If you keep up with Christian news and blogs at all you know there has been a lot of talk about why Millennials are leaving the church.
It is a hot topic for Christian books and speakers, and for good reason. People are trying to understand why Millennials are leaving, if we can get them back and if the problem is with the generation or with the message or presentation of the Church.
New data from the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey (that is a mouthful to say and write) shows while the number of people who don’t identify with a religion has risen to 20 percent of the U.S. population, for adults age 18-29, that number rises to over 30 percent. This trend has steadily been growing among Protestant mainline and evangelical populations.
And yet, this is a discussion that is missing a few pieces. If you look closer at these reports, you’ll see an interesting disparity.
The numbers for black Millennials are, in fact, not dropping. That is, black adults age 18-29 are not leaving the Church. The 2007 report shows that black Millennials makeup 24 percent of Historically Black Churches , the same percentage as their Boomer Generation parents. Religious affiliation for young black adults going to historically black churches remains stable. If you look at trends between the 2007 and 2012 surveys, there’s not much difference in the numbers for black Millennials.
In general, the numbers consistently show that blacks of all ages are more likely to maintain a religious affiliation than whites. So what’s different? Why aren’t black Millennials leaving the church as quickly as their white counterparts? There are a few theories that may help explain the difference, but let’s first look at some numbers to highlight more of this disparity.
The 2007 study asked questions about the frequency of prayer and church attendance, and the importance of religion and found some striking disparities. The survey showed that 79 percent of blacks say religion is very important to their lives compared to 56 percent of all Americans. In terms of how often people pray, 76 percent of blacks report to praying daily compared to 58 percent of all Americans. Church attendance differs, as well, with 39 percent of all Americans attending a service once a week compared to 53 percent of blacks.
So, in general, it seems blacks are more invested in the practices and rituals associated with church life. Scores of religious and sociological scholars have found similar numbers in their academic research.
Maybe the difference is that whites and blacks view the institution of the Church differently. Historically, the black church has always played an important communal role. It was a gathering place where blacks could go and temporarily forget the hardships of systematic discrimination. Pre-Civil War, it served as one of the few places where a large number could meet without raising suspicions (although some southern states passed laws requiring black slave churches to have a white preacher or supervisor).
Post-slavery, when most protestant denominations wouldn’t allow black members or clergies, blacks built their own and created their own specific denominations. The black church has also been a place of organizing for social justice, a key component in any historical fight for civil rights. There is a large and continuing tradition of black preachers also serving as local civil rights leaders. So from a historical perspective, maybe blacks and whites view the role of church differently.
My last theory is one frequently voiced time and again from black people of all age groups. Living in a predominately white (but racially changing) country, sometimes it is freeing to spend a few hours in a place where you are not a minority.
Historically, black people operating in white professional or social settings have had to create a distinct persona or presentation of themselves. In the black church, for those few hours on Sunday or Wednesday night, black people are free from such pretenses. NPR recently launched a site called Code Switch that explores this phenomenon across all races, and President Obama was even caught in the act in 2009 at a popular DC restaurant (beginning about 55 seconds in). Black churches provide a community where such “code shifts” are permitted without judgment.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. On the contrary, it’s entirely understandable. But this is also a call to the American Church as a whole to recognize the challenge and opportunity before them. As the national conversation this year has illuminated, blacks continue to feel marginalized and mistrusted in this country. Black churches are uniquely positioned to be a haven of both communal and spiritual encouragement. Whether or not this is a mantle the American Church as a whole will be able to take on remains to be seen.
Do any or all of these explain why black Millennials haven’t left the Church at similar rates as whites? I honestly don’t know. And to be sure, we continue to see more and more mixed race congregations, and that is something to be celebrated. All I know is talking about Millennials leaving the Church without specifying which Millennials is only half of the conversation.
And if the American Church is willing to enter into conversation beyond the racial lines that have often been drawn up around it, they may realize that the solution to their “problem” of Millennials leaving is closer than they thought.