Frustrated Fellowship: Millennials and the Future(s) of Black Baptist Churches

hands lifted


This was presented for a course I taught for the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., Congress of Christian Education.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

“A Charge to Keep I Have,” Charles Wesley

“There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. […] Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

“Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” Martin Luther King Jr.


Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church, boldly proclaims that the local church is the hope of the world! Hybels avers, “The hope of the world is not government, academia, business, but the church because it is to the church that God has entrusted the message of salvation, which truly changes people’s lives and hearts.”[1] Without neglecting the preeminence of Jesus Christ and his finished work of salvation, Hybels offers a certain doctrine of the church that sees those called out of the world into fellowship with God as the Body of Christ sent to the world to fulfill a redemptive mission. Thus we who now belong to Christ are together mystically his hands and feet, co-laboring for a cosmos made fully alive and new for the glory of God and the good of the nations. Jesus, the Lord and Head of the Church, directs us to share the Gospel in word and deed, to do greater works in his name, and to live in such a way that signals we are citizens of another kingdom. Through these acts we partner with God to make the world more healthy and whole and thus give it hope for a better future.

This assertion, that the church is the hope of the world, takes on deeper meaning when understood from a historical perspective in black America. From Reconstruction to the nadir of the Civil Rights Movement, many in the black community indeed looked to the black church as the source of hope, not just spiritually, but also comprehensively. In his excellent book The Divided Mind of the Black Church, Raphael G. Warnock (also pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church) defines the black church as “the varied ecclesial groupings of Christians of African descent, inside and outside black and white denominations, imbued with the memory of a suffering Jesus and informed by the legacy of slavery and segregation in America.” Since 1865 black churches and their respective denominations have been what Carter G. Woodson called all-comprehending institutions, touching the spiritual, emotional, familial, financial, economic, political, and social aspects of black life in America. If the local church, generally speaking, is the hope of the world, then the black church has historically been the hope of black folks.

But this notion is not without critique. Pastors, scholars, and everyday people in the pews and on the streets have long debated the meaning and mission of the black church, some seeking to accent its call to save souls, while others have seen the church primarily as a social institution whose mission is more political than religious. This tension has been most notable since 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The rise of academic projects called black liberation theology and womanist theology have challenged the prophetic content of the black church, which for them address the sociopolitical and economic justice and liberation of black women and men. Scholars like Eddie Glaude have recently declared that the black church as we knew it is dead. In his Huffington Post article, Glaude writes:

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. [Emphasis added][2]

In our post-Civil Rights Movement context, what does it mean to be ecclesial harbingers of hope? After the victories of the 1960s, should the church be involved in social and political advocacy? Is that even the church’s fundamental mission? As scholars and advocates evaluate the current effectiveness of the black church from a sociological perspective, there are others who are praying for the black church to be more spiritual, to be communities of healing, deliverance, and empowerment. To be sure, many on both sides of the debate have generalized assumptions about the black church and therefore mischaracterize it by projecting on congregations certain expectations that may or may not be essential to the local church’s preferred identity. But wrestle with these and many other questions and concerns we must. Sadly too many churches and their pastors do not understand that the world has changed.  Myriad churches still go on as if all is the same song and dance. They have not felt the earth move under their feet, have not fully or at least critically embraced the various paradigm shifts that have occurred and persistently challenge the ways in which effective ministry is lived out. People are seeking answers to tough questions and are receiving answers from television, social media, and non-Christian religious and spiritual sources. Whereas WEB DuBois could rightly say that the black preacher was the most unique person in our communities once upon a time, the post-civil rights church has seen and even yearns for leadership from rappers, best-selling authors, movie celebrities, and ballers. These have captivated the minds, hearts, and in some cases even souls, of those who once were led by the preacher. The black church would be wise to prayerfully consider this reality for what it is worth. We cannot do otherwise.
Whatever the future(s) of black churches look like, we must introduce another point of concern. The issues plaguing the black church today are largely generational and cultural. There’s been so much data and concern about the rise in the religiously unaffiliated (called “Nones”). This has alarmed white conservative Evangelicals, who are now experiencing this crisis in great numbers. On the other hand, the same reports are saying that black Millennials are less inclined to leave the church for good. The 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey[3] shows that blacks ages 18-29 aren’t disengaging religion at alarming rates. But the black church must be on alert. This research should not imply that many aren’t leaving the Church and religion. Many are. In spite of what the data show, there is enough anecdotal evidence that should give us pause. Already many established, more traditional churches see 18-40-somethings missing on Sunday mornings. An Atlanta BlackStar article[4] 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. Many churches throughout America know they are in trouble of losing a generation or two. And though many black Millennials are not becoming Nones, they are dropping out of the church in other ways.

In addition to the Nones, the Barna Group has identified two other kinds of Millennial church wanderers: nomads and exiles. “The most common spiritual journey is that of the nomads,” says Barna. This group is comprised of 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background who walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians. A person in this group typically has trouble identifying with a church or a particular “brand” of Christianity, but would consider themselves, broadly, a Christian.”

The second group, called exiles, “has a tough time finding a place in a church setting, but has chosen to remain within an institutional church context. They feel “lost” somewhere between their commitments to church and their desire to stay connected with the world around them. These young adults with a Christian background struggle to connect their faith or church with their everyday lives, and yet they continue in their Christian faith despite these headwinds. More than one-fifth of Millennials with a Christian past (21%) say they remain Christian and continue to attend a church, but they find that church to be a difficult place for them to live out their faith.”[5]

Both of these groups, along with the Nones, are spiritually homeless and tragically too many churches do not know how to reach them. But the churches that can respond to this crisis with compassion, conviction, and clarity will be able to move faithfully toward a reimagined way of being the church. The good news is that all hope is not lost. I believe God has not given up on His Church, especially the black churches that have been anchors for our families and communities for generations. Yet in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century, these churches must be about Kingdom business. They must love God and this generation more than they do traditionalism. Katherine Tyler Scott writes in Transforming Leadership, “In times of great complexity, confusion, and anxiety, we need knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsible action from leaders who are capable of responding responsibly to the adaptive challenges we face.” We are in such a time, and the question is whether our historical lack of attentiveness to this great revolution has left us ill-prepared. As leaders, you can be the catalysts for change by providing transformative leadership for local congregations, communities, and families. This kind of leadership remains awake through these great revolutions we are facing and with vision and commitment moves the people of God toward a preferred, better future. My prayer is that over the next few days, we can dig deeper into what is required of us to serve God and God’s people in this present and future age. With God’s amazing grace and our shared experiences and applications, I believe something powerful and transformational will come from our time together.

[1] “Bill Hybels – The Local Church is the Hope of the World”






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