Why Are Young Blacks Leaving the Church?
Are “black millennials” leaving the church? Is this something about which we should be alarmed? In recent times much has been written on this subject seeking to interpret and analyze what some are saying is a disturbing trend. Some of the discussion has taken place on the website The Front Porch (see here and here), and some has taken place at other online outlets.
One article in particular, Six Reasons Young Black People are Leaving Church, has raised the question and offered reasons why young black men and women are either leaving or not going to church. The article suggested, first, that the rise in economic opportunities and social progress is making the church irrelevant. Secondly, in an ever-changing digital age, the church appears stagnant, old fashioned, and unattractive. Thirdly, today’s educated black man and woman have less use for faith in an enlightened age where reason and science answer most of their questions. Fourthly, there is a growing discontent among this generation of blacks with biblical passages that seemingly tolerate or advocate for such social ills as slavery and genocide. Fifthly, the church comes off as intolerant, judgmental, and simplistic when it comes to issues of sexual activity, sexual orientation, and living holy in a sexually free society. Lastly, the article suggested that this generation seeks authenticity whereas the black church today gives the impression that everyone has it all together. In other words, black millennials want to stop pretending.
While I don’t want to totally discount the analysis of this article, or dismiss the above reasons given for the supposed exodus of this generation of blacks from the church, I do want to suggest that more discernment is necessary if we are going to properly understand the church and those who attend and don’t attend.
The church is not primarily a social institution that easily measures its membership, and therefore success, by how many people attend. The church is a spiritual organism given life by God the Father, in God the Son, and sustained through God the Holy Spirit. It is not a fraternity or sorority seeking to pad its membership rolls by trying to be and do what is most appealing to the current crop of new prospects. On the contrary, the church of Jesus Christ is spiritually discerned. Its strength is not in its numbers but in its faithfulness. Thus it is very difficult to quantify and therefore measure its success. And while we may reach for practical and pragmatic answers to what we believe is a decline in those who identify with the church, if we don’t consider and take seriously more biblical and spiritual concerns, we can’t and we won’t represent the church rightly.
Consequently, while not totally dismissing the reasons given above by others, I would like to suggest that there may be deeper, more spiritually significant reasons for what some believe is the absence of black millennials in the church. Consider these as possible factors as well:
- People Are Not Saved. I know the salvation of churchgoers is assumed in most conversations about the absence of people from church, yet true belief and true repentance in these cases must never be assumed. Perhaps people are not a part of the church to the degree that they used to be because people are not saved. An unregenerate membership has plagued the church in general, and the black church in particular, for many years. Believing in God and going to church is what you are expected to do in predominantly black contexts—at least it was in past generations. Whether someone was genuinely saved and living in accordance with that profession was never strongly contended. Cultural norms were strong, people did what was expected, and attending church on Sunday was at the top of the list. The current generation, however, is more likely to challenge cultural norms and even religious traditions. Thus, rather than go to church and not really be a Christian, many just don’t go to church at all. If this is the case, then the lack of black millennials in the church today is a good thing. A church that is distinguishing itself from the world and calling disciples to self-sacrifice (Lk. 14:26-33; Mt. 10:37-38) is the church that may be small in number but big in faithfulness.
- The Gospel Is Absent. The unfortunate truth is that many mainline traditional churches have lost ground with younger Christians because these churches have lost the priority of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Emphasis upon social ills, voting rights, public safety, and economic development are good, but they are poor substitutes for the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the church focuses more on its social agenda than it does on the person and work of Christ (his life, death, and resurrection), repentance, the forgiveness of sin, and reconciliation with God, then it loses the one thing that separates it from the world. One does not need to go to church to attend a political rally, to march against injustice, to get out the vote, or to raise the economic base of the family. Those priorities are offered by the world in abundance. When the church makes such things its primary focus, it lowers itself and fails to offer the one thing the world needs most, the thing that only the church can give: the gospel of Jesus Christ (1Cor. 2:1-2; 2Cor. 4:1-5). This generation may be hearing the church speak in the same way the world speaks and is deciding, all things being equal, to take the world’s word for it. I would too.
- God’s Judgment. Let me first state that I never want to presume upon what God is doing. I am not a prophet, nor do I play one on TV. However, I can’t help but wonder if God is being faithful to his Word and doing what he has always done to a people who neglect or forsake his Word (Amos 8:11). The church that is losing ground in the lives of people is a church that may be under the judgment of God for having forsaken its first love (Rev. 2:4). Judgment begins in the household of God. The church that is pilfered by pimping preachers, power-hungry deacons, popularity-seeking bishops, and celebrity-crazed parishioners is a church primed for God’s judgment. It is a church where the prophets prophecy lies, the priests rule at their own direction, and the people love to have it so (Jer. 5:31). The truly redeemed flee from such places. Perhaps the exodus from many churches that so many are seeing is evidence of the hand of God against those churches.
These three factors do not answer exhaustively the questions raised by the supposed absence of young black men and women from church. Nonetheless, I hope they do contribute and help continue a needed conversation, reminding us that a conversation about the church that does not take seriously the Scriptures and the Spirit is in the end a fruitless and futile discussion.
The church is not called to be attractive. It is called to be faithful. If it is faithful, it will be attractive to those whom God is calling. This is what the world needs the church to be, whether the world realizes it or not.
The world needs a church that does not allow society to set the church’s agenda. No matter what the issues of the day, the church must not bow to the pressure of the unregenerate and allow the world to define what is faithfulness to God and what is not.
The world needs a church where the Bible is taken seriously again—where the hard and difficult passages are not shunned in favor of the nice and easy ones. It needs a church dedicated to preaching the whole council of God knowing that the Bible’s primary agenda is the salvation of the nations through Jesus Christ.
Yes, the world needs a church where the implications of the gospel (social reform, justice, equality, global peace, etc.) are pursued, but not at the expense of the gospel itself. It needs a church that knows that Satan does not mind the church embracing the implications of Christ as long as it does not embrace and thus proclaim Christ himself.
The world does not know what it really needs. These things are spiritually discerned. And if the church does not discern it for the world, who will?