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Last month, the California African American Museum held a symposium on the state of black millennial faith. It was sponsored by the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) and in association with the Pew Research Center. The gOD-talk: A Black Millennials and Faith Conversation Series meant to show how young black people engage with faith and discuss where that faith tradition is heading.

The promotion of the event emphasized that the panel would cover different faith traditions that young black people adhere to. And while this was clearly the intention, it was never quite realized. Though the panel consisted of five individuals, four came from a Baptist background and one was Muslim. Of the four Baptists, two were no longer practicing and one was a pastor.

The panel did not reflect an accurate picture of the breadth of black faith because the panelists mostly shared the same humanist perspective and came from the same backgrounds. Two even grew up together in the same church that they have since left. The majority of the conversation then was not the future of black millennial faith, but what happens to black millennial Christians who have been hurt by the Black Church? What happens to their faith and where do they turn?

Trading Church For Brunch

The majority of panelists shared the view that the Black Church has lost touch with the present generation. Traditional biblical views on sexuality, a lack of justice activism, and the absence of conversations regarding these issues have left many disenchanted with the Black Church. While 60 years ago, it was on the frontlines in the fight for racial justice and served as a platform for those denied validation and recognition, today’s church — the panelists would argue — doesn’t care about justice, gender equality, or the LGBTQ community and no longer serves many of the needs within the community.

The assumption was instead of seeking out Christ, black millennials are seeking out community. Within the gathering of people, there is a spiritual encounter that is not tied to traditional Christianity and reaches farther back to an ancestral tradition.

Where do black millennials go when they break away from the Christian traditions that have done them harm? As one panelist put it: brunch. Sidewalk tables are the new church for a generation that is leaving behind the Body of Christ and its buildings.

If the panelists’ conclusions were an accurate picture of black millennial faith today, it would be a sad pronouncement for the Church. But rather than depicting and representing an entire generation, the panelists reflected a specific set of people, those who grew up in the Church but have since left. This is not the reality of many black Christians walking with the Lord.

The question is thus how can Christians pursue the people who have walked away from the Church and regard it with a critical and disappointed eye? In response to a few of the panelists’ major oppositions, I will suggest a few ways those within black Christianity can respond.

There Are Some Things You Can’t Pray Away

As one panelist stated, for many former black Christians, the therapist has taken on the new role of pastor. In many churches, and historically throughout the black community, the topic of mental health is avoided or oversimplified as discouragement or spiritual weakness.

From being reported to the police for everyday activities to being fatally attacked after stepping off a train, the realities of black people in America make mental health conversations imperative. The untimely death of Erica Garner is a reminder of the physical and psychological assault on the black body.

Rather than dismiss those in need of mental health resources, the Church should provide spaces for people to seek spiritual and emotional healing. The Church must tend to the whole person. Let’s encourage and create environments to discuss issues of mental health including depression and PTSD. Small groups or Bible studies that focus on emotional and psychological health could benefit and attract those who’ve felt neglected and excluded from church.

Injustice and Abuse

One reason many left the Church is because of its silence on issues of injustice and its complicity in abuse and discrimination.

With unlimited access to news, black millennials face the reality of injustice in their own lives, throughout the country, and around the world simultaneously. Perhaps more than any other generation, our eyes are acutely open to the suffering around us. The Church must engage more critically and decisively on these issues. It should be leading in Gospel-centric activism. If not leading, church leaders should be partnering with community organizations in advocating for the abused and oppressed.

The Church cannot undermine the power of prayer but neither should it devalue the need for tangible labor. We are called to seek justice and correct oppression (Isaiah 1:17). While the Church tends to injustice beyond its walls, it must also admit to the injustices within. As we seek to connect with those who have left the faith, we must acknowledge sins and hurts that have transpired at the hands of Christian leaders. The #churchtoo movement brought wider attention to the truths many already know: sexual abuse has been overlooked throughout many churches for decades.

Church leaders, those directly involved and those implicit in their silence, must do the true work of repenting by naming and then turning away from their sins while holding perpetrators responsible.

Holiness And Not Humanism

At the end of the day, the charge of the church is to love God with our hearts and souls and to lead others to follow him (Matthew 22:36-37; Matthew 28:16-20). For many of those who are walking away from Christianity, the temptation is to evolve with the culture. Traditional teachings on gender and sexuality are considered oppressive and archaic. As one unmarried panelist said, “It is inherently ungodly” to be denied the joy and pleasure that comes from sex. The true threat facing many of those who’ve walked away from Christianity is defining God in one’s own image, rather than being defined by God and his Word.

When Christians question beliefs and practices within Christianity that seem to threaten their sense of self, we do them a disservice to not delve deeper into those beliefs and practices with them. We have to point these people, many who are our friends and family, directly back to God and the Bible and encourage them of the truth while interceding for them. We have to direct them to the God who is holy and loving toward all he has made.


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