate with their spiritual needs.
The Need for Human Leadership
Many pastors have been taught to “let me decrease and You [God] increase.” While this serves well to keep the ego in check, it is also a severance point. For us, there is a non-negotiable need to be deeply rooted and connected by shared experience. We desire leaders whose humanity authentically reflects our own. We can accept that you are flawed, but we cannot accept that you are fraudulent.
Far too many pastors are relying on the emotionalism of the charismatic church tradition that has fallen on ears that are unwilling to hear. Leaders cannot provoke a praise or shout from Black Millennials with haughty judgment laden in sexism, classism, and homophobia. We need tools for survival in a world that seems to hate us. We don’t need the world’s hatred reinforced in the church.
Outgrowing the Church
Black Millennials are also unwilling to commit themselves to a stagnant, stale church. Many of us feel disconnected from churches that have not grown and matured with us from our youth into our young adulthood. With many churches showing open hostility and disdain for the movements that matter to them, Black Millennials feel no need to connect to churches that do not support them or their needs.
God with Us, God Within Us
The need for Black Millennials to see themselves goes beyond leaders humanizing themselves. Many of us are exiting our congregations because we don’t see ourselves in the biblical text or worship practices. Our sanctuaries are adorned with depictions of saints and a savior whose skin doesn’t look like our own. Our leaders are attempting to scapegoat racism as an issue of sin rather than skin. It is no wonder that we would rather exit than be indoctrinated with Respectable Christian Politics.
Black Millennials Desire Disruption, Not Assimilation
Respectable Christianity Politics is a set of requirements where sin must fall within respectable limits in order to be eligible for salvation and the right hand of fellowship within our churches. RCP has defined our acceptable dress code, style of worship, and even which sins we confess and address.
Our preference for respectability over discipleship has led to an edging out at the cross for those who fall short of Christian exceptionalism. RCP reinforces the myth that Christian exceptionalism, as a person of color, is the cure for anti-blackness.
It is not by accident that Evangelical Christianity traditionally associates black with death, sin, and evil while white is associated with purity, innocence, and holiness. It is not simply a “difference of opinion” when opponents argue against the endarkenment of our Savior.
Many denominations of Christianity teach of the flesh (body) as inherently evil and wrought with iniquity, keeping us away from the perfect holiness of God. With that logic, black flesh becomes even more inherently evil than white flesh. As whiteness continues to be prized as the penultimate marker of civility, the desire to gain favor in the sight of White Gaze (define: white gaze) will remain—even in the faith.
The Country Club of Christ
The exodus continues as a relationship with Christ grows more elusive and exclusive. Today’s church can feel as if it requires an application and interview process before you can access corporate worship. There are so many restrictive requirements for performative Christianity that edge out many Black Millennials.
Black Millennials are in a period of awakening that cannot be dimmed with “that’s the Word!” We are far too educated (both by way of collegiate matriculation and informal learning) to overlook the glaring injustice of the world and reinforced oppressions in the church. We’re cringing at the shouts and praises gained at the expense of our LGBTQIA comrades. We wince at the outdated sexist remarks across the pulpit. Little by little, we’ve been shown that we must adopt an anti-them mentality to fit in with fellow parishioners. And we’re refusing to play that ball.
Our Sex and Sexuality Are Sacred, not Sacrilegious
Black Millennial Women experience a different axis of oppression within the church. In addition to all the other problems mentioned, we are met with misogyny and sexism “in Jesus’ name.”
We Don’t Need More Shame
It feels that there is no missed opportunity to remind women of their role of subservience to men within our hallowed halls. Black Millennial Women live and participate in a social media culture where if she breathes she’s called a hoe. We are saddled with the responsibility of not only our sexuality but that of our Christian brothers. Our dresses can’t be too short, too tight, or reveal too much shoulder lest we cause a “good man” to fall. Despite being dressed up in scripture, we find no refuge in our churches from the ongoing shaming of our sexualities.
The conversations around sex in our churches are almost always one sided and revolve around instructing women to “not do it” and “save themselves for marriage.”
We Reject Purity Culture
To be clear: there are many churched millennial women who embrace purity culture hook, line, and sinker. However, for those of us exiting your pews, we refuse to have our entire value as women be based on what lies between our thighs. We’re battle weary of your analogies of our bodies to cars and other inanimate objects. We’re exhausted from battling the natural sensuality of our bodies and your perception of its purpose.
It is not that we wholly reject celibacy. We do, however, reject the idea that the choices we make regarding our sex should be for the benefit of anyone but ourselves. We reject the notion that our sexual pleasure matters not. We refuse to embrace ideology that evaluates our existence by our body counts. We reject purity leaders who tell us to wait for marriage only to restrict the pleasure that we can enjoy within our marriages. We reject Women’s Ministries that don’t acknowledge that we have a purpose and pleasure beyond wife/motherhood.
Your Singles Ministries Suck
Black Millennial Women are underwhelmed by the offerings from the Singles Ministry. The skewed gender balance leaves little opportunity to meet a potential suitor (sexual orientation aside). Many responses complained of a lack of focus beyond becoming a wife and mother. Listen: 57% of Black women 25 and older have at least attended college. We clearly have interests that delay our interest in entering motherhood and/or marriage. Still, in a society where 48% of Black women have never been married, churches cannot afford to have failing Singles’ ministries. Yet, here we are.
We Refuse to Stifle Our Dreams
With massive education credentials, talent, and creativity, Black Millennial Women have so much to offer our churches than our usual relegation to auxiliary ministries. We deserve more than vanity titles that better reflect the fragility of the male ego than our call in the ministry. We reject having our ministries limited to “women’s subjects” in the pulpit. We cannot be bothered to “stay in a woman’s place” and “submit” to authority that is rife with patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism.
Politics in the Pulpit
Perhaps the greatest undoing of the relationship between the church and Black Millennials is the dire absence of evolution in political engagement from the pulpit. For us, there is a longing to see the church of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements; the church that was not afraid to position itself at the front lines to fight against systemic oppression.
Instead we are left with a church that runs on the residue of its glory years as the center of the Black community, a reality that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We Need a Right NOW Word
Black Millennials are more politically aware than ever. Even if we haven’t sided with a political movement, we are painfully aware of the world around us. We are seeking refuge in our churches and are only met with antics that tickle the emotions. We desire to be equipped with how to take on a society that hates us – and we need to be told more than “just pray about it.”
Black Millennials are also wholly disinterested in seeing white supremacy reinforced in the pulpit. One respondent eloquently articulates it:
I stopped attending church because there was a disconnect between what I was hearing/ seeing practiced in church and what I’m living. I need a word for right now that addresses the craziness I feel praying to a God who has not always kept me safe- about keeping my young Black son safe.
It is challenging to wrap my mind around the fact that suffering for indigenous people, women, and people of color is God’s will. As hard as it was for me to accept that I should have stayed in a dysfunctional marriage because that would bring me closer to God. At what cost?
I cannot reconcile the ultra-religious Trump/ GOP/ republicans who go to colonize the “savages” and demonize perceived “others” at home.
It’s Time to Get the Hell Out
Given the political and social climate for Black life in the U.S., it is no wonder why many Black Millennials are rejecting the theology of hell. Witnessing state-sanctioned murders at the hands of law enforcement coupled with a political regime that deepens institutionalized marginalization daily is enough hell in itself. Hellfire and Brimstone sermons aren’t moving us to join the ranks of your membership rosters – nor convincing us of room for us at the cross.
Capitalism & the Cross
Black Millennials are no longer tied down to one place. Now that many of us are no longer relegated to “certain parts” of town, we’re participating in the gentrification of the neighborhood too. As such, many of us find ourselves a lengthy commute away from our places of worship.
Our upward mobility has come at a cost, as do all things with capitalism. We are committed to 40+ hours in our jobs. Our homes and families need our emotional presence and nurturing to remain stable. While our increased income benefits church budgets, our obligations leave us little free time. The idea of giving what little we have to attend unfulfilling church services is of little interest to us. Yet, many congregations are still stuck on the notion that one must be in physical attendance to “truly” engage in worship. We need progressive churches that understand that God can, and does, meet us any and everywhere – even if that somewhere is our smartphones.
Who Will Bridge the Gap?
In short, we are not a generation lost, your churches have simply not made themselves a home to be found. As long as churches bury their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the problems, the institution of the Black Church may become nothing more than a historical relic.
I CAN HELP!
If you’re a Faith Leader who is struggling to attract and retain Millennials, I’d love to connect with you to see how we may partner to help you better reach a more engaged, diverse, and larger audience. Let’s talk today!