Why are Millennials leaving the Black Church?

African American Reverend and family

The Black church has long stood at the center of Black communities as a place of worship and social advocacy. The civil rights moment saw religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery on the front lines of marches, preaching and pushing policy reform while strengthening community morale through faith and fellowship.

The front lines of modern racial justice movements find Black people less likely to religiously affiliate or emphasize a role for the Church in activism. Although still a backbone of community support, many feel the Church is not serving Black youth like it used to. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of Blacks under 30 are unaffiliated with a religion, compared with just 7 percent of Blacks aged 65 and older. The statistic represents a growing divide between young people and Christianity and raises concerns about its importance in the future of Black liberation.

“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,” added Reverend Dr. Brianna Parker, preacher and founding curator of The Millennial Cafe.

Millennials want church leaders who use faith to imagine real solutions to social issues affecting Black people. 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. Black millennials do not want to engage conversations about building for the future and ignoring the complexities of being young and Black in America today.

“Absent from many churches are lessons on how to cope and mobilize after witnessing the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher and countless others,” says Millenial writer, Ryan Davis.

Black people born between 1978 and 2000, with increased access to education, have had an edge in learning these systems, but still struggle to find ways to dismantle them.

“As social media allows us to receive, process and pass on information faster than generations before us, we seek out religious leaders that affirm and shape our ability to speak for ourselves rather than ones who speak on our behalves,” Davis added.

While the Bible contains passages that condone sexist and homophobic thought, which many Millennials recognize as counter to collective Black empowerment. A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that 56.6 of Americans under 30 have progressive attitudes toward cultural and social values, compared with 50.1 percent over 30. The study also found that a larger margin of younger Americans do not view changes in the traditional family as a threat to society.

Barbara Dianne Savage, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, theorizes that “the Black church,” as a concept, “has taken on a life of its own, implying the existence of a powerful entity with organized power.” Savage stresses the ways in which church and politics have historically been in conflict but managed to cooperate in resistance to systemic oppression.

“The Black church must understand where spirituality and religion intersect and contradict. It must challenge its leaders to build individual agency in its congregation members. If the church hopes to maintain relevancy among Millennials, its leaders and members must honor its social function while breathing modern life into its methods,” Davis said.