Why the Black Church Is Keeping Millennials While Other Traditions Are Losing Them


Should blacks be counted as Millennials?

That’s the question Thabiti Anyabwile, an African American pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, asks when handwringing commences about young people leaving US churches.

“Researchers describe millennials as a fairly privileged and special group, which is so far from the reality of so many African Americans,” said Anyabwile. “When it comes to describing broad demographic trends, you’re woefully in danger of building a profile based on the assumed normative experiences of majority culture.”

At large, millennials are less religious than were earlier generations of Americans. In 2012, Pew Research Center released data showing that 32 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are religiously unaffiliated. This was an 11 percent increase over any other age group that year, and a 7 percent jump from the 25 percent of young people who responded this way in 2007.

Yet a deeper dive into Pew’s study suggests whites are overrepresented among those who are not religiously affiliated. Anglos make up 66 percent of the US population, yet they compose 71 percent of those with no religious affiliation. In contrast, blacks make up 11 percent of the population but only 9 percent of the so-called “nones.”

Black Protestants have retained the greatest number of millennials compared with Catholics, white mainliners, and white evangelicals, according to 2012 data from the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. These traditions have seen their market share of millennials drop by 8.4, 7.3, and 2.2 percentage points, respectively. In contrast, black Protestant millennials have decreased by 1.5 percentage points.

The black church’s unique history and culture help to explain why it is keeping millennials while other traditions are losing them. In the Antebellum Era, the black church was a place of “communal and spiritual encouragement” for slaves, says University of Albany professor Roxanne Jones Booth. And during Jim Crow, the church was one of the few institutions that let blacks lead.

Consequently, the church “served more than a religion function,” said apologetics pastor and researcher Carl Ellis. “There are institutional, social, and cultural reasons why people attend church. They’re not all theological.”

Today, while some blacks have further integrated into majority culture, many “still feel on the outskirts of community,” said Bryant Parsons, a Trinidadian American MDiv student at Westminster Theological Seminary. “The church provides a safe haven.”

“When you get to the black church, you’re not always having to explain yourself,” said Ellis. “It’s the same phenomenon [as] why black kids sit together in the cafeteria. It’s a place where . . . everyone knows where you’re coming from.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Morgan Lee

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