Contrary to the articles we continually read about black millennials hating the church, my research suggests the opposite. After collecting data of more than 1,000 black millennials, it became clear that black millennials have a strong affinity and hope for the black church…of old. Acknowledging the multifaceted nature of Black churches historically, understanding there is no essential Black Church, this article privileges prophetic traditions of Black churches. Hence, in this work, “Black church” is simply a shorthand for the prophetic traditions of Black Christianity. While many congregations are preserving worship practices, rituals and fellowship experiences of the old black church, black millennials desire a return to the core of the black church. Although there is a valid discussion of the exodus of millennials, this is not as true for black millennials. They are not all leaving the church but many are bringing a cocktail of faith with them when they enter the door. It would be accurate to say there is little participation of black millennials, but a troubling absence of presence doesn’t exist much in larger congregations in metropolitan areas.
The United Methodist church released an article explaining that millennials don’t appreciate mixing church and politics. This should not be accepted as a general truth. Articles declaring our hate for the church is obviously only a fraction of the truth since we keep returning. Black millennials, according to my research and personal experience, love and appreciate many facets of the black church of old and hold high hopes of the black church today because of a desire to see an action-based, holistic place of worship with evenly distributed resources, messages and movement of justice and belief in our humanity as in your own. Don’t mistake millennial Twitter criticism and trending hashtags as an excuse for abandonment; It’s an invitation to progress. Social media may not be your forum of choice, but it’s one of the only places where millennials have an unrestricted voice and a burgeoning platform. We “luh” church…or what it could be and, like any hopeful party in a relationship, we want to see it at its best.
It is troubling for millennials—the most degreed generation in American history—to divorce the realities of a racist, xenophobic, homophobic (or more accurately, genophobic) existence with a dwindling economic future to marry a fantastical, pie-in-the-sky, euphoric feeling that cannot transcend the threshold of the sanctuary. Black Millennials cultivate a faith that speaks to societal realities that mark historical and contemporary Black life. Black Millennials do not want to engage conversations about building for our destination as if danger is not on our route. The streets are real and flooded with the blood of the slaughtered, victims of state-sponsored violence and vigilantism (Philando Castile, Jordan Davis, Walter Scott, etc.). We’ve gone from strange fruit hanging from southern trees to peculiar speed bumps lying in the streets of America. Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin have proven we may not make it out of our neighborhood; Eric Garner taught us we may not make it past our hustle; Rekia Boyd proved there’s no guarantee we can live past a night out with friends; Tamir Rice proves we may not make it out of the park; and Sandra Bland taught us there’s no guarantee we’ll make it out of jail. A secure future is not solidified or enhanced by ignoring harsh realities, but by acknowledging this as familiar biblically and historically. Our goal is strategizing for change; not building funds for fellowship halls and basketball courts that the average person in the community cannot access. For Black millennials, relevant ministry is to resist and correct immoral policies and practices in over-policed neighborhoods; it’s to challenge police forces that lack diversity; to agitate policies set out to destroy us and to bring discomfort to people who refuse to see our humanity. Pulpits that are devoid of faith and politics will result in pews devoid of black millennials.
Millennials seek spaces of refuge, and that is why there is still hope for the black church. Millennials have remained, at least on the fringes, in a way white millennials have not because white believers have never had nor needed the same spaces of refuge that people of color have come to rely. There is still a place for the relevant black church, and, while it may not be as easy as it were in prior generations to retain the participation of black millennials, it is indeed possible to enlist the partnership of Black millennials.
The Rev. Dr. Brianna Parker is the curator of Black Millennial Café. Stay connected with her work by signing up for her email list at blackmillenialcafe.com and liking Facebook.com/BlackMillennialCafe/.
This article originally appeared in The Christian Citizen, a print and online publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.