Why Aren’t Black Millennials Leaving the Church?

As Millennials leave the Church in droves, black Millennials are staying put.

If you keep up with Christian news and blogs at all you know there has been a lot of talk about why Millennials are leaving the church.

It is a hot topic for Christian books and speakers, and for good reason. People are trying to understand why Millennials are leaving, if we can get them back and if the problem is with the generation or with the message or presentation of the Church.

New data from the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey (that is a mouthful to say and write) shows while the number of people who don’t identify with a religion has risen to 20 percent of the U.S. population, for adults age 18-29, that number rises to over 30 percent. This trend has steadily been growing among Protestant mainline and evangelical populations.

The numbers for black millennials are, in fact, not dropping. That is, black adults age 18-29 are not leaving the Church.


And yet, this is a discussion that is missing a few pieces. If you look closer at these reports, you’ll see an interesting disparity.

The numbers for black Millennials are, in fact, not dropping. That is, black adults age 18-29 are not leaving the Church. The 2007 report shows that black Millennials makeup 24 percent of Historically Black Churches , the same percentage as their Boomer Generation parents. Religious affiliation for young black adults going to historically black churches remains stable. If you look at trends between the 2007 and 2012 surveys, there’s not much difference in the numbers for black Millennials.

In general, the numbers consistently show that blacks of all ages are more likely to maintain a religious affiliation than whites. So what’s different? Why aren’t black Millennials leaving the church as quickly as their white counterparts? There are a few theories that may help explain the difference, but let’s first look at some numbers to highlight more of this disparity.

The 2007 study asked questions about the frequency of prayer and church attendance, and the importance of religion and found some striking disparities. The survey showed that 79 percent of blacks say religion is very important to their lives compared to 56 percent of all Americans. In terms of how often people pray, 76 percent of blacks report to praying daily compared to 58 percent of all Americans. Church attendance differs, as well, with 39 percent of all Americans attending a service once a week compared to 53 percent of blacks.

So, in general, it seems blacks are more invested in the practices and rituals associated with church life. Scores of religious and sociological scholars have found similar numbers in their academic research.

Maybe the difference is that whites and blacks view the institution of the Church differently. Historically, the black church has always played an important communal role. It was a gathering place where blacks could go and temporarily forget the hardships of systematic discrimination. Pre-Civil War, it served as one of the few places where a large number could meet without raising suspicions (although some southern states passed laws requiring black slave churches to have a white preacher or supervisor).

Post-slavery, when most protestant denominations wouldn’t allow black members or clergies, blacks built their own and created their own specific denominations. The black church has also been a place of organizing for social justice, a key component in any historical fight for civil rights. There is a large and continuing tradition of black preachers also serving as local civil rights leaders. So from a historical perspective, maybe blacks and whites view the role of church differently.

My last theory is one frequently voiced time and again from black people of all age groups. Living in a predominately white (but racially changing) country, sometimes it is freeing to spend a few hours in a place where you are not a minority.

Historically, black people operating in white professional or social settings have had to create a distinct persona or presentation of themselves. In the black church, for those few hours on Sunday or Wednesday night, black people are free from such pretenses. NPR recently launched a site called Code Switch that explores this phenomenon across all races, and President Obama was even caught in the act in 2009 at a popular DC restaurant (beginning about 55 seconds in). Black churches provide a community where such “code shifts” are permitted without judgment.

This is also a call to the American Church as a whole to recognize the challenge and opportunity before them.


There is nothing inherently wrong with this. On the contrary, it’s entirely understandable. But this is also a call to the American Church as a whole to recognize the challenge and opportunity before them. As the national conversation this year has illuminated, blacks continue to feel marginalized and mistrusted in this country. Black churches are uniquely positioned to be a haven of both communal and spiritual encouragement. Whether or not this is a mantle the American Church as a whole will be able to take on remains to be seen.

Do any or all of these explain why black Millennials haven’t left the Church at similar rates as whites? I honestly don’t know. And to be sure, we continue to see more and more mixed race congregations, and that is something to be celebrated. All I know is talking about Millennials leaving the Church without specifying which Millennials is only half of the conversation.

And if the American Church is willing to enter into conversation beyond the racial lines that have often been drawn up around it, they may realize that the solution to their “problem” of Millennials leaving is closer than they thought.

17 Comments

Bryan T. Calvin

10

Bryan T. Calvin commented…

Dear Tim Chan and Daniel Eng, Isn't it sad how one sided these conversations are? Most of the conversation is usually about white Christians, or white and black, like mine above. We completely ignore matters of faith in other racial and ethnic communities. I know a little about the political behavior of the Asian-American community, but I couldn't tell you anything about their religious practices. I find it interesting that Asian millennials are leaving the church. We really need more information about ALL Christians.

linda

1

linda commented…

thanks for your interesting article. do you think the role of the holy spirit and the spiritual gifts comes into play here as well? i don't know if most black churches tend to be a bit more on the charismatic side (i'm thinking they are?), but i know that when people see the Spirit moving they are more engaged and find following Jesus to be a more vibrant and life-changing experience on a daily basis. i know that globally it is the charismatic/pentecostal churches that are experiencing explosive growth and thought that might be a factor here as well as to why blacks are continuing to gather together locally as the church.

Crystal Spraggins

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Crystal Spraggins commented…

Here's another thought. More African Americans than whites or other ethnic groups are impoverished and feel the effects of racism and other forms of prejudice. These factors might keep us closer to God (or at least closer to seeking him) than not. The bible doesn't say that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" for nothing.

Another reason could be differences in parenting style. I once posed the question in a Christian Linkedin group, "Do you insist that all members of your household (even grown children) go to church?" I asked because I do, and my college student (home for the summer) was complaining, and I became curious about other parents. I got LOADS of responses, and by and large, only the most conservative white parents insisted their children attend church, but this wasn't true for black parents, who tended to be more strict in this regard.

Bryan T. Calvin

10

Bryan T. Calvin replied to Crystal Spraggins's comment

I have to admit, I didn't go home for college after that first year. Mainly because I didn't want to follow my parent's rules! But I've heard that before, that church acts as a refuge.

Brittney Switala-HisRadio

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Brittney Switala-HisRadio replied to Bryan T. Calvin's comment

Thank you for your enlightening article. Bryan. Two questions... First, civil rights remains a political/social issue. Churches/pastors that address traditionally conservative issues such as abortion/sanctity of marriage are ridiculed. When politicians come speak at churches and talk about these issues they are met with calls for separation of church and state. Politicians who come to black churches are often praised and there is no call for separation of church and state. Why such dichotomy? Do you see it differently?
Also, from what you said about Sunday morning being a refuge of sorts, do you think segregation on Sunday mornings is a problem? I know many movements (Promise Keepers comes to mind) have pushed Sunday morning integration for the health of the Church. Thanks!

Alvin Miyashita Schexnider

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Alvin Miyashita Schexnider commented…

Thanks for this article! I wonder though, aside from attendance, have you found any data or allegories around how engaged in / feeling accepted by the black church black millenials feel?

Check out this article on the Washington Post to get a sense of what I mean:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2013/08/27/are-black-millen...

R Isaiah Cl

5

R Isaiah Cl commented…

I think the conclusion from the study is spot on: "So, in general, it seems blacks are more invested in the practices and rituals associated with church life." I have too many friends and acquaintances that judging by their fruit (Matthew 7:16) are not truly following The Most High. It is a depressing reality. Parents and grandparents especially taught them to attend church religiously but that's it.

I also think the author's conclusion that predominantly black churches offer an escape from the majority white environment is also true. I can definitely attest to that feeling as a black professional. Regardless of your interests, hobbies, and friends, sometimes it is awesome to "kickback" around your own people. This is not racism nor is it wrong.

Honestly, I wish my fellow millennials would question their churches more and study the scriptures - not in an effort to disprove the faith, because they are oh so real - but to return to the true faith and way of life our Creator laid out for us.

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