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Will Millennials be the Saviors of the Black Church – or its Crucifiers?

While 63 percent of African-Americans born between 1928 and 1945 are associated with a historically black denomination, just 41 percent of black millennials have the same association.

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

- 1 Corinthians 1:10

The black church – no, let's call it the Black church, big "B" for context – was never monolithic to begin with. It had diversity, assenting and dissenting viewpoints, where opinions often varied, but they found ways to speak in a collective voice when moments in history called for it. Generational connections were a given, a necessity for survival, but somewhere along the progression of seasons, years, decades, and centennial celebrations, church started to mean one thing to one group, and yet, something entirely different to another.

Keeping pace with the many distractions afforded by technology and shifting domestic dynamics, church as an institution, a gathering place, became for many, less geographical in nature and more ideological in reality, based in part on the notion that you didn't have to go to church to have – or experience – church. This ran counter to the tradition in black communities of Sunday morning worship services, amongst a sea of hats and fans supported on wooden sticks, fanning the air, as the preacher growled into the microphone – the tender chordal support of an organ in the corner of the sanctuary, urging the congregation into contemplative or supplicant moments. These fragments are, without question, part of the black experience – that is, if you were born before 1981.

Tradition, for this set of African-Americans (the millennials), has a different shape. Millennials are expected to overtake boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. Contrast this with a decline in millennial church attendance and the picture becomes clearer. Like an heirloom whose purpose has been passed down from generation to generation, over time, becoming threadbare, it slowly unravels to the point of having a meaning that's been lost because it doesn't resemble what it once was.

In 2007, Pew had found that only 12 percent of black Americans were religiously unaffiliated – "that is, atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular.'" By the time the 2014 Landscape Study was conducted, that number had grown to 18 percent. They also found that "as with the general population, younger African-American adults are more likely than older African-Americans to be unaffiliated. Three-in-ten (29 percent) African Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say they are unaffiliated compared with only 7 percent of black adults 65 and older who say this." This means the black church is not only going to have to court – and retain – millennials, it'll be necessary to be led by them as well. Moreover, how baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials connect, bridge and interconnect, will have a great impact on whether the church – as we know it – survives.

Called Early

Robert Bolden, a native Detroiter, was 26 years old when he interviewed for a church position – actually, the highest position: pastor. Central Baptist Church understood that despite its decades-long history, nothing was set in stone, membership was declining and it needed someone to change the culture. Bolden was raised by his grandmother and knew all the church's traditions intimately. He sang in the choir, served as an usher and filled in wherever possible. For him, what made it fulfilling was his connection to people.

"I was more connected to the people than I was with the church," Bolden says. Bolden was confronted with a church that was, as the senior board church officials warned him, "dying," so they needed a pastor who could address this issue. They liked his ideas and appointed him as pastor. That was five years ago. Today, Bolden's congregation has grown, and much of that growth is due to millennials. However, Central Baptist Church, he says, is equally divided by generation. "A few years ago, we did some studying … we were split (roughly) 20 percent under 20 (years old), another (20 percent) age 20 to 40, (20 percent) age 40 to 60," Bolden says. "Last year, the average age we took in was 24 years. This year, we're trending along that line. We're attracting more millennials. (Now) the millennials are bringing their parents to our church. We have about 2,000 members. At least half of them are within the (age) range of millennials."

He's seen the studies about his generation's church going habits, but feels that angle's not quite right. "Millennials approach religion differently," Bolden says. "I don't think millennials are less religious. The issue is not (that) millennials are anti-God, they're just more anti-church. The church doesn't hold a place of high value in their lives." The burden of this falls on the older church leaders to get back to what church was all about in the beginning – communities. "The church, prior to millennials, got so caught up in wealth and prosperity and success and all these wonderful things, that we stopped telling the story of the significance of the black church in history," Bolden says. "I believe we live in a time where the black church has to recapture its role in society."

Unlike previous generations, millennials, according to Burden, aren't content with just coming to church on Sunday mornings because that's the tradition. "They just want the church to be bigger than just a sanctuary and a church service – something more community based, something that does more work in the world," he says, adding: "They can go to all kinds of functions that's music and people talking – that's not a church. Before we cast millennials away, we need to hear what they have to say because there's some good to what millennials have to offer."

That Church Xperience

Millennial growth is also on the mind of André Butler, a Gen Xer, and the son of Keith Butler, pastor of the popular mega church Word of Faith Int'l Christian Center in Southfield. As a pastor's son, and still young enough to understand the reluctance many feel toward church services, Butler has focused his efforts on attracting millennials. Faith Xperience Church, in Detroit, is a culmination of his spiritual journey. Part of what he has done is acknowledge the millennials as "the first 'unchurched' African-American generation of our history." This has inspired him to find ways to make church, in keeping with his church's name, an experience.

"We simply want to cause people to experience God without having to jump through a lot of religious hoops," Butler says. "I can't make anyone fall in love with Jesus but I can set up dates. That's all we're doing is setting up dates ... the way we run our service, the way we dress, the way we communicate – even our designs – is geared towards black millennials who are far from God." Faith Xperience Church meets every Sunday at the Music Hall. There's no dress code to speak of, and that's a welcome truth for some. "What we've found is that (Sunday best dress) is an impediment to keep people from coming to church," Butler says. "They feel like I don't have anything to wear, or I don't have anything to wear on par (with others). It just represents tradition and things they view as a negative. We want people to come to church. We're going to have relaxed dress code. I'll wear gym shoes, T-shirts, sweaters."

Moving beyond fashion, with a congregation that is already skewing more millennial, Butler hopes to attract even more by keeping the message tight and that message is, "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship," Butler says. "It's about an experience with God. I think that's the big issue. We've been peddling religion. If we give people an opportunity to experience Him, that will change their life. (Millennials are) still looking (for God), they're just looking in different places than their parents did."

'Competing for People'

This is all to say that church has changed and each African-American generation has had its own relationships with it. As far as Jaye Hill's concerned, the fracturing of the church has been happening over time. At 52, Hill, a pastor who attends Woodside Detroit, is keenly aware that for some churches, bringing millennials into the fold may not be a priority – and that's a mistake. The message has been skewed. "The problem with the church is people (are) always inviting people to church but they're never spending time to build that relationship," Hill says. "It's even more difficult on the larger scale because there's so much focus on filling the seats instead of impacting the hearts."

Hill believes that the church should do what it was created to do: "be a resource to the community instead of being a drain to the community." This happens when churches get caught up in gaining more numbers. "Because everybody's competing for people," Hill says. "The educational system is like the church. People are competing for people to come to their building." The Pittsburgh native has lived in Detroit for 18 years and has seen some millennial growth in his congregation. To reach millennials, churches should employ a different approach, one that connects to the millennial mindset, he says. "Stop creating events for people to come to, and go create an event where people are," Hill says.

Community Connection

In almost all of these cases, the black church has seemed anomalous, drifting further from its intended purpose – connecting people to something greater than themselves. Coming from a Pentecostal background, Makesha Jones was never a fan of traditions. She was saved in her 20s, but even with that foundation, she couldn't help being a purposeful millennial. "(People) my age and going into a little younger, we were on the cusp of the information age," Jones says. "We're more of the 'why' generation: Why do we do it this way? What does that mean for me? It's not that I don't believe in God, but the religion kind of gets in the way, the legalism gets in the way more than anything else."

And if this is the case, what should the church be doing to connect all its generations, but bring in the all-important millennial set? For starters, Jones says, it needs to be connected with the community. "Not just beatification projects," Jones says. "Really be invested in the lives of people in that age group. The connection piece is going to be the biggest thing. Create that open environment. We all fall short. We can hold each other accountable but this (church) is a safe space for you to express yourself."

Faith in the Black Community

By the numbers

  • About 7 in 10 (69 percent) black men say religion is very important to them, compared with 80 percent of black women.
  • The largest historically black church in the U.S. is the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. Other large historically black churches include the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and two other Baptist churches – the National Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc.
  • Around 3 in 10 (29 percent) African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say they are unaffiliated compared with only 7 percent of black adults 65 and older.
  • While 63 percent of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) say they identify with historically black denominations, only 41 percent of black millennials say the same. (When the survey was conducted in 2014, millennials included those born between 1981 and 1996.)
  • Roughly 8 in 10 (78 percent) black men say they believe in God with "absolute certainty," while for black women that number is 86 percent.

Millennial-friendly churches

This list, while not comprehensive, will give you a place to start your Detroit church journey.

Beth Eden Baptist Church

15850 Wyoming Ave.

Central Baptist Church

5170 Archdale St.

Detroit Church

1903 Wilkins St.

Faith Xperience Church

Detroit Music Hall

350 Madison Ave.

LifeChurch Southfield

19301 West 12 Mile Road
Lathrup Village

New Life Family Church

7045 Curtis St.

Woodside Bible Church

123 Selden St.

Triumph Church

2760 E. Grand Blvd.

Cornelius Fortune if BLAC Detroit's senior editor.

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