A January 24 Atlanta BlackStar article offered six reasons young black people are leaving the Church. Among the reasons given were socioeconomic advancements, educational attainment, and shifting views on sexual ethics. This piece has circulated highly on Facebook and has given cause for much dialog and debate about the state of the Black Church and black Millennials. Read by itself, one could be led to think that the Black Church is facing an epidemic. This assertion would be alarmist, at best.
To be sure, this online article is not—nor attempts to be—a scientific study on the subject. The one official study on Millennials and religion maintains that black Millennials aren’t leaving the Church in droves like their white counterparts. The 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey shows that blacks ages 18-29 aren’t disengaging religion at alarming rates. Of course, this doesn’t mean that many aren’t leaving the Church and religion. Many are. And many are staying in churches with a “form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” (2 Timothy 3:5)
But it’s important not to isolate black Millennials from larger trends within contemporary Christianity in America. These are times of great change. Change for the better and change for the worst. Churches must have leaders like the sons of Issachar who discern the times and know what we are to do. The reality is cheap clichés about God said so-and-so won’t be enough to “contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) And the ethical dilemmas of today can’t be resolved with a “just pray about it” dismissiveness. Ministry in the present age requires more sophistication, sensitivity, and spiritual power.
And guess what? Ministry is every age has required this. What is often ignored is how in almost every generation in America there have been fears about the state of the Church and nation. The previous generation fears the decline of the next. The latter looks with suspicion at the older. And so the cycle continues.
I’ve had the pleasure of ministering to people of varying generations. For three years I pastored a church who median age at the time was about 70. Most of the active members are old enough to be my grandparents! What was interesting is that many of the concerns about “young folks” were alive and well among the seasoned saints. Biblical illiteracy, no respect for authority, sexual libertarianism, idolatrous worship, and so on are often terms associated with Millennials. May I tell you that I experienced all of these (and then some) among people who have more days behind them than in front of them?
Now that I’m ministering to people young enough to be my baby brother or sister in a public university setting, I certainly see many of the same things. But just like among the Baby Boomers, I also see a remnant who truly desire to worship God in Spirit and in truth. Each Sunday I lead more than a hundred students in praise, worship, prayer, and the preached Word. I have a small, dedicated group of student ministers who assist me in this work. They love God and Christ’s Church and seek to live godly lives even as every temptation seeks to seduce them. They are not perfect, but hope-filled and yearning for leaders with integrity and authenticity who will disciple them through some of the most complicated questions they have ever faced. When I counsel them, they share their testimonies of how God is making them into people after His glory. They stumble, they fall, they resist, they get up, they make all the mistakes and commit all the sins at 20 that folks make at 60. We must encourage them, love them, provide space for them to search and be found.
My greatest fear is not whether black Millennials will leave the Church. It is rather whether or not churches will abandon them.
I know too much about the Lord to be hopeless about this generation. I believe God is raising up some great men and women of faith who will answer the call to be in the world and not of it. And it is my prayer that they will serve the Church, and even call dying churches from death to life so that their peers and generations after them will be models of Christian virtue and witness. At least in Jackson I know a few churches with their doors and arms wide open to receive and even go after Generation Y.
I see signs of hope among them. God hasn’t given up on us.