A Millennial's Open Essay to Black Pastors (part I)
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
In recent years, the African American church has noticed downward trends in attendance and overall decline in participation in Sunday morning worship. In recent months, world events have further compounded these trends. Though some churches are seeing increases in attendance (and gifts) from quick pivots to virtual exposure, others are seeing decreases. Individual and collective responses to the 2020 shut down will directly impact the future of the church as we know it. How we engage the each demographic as times continue to change will forever impact how the generations view the church as an institution and its place in life.
I feel like many in the younger generations have had one foot in and one foot out of the church for a while. This surprises many ministry leaders because a lot of churches were becoming more proficient in curating a more engaging worship experience before the pandemic. Overall, you see larger numbers of educated ministers, ministries with more relevance, and services that are more attractive. In many cases, pastors across the nation have been more intentional about making sure the church and its ministry meets the needs of families and community members.
Amid doing seemingly everything right, why are so many churches experiencing a collective decline in membership? Why does it appear that the allure of the Black church is suddenly (and rapidly) weakening--especially during changing times where people need what it provides despite the government's mistake of deeming churches unessential.
As a preacher’s kid, a Millennial, and a minister for over 15 years, I attribute the decline to my generation's view of (and interaction with) the church. Such interactions, in my view, have caused us to leave the church in droves. To read about an unforgettable experience that caused me to leave a church, click here. With this essay, I seek to delineate some of the reasons Millennials have left and are leaving the church, the cultural and societal contexts that impact that decision, and a few suggestions the church can consider that could attract us back to the church—if it’s not too late. I will start with my generation: The Millennials.
Who are Millennials?
Although there is no real consensus, Generation Y, most commonly referred to as Millennials, were born roughly between 1981 and 1995 (some analysts have Millennials being born as early as 1980 and as late as 2000). Either way, Millennials are the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.
As the fastest growing segment of the workforce, companies are very interested in assessing the attitudes, needs and wants of my generation. This information is valuable to marketing and advertising firms, not only because Millennials are in their prime "spending years", but more so because our philosophies, tastes, and ideals largely shape purchasing decisions of two generations: ours as a whole and the generations behind us.
Understanding the attributes of Millennials is just as important for ministry leaders as it is for marketing specialists. Here are some common characteristics ascribed to Millennials with a description related to Millennials and their relationship to the church.
1. Millennials Aren’t Brand Loyal
More interested in bargains, Millennials are significantly less loyal to brands than previous generations. Some reports indicate the import of political affiliations and social stances having a role in whether or not my generation will support one brand over another. Not surprisingly, this fickle behavior extends into how we support personalities as well. We both created and popularized the “cancel culture” and “mute movements” that call out community members who have been seen to be offensive, insensitive, or problematic in some shape or form. We are quick to withdraw social media or financial support of any brand (material or personality) that ventures too far from the standards we hold dear. It’s the modern day boycott.
How this impacts the church: Millennials will not attend a church just because they grew up attending or because their family attends. Any action or inaction from a church leader inconsistent with what we feel is befits Christian lifestyle may cause us to part ways.
2. Millennials Want to Matter
Millennials are more interested in serving their communities than formally given credit for. In fact, professional Millennials have been known to choose purpose over profit more than preceding generations. We want our work to make a difference and change the world for the better.
How this impacts the church: The church cannot be seen as a place people go merely to hear good music and an inspirational sermon. The church’s effectiveness is measured in how she builds both church and community members—both the kingdom of God in Heaven and the neighborhoods of man on earth. Millennials want to be a part of a “team” that is doing something to positively influence the world/ community. Opportunities to serve and impact change are important—whether we participate or not.
3. Millennials Are Seekers
a. Ask Questions
Many parents, teachers, and mentors from older generations encouraged their Millennials to ask questions, think critically, and to do research. Living at the height of the information age and the advent of the internet, it is a lot easier to question, consider other ideas, and draw personal conclusions about everything, specifically religion.
For me, as I was gradually introduced to alternative opinions about Christianity, I begin to ask questions, think critically and research the faith into which I was born. Personal research showed me that the history behind the Christian Faith and Church development was anti-GOD and anti-most-things Christ stands for, which includes (but is not limited to) how the Bible was canonized, the questionable character of King James, the manipulative intent of Constantine, the horrors of the Crusades, and the deceptive role Christianity played during slavery. These questions were further compounded when I learned that Christianity was one of the youngest religions –borrowing many concepts from older spiritual practices.
b. Searching for “Truth”
Because of our skepticism, we are bona fide seekers. Millennials are looking for higher truths and elevated consciousness. We are open to many ideas, and willing to entertain them for experimental purposes. We want to test the waters. We don’t mind re-inventing the wheel—especially if the process helps us find what we are searching for. Although we may not be able to articulate exactly what we are looking for, we believe will know once we find it. It will resonate with us in a way that speaks to our hearts and souls in an undeniable way.
How this impacts the church: The church must be ready to address the questions of the Millennial seeker in a way that supports our heightened curiosity without making us feel wrong. Such emotions (being wrong, not enough, etc.) become red flags and indicators of an appropriate time to separate. Millennials see the church as a place for inspiration and uplift—not judgment and beat-down. If we don’t find a safe place to explore our questions, we will find a place that is safe—even if it is outside of the Christian faith.
4. Millennials Are Accustomed to Hybrids
Whether an automobile, domesticated animals, or genetically modified foods, Millennials are used to the idea of assembling things that normally don’t go together and making something new. Interdisciplinary majors were widespread during our college years, and the idea of marrying two disciplines became popular. Similarly, intersectionality has become a new buzz word that represents the shared connections among unrelated categories.
How this impacts the church: For Millennials, Christianity is not something so sacred that it is untouchable. We touch it. And when we do, we tear it apart and reconstruct our faith using principles and teachings from other religions and other spiritual practices.
5. Millennials Aren’t Religious
Generally speaking, Millennials don’t trust organized religion as a whole. We have heard somewhere along the way that religion is “the opiate of society” and a tool for used for social control. When the church uses it influence to bash different lifestyle expressions, even though there is substantial Biblical support, many Millennials interpret this as strong-arming and manipulating, which reinforces the idea that the church uses its power to impose social control.
How this impacts the Church: The church is on thin ice in the minds of Millennials. Amid the mix of New Age Thought and the influence of Eastern Philosophies, more and more Millennials are having questions about the “rightness” of Christianity. Couple this with the time it took Christian leadership to shift their stances on issues like women in ministry and same-gender marriages (the jury is still out on this one), many Millennials have one foot in the church and one foot in the world from the outset. In many cases, we come in with a critical mind as opposed to an open heart.
6. Millennials Consult Social Media.
Sharing platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have impacted users of social media to accepting opinions as a legitimate source of information, as Millennials are generally more interested in the reality people’s lives, the rawness of their experiences, and the abundance of their opinions. Social media has taught us that we are not alone when we suffer or ask questions. No matter what we are wondering about, we can find someone who has said something about what we are looking for. The result of this is a rise in value for other people’s experiences and the expertise that comes from that experience (often in the form of an opinion).
How this impacts the church: In the same way that Wikipedia has replaced encyclopedias and GPS has replaced maps, webinars will soon replace seminars and online services will soon replace in-person churches. We see the last two being more possible now since remote learning has become a new normal. The younger generations will be more comfortable with virtual communities than any other generation because of what's going on today. The church must make itself necessary in more ways than being the place where weddings and funerals take place if they are to survive beyond the 2020s. The follow-up to this post will discuss solutions and other suggestions for pastors to consider.
Part II: Suggestions for Consideration CLICK HERE