WATCH: Urban Ministries Hosts Panel Discussion On Millennials, Faith, and the Future of the Black Church

Three of the panelists: Brianna Parker, Reginald Wayne Sharpe, Jr., and Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes
Three of the panelists: Brianna Parker, Reginald Wayne Sharpe, Jr., and Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes

At this year’s Hampton University Ministers Conference, Urban Ministries Inc. hosted a panel discussion on millennials, faith, and the future of the black church. Watch parts 1 (partial) and 2 of the discussion below, and read the transcript. 

The panelists were: Christian Brown, Rev. Brianna Parker, Rev. Reginald Wayne Sharpe, Jr., Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, and Allen Reynolds. Find out more about them here.

Youtube Version



Allen:  With everything going on our country, a lot of churches are experiencing low attendance in general, and millennials, in particular, being absent in their churches. And a lot of people are wondering why you think that might be? Why is it we aren’t  seeing our generation in church as much, or as much as people might desire, and what are some ways that we might think about meeting that chronic crisis, right now, in black church communities. That low attendance of millennials and how might we invite, or engage, millennials with that reality?

Brianna:  So, I could tell you from my research that three things black millennials are concerned with the church: Family dynamics, outreach, and social justice. And if you think about churches, there are a lot of churches that don’t include those, right? Family dynamics means not just classes, right, but actually to see what it means to have a healthy family as millennials because many of the people in our generation didn’t get to see it. And so I’m not surprised that you have Reggie and Bree, who have an influx of millennials because they actually get to watch it in action, right? They get to believe in something that they may have never seen.

Brianna:  Another thing is outreach. If you remember, maybe a couple decades ago, everyone was building fellowship halls, right? And gyms. And they were promising that the kids were gonna come from impoverished neighborhoods and have a place to play, and they were gonna do homework, and then if you think it through, that really never happened, and fellowship halls and gyms and all those things that we’ve paid big money to build, were actually not being used. And so it was almost like your grandmother’s furniture when you put the plastic on it, right? And nobody can really go in there, but it just looks good? And so it was that kind of situation, but by the time it was time to go back and use it, it had already dry rot. And that’s what’s happening a lot of times with the buildings that were built a couple decades ago, and so millennials are not gonna continue to put money into an edifice, you know, that no one’s gonna be able to use.

Brianna:  So when I asked in my research, “What’s a cause worth giving?” The answer was, “A cause that gave.” And so outreach was really important and black millennials are not seeing that you’re willing to go outside the walls of your church, and you’re willing to not treat people like a notch on your belt, then that doesn’t look like outreach or something you wanna participate in, or sow into.

Brianna: And then justice. I know the Methodist church came out with this article that said millennials didn’t like politics mixing in their pulpit. That’s white millennials, that’s not black millennials, and so it was very important for black millennials to know that justice was gonna be important in the church. Because we can’t divorce real life, so we went through this point where everybody was like, “You gotta wake up, you’re not equal,” you know, that’s what our parents were telling us, insert Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, they were like, “oh let’s go burn the whole country down,” right? So they went from telling us to wake up, to slow down, take a nap, and we’re like what do we do? ‘Cause we wanna burn everything down, you know, because now we get it, and so really just finding that middle ground, what does it mean? I mean, we have different gifts that can benefit the movement in ways that we didn’t have before, like technology, right? So when you see something that says, “Not your grandmother’s movement,” on the one hand it can look disrespectful, right? Because we know that there’s so much to build upon. It’s not your grandmother’s movement, ’cause we have so much technology! But it is your grandmother’s movement because we wouldn’t have a movement without them.

Brianna:  So, social justice, family dynamics, and outreach are important. The things that were not as important are the things that we’re majoring in most times in church.

Gabby:  I wanted to echo something that Brianna mentioned about white millennials and not black millennials, and I dealt with this and actually before Brianna and I had a friendship, I knew her research because I was being asked to provide data to my congregation about millennials. And so I did what I was asked, but all of the resources given and that I could find were about white, middle America millennials, which are not the same thing as African Americans between the ages of 21 to 35, and even the years that we give for millennials, some start at 1980, some start later. But, what I will say is it’s really important contextually if you are serving black and brown people, to find black and brown research. And it might be somebody who hasn’t finished their doctorate yet but they’re doing the work. It might be Brianna Parker, it might be Josh, it might be some of us, but you’ve gotta find people who know your context, and obviously, that is one of the biggest reasons why millennials are stopping coming inside of the doors of these churches, it’s because we’re doing … I was gonna say in blackface, but I’m … You know.

Brianna:  No, that’s true.

Gabby:  We are black ministers, but we’re using white tools. And I just graduated from Yale Divinity, so I get that we get our tools from where we get them from, but we’ve got to contextualize them for our people. And what you’re seeing is a more educated group of folks … And I’m not saying educated by degrees, I’m saying by Google, by social experience, by what we have processed, you’re seeing millennials who are like, “I may not know what you should be teaching me or preaching to me, but I do know this doesn’t feel like my context.” And so you’re not gonna keep people in the church by trying to make them assimilate into a way of thinking that is not their own. You’ve gotta do the work that matches the context that we minister in.


Allen: Is the technology, whether that’s social media … the information age with our ability to search and research anything at a moment’s notice, is that helpful or hurtful? What are some ways we can think about that?

Gabby: I think technology is helpful, let me just start there. I think it’s very, very helpful but I think it goes back to us as the Black Church having to ask ourselves, are we offering something that people need to actually physically be here to access? Or, are we just creating these spaces where whether you’re here or not, you feel the same way?

I liken it to … my background is in music … so, I liken it to around 2007, 2008, when the music industry was going crazy because people were no longer buying CDs and people were starting to stream. The same conversation happened, which was how are record labels going to survive? How are artists going to survive? If they’re not buying the music, people must no longer want to invest in music. But what was shifting was people didn’t want to pay for that content. What sustained the music industry was touring. So, at the same time, when folks were streaming and not buying music, ticket sales to concerts and experiences were through the roof.

I liken that to the church. We have to create a space where, yeah, I can stream it, but I want to be there. I want to catch the energy. I want to have the conversations afterward. I want to have that community. What we’re finding is a lot of times in these megachurch spaces we’re losing that. Where people come and they go and so what’s the difference between sitting here or sitting in my bed? If there’s something else … if there’s something human and if I’m seeing … if I’m communicated with … if I can have a touchpoint that’s different in the same way that touring sustained the music industry. People will watch a concert, but that will prompt them to buy tickets and be there themselves. I think we have to figure out, as the church, what can we offer that makes people want to connect with us directly in addition to just hearing and receiving The Word digitally?

SOURCE: Urban Faith