The Divide in the Black Church that Most Troubles Me

The African-American Church, much like churches of every other ethnic stripe, faces a number of potential divides. There’s the perennial split between liberal and conservative theological groups. There’s the split along class lines. Several issues—from spiritual gifts to women in ministry—threaten to pull apart congregations and denominations. You can hear a number of voices wrangling over the mission of the Black Church.

But the divide that most concerns me is the generational divide. It seems to me that the line between older and younger African-American Christians has never been deeper and wider. In fact, for increasing numbers of older and younger African-American Christians there’s no real contact at all.

Let’s start with the so-called “Black millenials.” I question whether the label accurately describes young African-Americans (see here). But there can be little doubt that many young, energetic, godly African-Americans find themselves outside the stream of traditional African-American churches (see here, for example). An entire generation—the hip hop generation—has largely grown up without the formative shaping influences of the church (see here). For many in this generation, the church seems quaint, a bit outdated and out of touch with their culture, energy and concerns. Some in this demographic see older saints as generally prejudiced against youth, resistant to their involvement, and perhaps even stuck in a bygone era so vastly different from their context as to be unrecognizable.

On the other hand, so-called “boomers” and older African-American Christians have steadily moved away from younger Black believers. Persons 50 and older tend to have middle-class ambitions, informed by a Civil Rights emphasis on respectability and progress. For many of them, the church was an anchoring social institution that provided so much in the way of culture, socialization, and grooming for community participation. This generation generally misunderstand and sometimes disdain hip hop music and culture. Snap backs worn indoors symbolize disrespect and they read youth swagger as little more than thug mentality.

To one group Tupac may well have been a kind of prophet; to the other group he was emblematic of so much that’s gone wrong with African-American youth. So, for perhaps the first time, we’re seeing a divide so wide and alienating that some find it difficult to worship in the same settings. Many from the hip hop generation want an ethos that not only reflects but celebrates hip hop sensibilities. They don’t want to attend “grandmamma’s church.” Meanwhile, “grandmamma” (who, to be fair, is sometimes only in her 40s) doesn’t want to see baggy jeans, tennis shoes or driving beats in the worship gathering. And if we can’t sing together there’s very little chance that we can remain together.

This concerns me for several reasons. First, there’s no future for traditional African-American churches if young African-American Christians break away to form more or less new traditions. The youth and vitality so necessary for sustaining the church will be siphoned into other networks and ventures. Traditional and mainline churches will continue to decline, board up buildings, and vanish more and more.

Second, there’s no anchoring history for younger congregations if we split along generational lines. Someone has said history is a guide post, not a hitching post. I agree with that sentiment. We should not be bound to “tradition” or so tied to it that we cannot live out the faith in fresh ways in our generation. But we cannot cut much of a path in the world if we do not know who we are or where we’ve been. History and tradition catechize. A failure to know and appreciate the legacy bequeathed to us inevitably means losing important aspects of identity and even losing our way in the world.

Third, if the church splits along generational lines it will likely mean further impoverishment of hurting neighborhoods. This impoverishment results from middle- and upper-class African-Americans using their resources and mobility to congregate outside poorer communities. In other words, there’s a corresponding class dynamic at work in the generational rifts. Ralph Watkins describes this well in his book, Hip-Hop Redemption: “As the rising tide lifted the black church to the top, it took its money, status, and privilege and left the inner city; it ran to the suburbs. The African-American church became a bastion for middle-class African-Americans…The black church is now looking this reality square in the face. It is finding it difficult to reach inner-city, working-class, working-poor, and nonworking-poor African-Americans. But the communities that are difficult for the African-American church to reach are the very places hip-hop culture lives.” The disassociation of elders and wealth from youth and poverty means an increasing class divide with intensifying pockets of despair and deprivation.

Fourth, the dividing of older and younger Christians weakens the disciple-making ministry of the church. According to the Bible, how are younger Christians to mature in the faith? Is it not by older Christians teaching them how to live out sound doctrine (, for example)? What happens to the ability of the church to grow younger men and women in their callings as Christians, husbands and wives, parents and vocations if older and younger never interact or do so only in superficial, sometimes strained ways? Something fundamental to the function of the church gets lost. In a real sense, a church divided along generational lines is not the church Christ establishes.

In a nutshell, the generational divide bothers me most because: The past has no future, and the future has no past. The poor have no resources, and the young have no elders. The interdependent fabric of the church gets pulled apart at the most central seam. Unless we counter this threat, the African-American church will have a split in its pants not easily stitched.

2:1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. (ESV)

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

C’mon Up!