“Black Millennials” and the Black Church

Most people credit historians and social scientists William Straus and Neil Howe with coining the term “millennials,” a synonym for “Generation Y,” which is usually defined as that generation of persons born between 1982 and 2004. Current estimates say there are approximately 80 million millennials in the United States.

As a generation, millennials are thorough-going creatures of the digital age—being the first generation to grow up with computers in the home, with cell phones as appendages of their hands, texting to the point of creating “texting thumb” injuries, and iPods attached to their heads. Some have noted the generation’s tendency to put off adulthood roles (i.e., marriage, family formation, independent living), consequently labeling them the “boomerang generation” or the “Peter Pan generation.” It’s a generation of some privilege and opportunity.

Whether you view millennials positively or negatively depends on whether you generally accept or criticize Straus and Howe’s theory. Straus and Howe saw this generation like the next great generation, “civic-minded” with a strong sense of both local and global community. But others, like author Jean Twenge, have a more mixed view, seeing the generation as confident and tolerant while also possessing narcissistic and entitlement mentalities.

Millennials and Religion

Compared to earlier generations, Generation Y is less likely to attend religious services. They’re more likely to be skeptical of religious institutions and in growing numbers are more likely to adopt irreligious attitudes.

“Compared to earlier generations, Generation Y is less likely to attend religious services.”

Over the past couple of months a number of thoughtful Christians have pondered the problem of so-called millennials leaving the church. Jefferson Bethke offered a Washington Post op-ed that put the focus squarely on millennials themselves. He writes, “My peers and I have too quickly caricatured ‘fundamentalists,’ without realizing we are eerily close to becoming what we say we hate.”

Writing at CNN’s Belief Blog, Rachel Held Evans maintained that the problem isn’t Generation Y but the local church. She says millennials want the church to update its substance, not its style. According to Evans evangelical churches lose millennials because they fail to offer authentic community concerned with more than a good Sunday morning performance.

Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition agreed with a fair amount of Evans’ analysis but differed with Evans’ view of the church, Jesus, the Gospel, holiness, and discipleship. He suggested that part of the problem is competing visions for Christian faith, practice and community.

As I read the exchanges, I couldn’t help wonder if any of this applied to the Black Church.

Black Church Attendance

Washington Post columnist Rahiel Tesfamariam weighed in with a question of her own, Are Black Millennials Being Pushed Out of the Church?” Reflecting on a number of recent events where millennials were disciplined or removed from the church, Tesfamariam wrote:

“More than ever before – the digitalized, global community we live in demands that the church constantly elevate how it will be relevant to this and emerging generations. As the church seeks to preserve tradition, it will constantly be faced with resistance from rebellious young people. Will it alienate them or find innovative ways to bring them into the fold? Does the church understand their needs?”

Tesfamariam seems to take for granted that Black millennials are mostly like all other people of their generation. She doesn’t seem to question the notion that Black Generation Y’s are departing the church in comparable rates and speeds as their White counterparts. So she called rebellious millennials to grapple with their own rebellion while offering a charge to Black church leaders:

“Church leadership would be better off asking why so many youth and young adults are drawn to celebrities, places and ways of life that the church deems unhealthy for them. What is the lure? What are they getting from those things that they can’t find in the church and its leadership? Why isn’t religious life equally attractive? What is the church missing and is there a way to strike a healthy balance?”

On the one hand, these are good questions for every generation to wrestle with. Yet, these questions assume a problem that might not be adequately defined or really there.

Bryant T. Calvin joined in with a different perspective in his piece,Why Aren’t Black Millennials Leaving the Church? Calvin looked beneath the general statistics to discover some interesting differences between White and Black religious involvement. While overall numbers and rates of “irreligious” millennials have been growing in recent years, the same has not been true of African-American millennials. So-called “Black millennials” make up about 24 percent of Black church attendance, essentially unchanged from their parents and grandparents’ generations.

Calvin offered a few guesses as to why religious participation has remained steady in Black communities. First, using statistics on prayer, church attendance and the importance of church, Calvin concluded, “it seems blacks are more invested in the practices and rituals associated with church life.” Second, Calvin opined that “whites and blacks view the institution of the Church differently.” For African-Americans, the church is a place of retreat from discrimination and a place to rally for justice. Third, Calvin suggested that “sometimes it is freeing to spend a few hours in a place where you are not a minority.” For African-Americans, the church is a community where integration fatigue decreases and code-switching is unnecessary.

Four Reasons Black Millennials Remain in the Black Church

After reading Calvin and Tesfamariam, I couldn’t help but think of other reasons why the experiences of African-American millennials and White millennials might differ.

African-Americans Are Not Truly “Millennials”

First, I wondered if African-Americans and other ethnic minorities could rightly be called “millennials” apart from having been born in the same twenty year period between 1982 and 2004. I wasn’t the first to ponder this question. Consider this helpful summary from Wikipedia’s entry on “Generation Y”:

Fred Bonner, a Samuel DeWitt Proctor Chair in Education at Rutgers University and author of Diverse Millennial Students in College: Implications for Faculty and Student Affairs, believes that much of the commentary on the Millennial Generation may be partially accurate, but overly general. He argues that many of the traits commentaries describe apply primarily to “white, affluent teenagers who accomplish great things as they grow up in the suburbs, who confront anxiety when applying to super-selective colleges, and who multitask with ease as their helicopter parents hover reassuringly above them.” During class discussions, he has listened to Black and Hispanic students describe how some or all of the so-called core traits did not apply to them. They often say the “special” trait, in particular, is unrecognizable. Other socio-economic groups often do not display the same attributes commonly attributed to Generation Y. “It’s not that many diverse parents don’t want to treat their kids as special,” he says, “but they often don’t have the social and cultural capital, the time and resources, to do that.”

Something about Bonner’s reflections rings true to me. The millennial traits just don’t fit the African-American experience. For example, we’ve yet to see a generation of African-Americans and other ethnic minorities who could afford the privilege of seeing themselves as “special” in the way millennials do. So, it’s not surprising if African-Americans don’t behave the way their generational peers do when it comes to religious involvement. We don’t seem to be millennials.

One Response to Despair and Nihilism Is Faith, Not Irreligion

The apparent unfamiliarity of African-American and Hispanic young adults with being treated as “special” hints at another reason why the general trend toward irreligion among millennials hasn’t taken root among African-Americans. Many persons in tough, poor neighborhoods, whether urban or rural, contend with despair and nihilism. There’s an existential absurdity that robs tough urban life of any claims to affluence. Many of those trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place are dispossessed of any hope rooted in man, government or self. They only find hope in God.

“Many persons in tough, poor neighborhoods, whether urban or rural, contend with despair…”

Not so with most millennials who may look to affluence, major institutions, and support from well-to-do parents who allow them to live at home and back their every move. It’s not difficult to see why many with such advantages would look away from God. Most African-American communities have never had the “opportunity” or “privilege” to do so.

Few Liberal Alternatives for Church

Black churches tend to be traditional institutions. They not only actively celebrate the past, but they look suspiciously at change. Most churches do. But to the extent Black churches have seen themselves as custodians of African-American history and culture they perhaps change more slowly than most. Black churches tend to be religiously conservative and generally evangelical. Few congregations hold progressive and liberal religious positions. That’s a significant strength of African-American Christianity. If the declining numbers of Protestant Liberalism tell us anything, they tell us that participation in theologically liberal congregations is a giant step toward spiritual death.

And perhaps that’s why Tesfamariam suspects young people have been forced out of the church even though the numbers don’t bear that out. Young people have difficulty feeling at home in traditional spaces. They always have. So, Tesfamariam’s questions have merit, but perhaps they have more to do with effective/ineffective transmission of tradition than a church’s hostility toward millennials. After all, I can’t think of a single church that doesn’t eagerly want to reach more young people. Most simply aren’t willing to innovate with the faith once and for all delivered to the saints in order to reach them. They fear the cost. Rightly in many cases.

Rather than leave the church in large numbers, it seems many African-American millennials look for churches that seem to “fit” their preferences. We’re not seeing attrition as much as we’re seeing shifting. My man Phil Duncanson sees among African-American millennials a “desire to still go to church and be part of one, but it is not the traditional experience they are after.  Many of them are flocking to those so-called churches that promote themselves as ‘doing church differently.’ These type of churches are all over Atlanta, a hot bed for African-American millennials. My guess would be that is a trend throughout the country.  They know they should be in church, they just want to attend one that allows them to dress and sound like the culture they love and have an affinity for.”

Parenting That Insists on Church Attendance

Finally, perhaps African-American churches continue to see stable participation from millennials because religious Black parents insist on church participation. By and large, African-American parents don’t give their children an option. Church is a must. This was pointed out in the comments thread of Calvin’s post, and I thought it warranted repeating here. Now, there are problems that arise when people are socialized into the church (i.e., nominalism, false conversions), but the alternative of not parenting toward Christ and the church are too perilous to be easy-going about. If I had to choose between parents who fail to guide their children toward the things of God and those that sometimes insist too much on religious participation, I’d choose the latter every time.


Are Black millennials a problem for the Black church? I don’t think so—not any more than any generation of sinners needing to be rescued from God’s wrath through the person and work of Jesus Christ. All sinners are tone deaf until the Lord gives them ears to hear and conquers their hearts by his sovereign Spirit and grace.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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