The fuss about millennials and their relation to evangelicalism (broadly) and the local church (specifically) continues to abound. Articles seemingly pop up every day in what seems to be, for the most part, healthy conversation about the next generation; to be completely transparent this generation is my generation. And I got up with another of its numbers, my good friend, Brian Davis (whom many know as “God’s Servant”) to chop it up about this topic. As the conversation continues, it’s becoming clearer that more and more nuance is needed. Are all millennials are leaving the church? Well, not exactly it seems. I talked to Brian specifically how some black millennials may or may not be viewing the traditional black church today. We pray our conversation encourages you.
Brian Davis is an artist on Lamp Mode Recordings. His latest album, “Diadem” dropped on January 28, 2014. He is also planting Risen Christ Fellowship in Philadelphia. He and his team hope to start meeting this Fall. Holler at him on twitter: @theservantfella.
Brian, when you think of the traditional black church, what comes to mind? How do you define it?
When I think of the traditional black church a variety of things come to mind – some good, and some bad. On the positive side, I think of colorful diversity, energy, celebration, and family. I think of a community that needs God’s Word to be true and hopes in it as such. I think of simple faith and the strong, passionate proclamation of God’s Word. I think of an oppressed people looking to God, “The Lord [who] works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). I think of a rich cultural heritage and community refuge in many broken environments. On the negative side, however, I think of an inordinate emphasis of skin color, the perpetuation of prosperity theology, the Word of Faith movement, and low doctrinal standards. I think of flashy, man-pleasing and man-centeredness, and the perpetual confusion surrounding treating shepherds as kings. I think of an ethnic identity that can easily usurp the Christian identity.
How are black millennials viewing the traditional black church today? Is there a growing familiarity or dissimilarity with it and why?
Well, I certainly cannot speak for all millennials. However, as an individual lumped into that category, I humbly offer my observations. I think there is a growing dissimilarity from my generation with the traditional black church. As the country continues becomes more “mixed”, ethnic identity is becoming less of a dominant identifier — especially in religious contexts. The ethnic terrain is different now than what it once was. My generation doesn’t feel compelled to be primarily identified by race or restricted by historical ethnic restrictions. And since, by its very title alone, “the traditional black church” is primarily identified by an ethnic association, therein lies the divergence.
What does this familiarity/dissimilarity mean for the traditional black church? What does this mean for the church at large?
I think this dissimilarity will eventually lead to the disappearing of the “traditional black church”. I think it’s inevitable. We practically affirm this reality every time we are asked to define the “traditional black church” and cannot do so with clarity. It, even now, is culturally losing it’s definition. By description, I think the “traditional black church” requires certain ethnic traditions to be present in order to continue progressing. If those ethnic traditions are as generational as I believe they are, over time they will cease to be passed down and perpetuated — essentially vanishing the traditional black church from the broader evangelical landscape. This is not to say that black Christians will disappear. No, they will thrive, with the rest of God’s redeemed people groups until the Lord’s return! This is simply to highlight that like many ethnic-traditional church experiences, be they those of Greco-Rome or of Crenshaw, they can only live as long as the ethnic-traditional adherents share essential core identities. These ethnic-traditional identities, I believe, are weakening with each subsequent generation.
Does this familiarity/dissimilarity concern you? What encouragements do you glean from it?
This doesn’t concern me at all! Praise God for the many good contributions of the traditional black church. Praise God for the many souls that were saved in it. However, Jesus did not promise to build the black church! The Lord Jesus did not promise to build our church, but He promised to build His church (Matt. 16:18)! His Church transcends all cultures and ethnic traditions. In like manner to seeing saints die and their influence fade, so will be different seasons of our Christian experience. Some will last longer than others, but none except the traditions of Scripture will last. While we may identify more closely with certain expressions and traditions, and would like for those experiences to be preserved, we know and hope that THE Christian experience must and will continue beyond even our traditional ways of living it.
It’s been said on The Front Porch that “Black Millennials” is a misnomer. What encouragements would you give the black church as it attempts to reach, keep, and send its youth?
My primary encouragement would be to build the youth up into Christ, not your ethnic traditions. Our goal for the youth should be to see them come to Christ and stay with Him. Even if they leave our preferred methods of worship, our care is that they never leave from worshipping God. Who cares if people leave the “traditional black church”? We should really only care if they leave the church altogether. I had a pastor that would often say, “I don’t care if you eat at my restaurant, I simply care that you are eating”. I think this should be the feel of how the traditional black church deals with youth. Try to reach them, and keep them, and send them in Christ alone and I believe it will teach them much about the transcendent nature of the church, and endear her to them.
How would you encourage young black Christians as they consider the local church?
Don’t pick a church primarily based on comforts and cultural preferences. That type of thinking is diametrically opposed to the ‘others-focused’ nature of the church (Phil. 2). The church is not primarily ethnic but spiritual. As such, you should not be picking a church primarily for ethnic reasons but spiritual ones. Good gospel trumps good gimmicks. Good preaching trumps good charisma. Good teaching trumps good feelings. And I know this is a big one, but good content trumps good musicianship. Above all we should be seeking to find a theologically sound church and helping the churches we are in to better become one. So if you are not in a healthy church –find one, even if it’s culturally like ‘Oz’ to you. And if you can’t stomach the culture in such a place, at least you have a biblically sound community to help you find a more accessible healthy church.
What book or resource would you suggest on this topic?
I don’t know of any books on this subject — perhaps Thabiti, Lou, or Tony should write one! But generally speaking, books about a healthy view of the church and being a part of one would go a long way to establish some crucial reference points. When thinking through this issue, it is best to begin by being saturated with what a healthy church is before we can filter and assess our ethnic and cultural additions. So “What Is A healthy Church” and “The Gospel Made Visible” by Mark Dever are good options, and so is Thabiti’s, “What Is A Healthy Church Member?”
What are you currently bumpin’ in your iTunes?
“Lyrical Theology pt. 2: Doxology” by Shai Linne