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.

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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.

Top 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.

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.

17 Comments

JP Paulus

1

JP Paulus commented…

You mentioned Historically Black churches...but what about some of the newer ones...which seem to be attracting millenials even more. Like TD Jakes...or here in Chicago, John Hannah's New Life COvenant SOuthEast?

Seems like those kind of churches are even more active than the "traditional" ones

(As well as being a part of multicultural churches)

Bryan T. Calvin

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Bryan T. Calvin replied to JP Paulus's comment

That's a great question and I wondered about that myself. Part of the difficulty with megachurches is we don't know much about their racial or age group demographics. Even the Pew surveys that have received so much attention, don't account for this growing trend. I wish we had more data and research about that because it seems to be a key factor that we shouldn't be dismissing, but I can't tell you much about them. If you have some solid numbers, I'd love to look at them.

Thanks.

LaToya M. Tooles

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LaToya M. Tooles commented…

Thanks for writing this! It sparked some interesting conversation on my facebook share. I grew up in a traditional black church, went to a multi cultural church and currently attend a predominately white church and miss black church every Sunday. I've noticed that the greatest difference of church culture is this: For black people, church is the only place that certain things occur. It's the only place dominated by black culture and leadership. It's where we get physically, emotionally and spiritually taken care of. We have a culture that states we NEED to go to church, not HAVE to (unless grandma says, then you're going for your life!). Where as I think white culture doesn't rely on church the same way. So they go because the have to or want to. Which isn't awful... but doesn't have the same longlasting affects as growing up NEEDING to go to church.

Bryan T. Calvin

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Bryan T. Calvin replied to LaToya M. Tooles's comment

Yes! That's exactly what I was trying to say. The need can be strong. I go to a predominantly white church myself, and while I love it, there are certain things I miss about the black churches I grew up in. Please check out my previous post about that. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/blog/28480-resisting-a-segreg...

Daniel K. Eng

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Daniel K. Eng commented…

Thanks for writing this post! I really appreciate it. I think many of the generalizations we make about the American church are definitely skewed towards the white community. I'd like to learn more about why the African American millennials are staying in church, because it's not the same for the Asian American community. Many Asian American millennials are leaving the church as well, perhaps at even higher rates than the white Americans. Yet the second half of your article would totally apply to Asian Americans as much as African Americans. I actually re-read your post starting from "My last theory..." and substituted "Asian American" where you wrote "black" and I found that it fits our experience as well. Yet, the results are different: Asian Americans are leaving the church. Perhaps the Asian American church community can learn from the African American church experience.

UniqueMonique

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UniqueMonique replied to Daniel K. Eng's comment

Interesting comparison, Daniel. It got me thinking which is always positive. Could any of the following ideas be relevant?
1. Immigration Status - Would immigration status affect the drive to assimilate (and leave the church as part of the process)? Some groups like blacks, Amish, Hasidic Jews etc are more insular and have been established in US for many generations. Whereas the Koreans I know are either immigrants themselves or are first generation. It seems that most first-generation groups including Europeans, Africans, Carribean Islanders, Puerto Ricans and Vietnamese are inclined to blend into the mainstream of Millenial culture.
2. Fewer barriers - Is it possible that Korean Millennials perceive fewer ethnic or relational barriers when pursuing acceptance or integration in the mainstream and therefore don't experience as compelling a need to retain or return to a cultural "home-base"?

3. I've read different Western authors that consider Asian ethnic groups to be more community-centered and less individualistic than Americans. Is this your perception and could that contribute to the difference?

Daniel

20

Daniel commented…

I had heard on The Line Of Fire Radio (Dr. Michael L. Brown) that a study had been undertaken to determine whether there was a provable link between fatherlessness and unbelief (and the other way around); that it was concluded that there was/is. Historically well-known atheists, it showed, had had broken relationships with their fathers; historically well-known (I know they do not work for notoriety) ministers had had good relationships with their fathers - leading them to the difficulty:
"Why is there so little atheism among the black community which as high rates of fatherlessness?"

I thought, "Usually the father will discipline the children - but in Black American families, the children will *most certainly* be disciplined by the mother (and other members of the family/community) just as readily; I think this 'impresses' the idea upon the individual that, 'There IS a consequence waiting for me at the end of this - that much is certain.': what was likely to have been missing from the lives of the fatherless unbelievers was the 'back-up disciplinary figure'. There was no 'rock' that could give them a 'definite' sense of reality - i.e.: of 'the law of sowing and reaping'/'the law of cause and effect'/'action and consequence'. That especially 'efficacious' way in which a whipping 'expounds' on the aforementioned was absent or not nearly as pronounced in the fatherless unbelievers' homes."

You could argue that "faith" is just a cultural fixture of Black American history/background/community; but the White Americans have also had a lot of "faith culture/history/background/community", yet do not have the statistically insignificant percentile of atheism the Black Americans (of course, "American" must be specified, because it isn't in the physical "brownness", but the predominant "culture" - forged by various historical happenings - among that specific American people-group) do.

What is the difference between the fatherless children? My personal opinion is that it is the presence/absence of "discipline" (i.e.: *corporal punishment). I shared what I thought with a Black American Christian friend of mine; he (smiling while listening, then bursting out laughing before answering) agreed.

Bryan T. Calvin

10

Bryan T. Calvin replied to Daniel's comment

One thing that I didn't mention in my piece is that disparity between black men and women in church. Males still lead most black churches as reverends or deacons, but the congregation itself is majority women. Black men don't go to church at the same rates as women.

Daniel

20

Daniel replied to Bryan T. Calvin's comment

Well, the fact that they are not atheists does not necessarily ALSO mean that they are "observant" - what it means is that EVEN IF they are not "observant", they do not use the subterfuge, "I don't believe in God" to try to deceive themselves or dodge responsibility; they'll just admit they're not living right (still holding a respect that there will be a payment for their evil): "I'm not atheist or anything - I definitely believe in God - I just don't live the right way."

Actually, I just saw D.L. Hughley say that very thing in a CNN Interview with Mark Driscoll (https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=w_HDFH34Wec#t=354 @ min 5:54 and on).

Tim Chan

25

Tim Chan commented…

This is very interesting - I had no idea that black millennials weren't leaving the church. All I can say is that Asian millennials are not the same... they are leaving the church (at least leaving the Asian churches that they grew up in), mostly because they feel like they don't belong. Many of my peers have left the church altogether, and others have found a multi-cultural church to be a part of.

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