What My Journey To Spiritual Growth Taught Me About Millennials And The Black Church
The relationship has to change.
I am a Christian, more specifically I am a Baptist church kid. I have grown up in the same historic Cleveland Baptist church of three generations prior. Currently, a good portion of my friends come from having grown up in church together. As a youth, I was in Cherub Choir, a youth usher, a Guild (junior trustee), president of the Baptist Youth Fellowship, an annual volunteer for Hallo-Leujah Festival, and involved in anything else that I was physically old enough to be voluntold to do by my mother. I was the kid at church on Sunday at 9 am and didn’t leave until 2 pm having put in a whole work shift, and I have over 20+ years of Baptist retirement benefits I that I am currently cashing out on. I was even baptized on Christmas Eve with my best friend as a child. I grew up busy and active in church which provided structure, a set of core values, and a supportive church family that is still very important in my life. However, my actual faith and beliefs were not very strong, or they were very rudimentary, based on the same lessons, scriptures, and tropes used to teach the traditional Black spiritual canon; and, more importantly, church was something dictated by my mom as something you do every week rather than something I discovered on my own.
As a result, I grew up knowing a lot about Baptist tradition and spirituality from a theoretical and performative aspect, but never had experienced any of it or deeply connected with it emotionally. Once I got to college, I stopped going to church altogether except when I was home on break. For me, this led to spiritual atrophy, where the lack of use and development of my spiritual and fellowship growth, resulted in demonstrable loss of content, interest, and engagement. I tried to stay attune by reading the “Daily Bread” devotionals sent by church friends, but that was not enough nor effective. I tried amplifying the focus and content of my prayers, which has always been inconsistent in its effectiveness. This amplified praying worked to a degree for a while but was difficult to sustain. Simultaneously, I was going through an emotionally turbulent time for a while as I did not know how to properly process my emotions following my grandmother’s death. Consequently, I was very moody, depressive, angry, distant, and unfocused. Regardless, I became apathetic and felt that I got this far in spite of God’s seeming inattentiveness to my life.
This apathy continued through to my second year of graduate school when I added watching the live stream of a Washington, DC area church which I still watch to this day. I connected with the pastor who reminded me of my childhood pastor who was a teacher and biblical scholar. This new hybrid routine of live stream services, devotionals, prayers, and counseling helped me through a very long depressive period. I felt this was a turning point because this hybrid routine laid long-term foundations for managing my depression and anxiety, and I saw small victories within myself, nature, school, and others which kept me going. When I returned home, I went to my home church but I did not feel connected to it, so I stopped attending and just watched the live stream of the DC church. I prayed more and read my devotionals regularly, even achieving internal spiritual growth, but it felt capped to a certain point. I made it through, not until this year (particularly after being unemployed) when I dug deeper into my spirituality and values to get through. I visited churches to see how others fellowship, learn about what qualities fit me, what I am looking for in a church, and how I learn about God best. Consequently, I learn best when I practice my private routines as well as engage in regular fellowship with others, though not confined to the traditional church service setting (ex. Bible study, informal or formal discussions on how the Bible and faith principles translate to today’s challenges). Subsequently, I hope to find a regular fellowship routine in 2019 that will help me take the next step.
Faith & spirituality are complicated topics, and they become more complex when looking at the role they play in the lives of millennials. I have learned through my experience, that faith & spirituality are vital in shaping my core principles, in building a community of support, and in educating myself on the theological and epistemological lessons that help create my toolkit for addressing life’s challenges. I also believe in fellowship, and how when two or more are gathered in faith, that God is present. However, I have learned that patience is the key to understanding faith & spirituality because human understanding of time does not coincide with God’s understanding of time. Therefore, it is my belief that people should take the time to allow their faith & spirituality to grow and not be afraid to go on the journey to the final destination, because the journey may develop and reveal more about the person you are to become than the endpoint.
Part II: Church & Why I Believe Millennials Don’t Dig It
Church is intimidating and austere, especially if you have not grown up attending regularly. For the unchurched, a service can be part liturgical concert, part begging for money, part meditating (read: sleeping), and part hearing your mother fuss at you for not taking the chicken out of the freezer. That is how I felt when I got back to regularly attending the church where I grew up after being gone for school. It is a fact that more millennials are unchurched, agnostic/atheist, non-practicing, or otherwise disconnected. According to CNN, more than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007; whereas, 85% of the silent generation (born 1928–1945) call themselves Christians, just 56% of today’s younger millennials (born 1990–1996) do the same, even though the vast majority — about eight in 10 — were raised in religious homes. There are many reasons millennials feel this way, but here are some I have gathered from discussions with friends:
- Inflexible/uncontemporary doctrine and dogmas
- Non-listening elders
- Disconnected teaching
- Lack of balance between civic engagement & theology
- Lack of balance between contemporary and traditional music
- Lack of millennial-focused programming or family amenities (ex. Nursery or youth church, programming inauthentic, etc.)
- Too focused on money and giving especially for a generation saddled with student loan debt
- Unwelcoming spirit (ex. Unofficial “assigned” seats, etc.)
- The influence of live streaming, online giving, and Sunday brunch culture
- Service is too long
Given these examples, I do believe that most people my age are looking for a spiritual connection of some sort, however finding the right medium and place is difficult, and we often fall back to what feels familiar. For those, who are disenchanted by church, they often use the “I am spiritual” phrase; which is basically “I pray and believe in God, but miss me on going to church.” For those that attend church or are seeking a church, there generally 3 types of churches to choose from: the megachurch, the large/historic church, or the small/neighborhood church. Millennial churchgoers, as observed by friends, belong to the following criteria (or some combination):
- Community-service minded
- Social/professional networking
- Modern/contemporary music-loving
- Multicultural congregation
- Sermon/teaching-focused (ex. Black liberation theology, sermon series, etc.)
- Come-as-you-are believing
- Young church leader
Often, it is hard to put those categories into any of the three church types for a successful mix. For myself, I prioritize a church focused on sermon/teaching because I will check out mentally if I am not in a learning environment. But, everybody is different and must find what meets their top priority. Too often we see all types of churches focus on one or two things, ignoring their capacity to do more; or, they do too much to just get people in the door, without the substance to retain them; or, we have seen churches go from extreme to extreme with each pastorate. None of these methods lead to long-term success. However, I have also seen millennials neither visit a church enough or participate and engage enough to be part of the necessary change. We have also not taken the time to learn and take away the useful pieces of more traditional methods that could very well be successful today (organizationally or individually), or come to church with an open mindset of being able to be changed and moved by the spirituality of the church. I have been guilty of all of those and more at some point in time. However, I firmly believe that it takes work on both sides to fix this and we have to be honest about the areas we have not lived up to the standard to which we hold the church and others.
I believe that, rather than take a "build it and they will come" approach, churches should seek to go to the people. Historically, the church has served as more than just a place of worship becoming meeting places, town centers, event halls, and more. Today, the church does not have that centralized leverage or power, not because my generation does not care about church, but because things are siloed and the focus on religion has taken a backseat culturally to other worthy pursuits (while also being able to watch it on demand or multitasking while watching on live stream). The church must now go back to the roots of the early Christian church and leaders like Paul, Silas, Timothy, Matthias, & Justus and take the church back into the communities and the people. That is done not merely by preaching, revivals, or concerts; but, through community-focused services, programs, education, and other efforts that fill gaps where government and philanthropy lack getting results. This can be criminal justice reform, environmentalism, homeless services, food pantries, work skills training, healthcare and utility assistance, and childcare/elderly services. There must be an open-minded evolution of thought that embraces LGBTQ+, women in leadership, technology as a tool for innovation and growth and business practices, social and economic justice, and sustainability (environment, community, and individual).
The church must also be deliberate and clear on its vision and objectives so people know what they are getting into, set accountability measures for both church and churchgoer, and define the roles and responsibilities accordingly in order to make the growth and change real. Without that vision, people of my generation will leave — we cannot all just walk by faith, we must see where we are being led. Ultimately, we must all lean not on our own understanding as the church can and should differentiate itself as an objective facilitator and arbiter of dialogue where the church and the people can openly discuss all topics, yet guided by theological principles find ways to build common ground and work on the solutions together. Learning and growth requires listening, participation, and application on all sides. If we can do these things, together, then the church will see a renaissance matched only by the early growth after the death of Jesus.
I believe that church is like the coat a mother buys a young child — you always get it 2 sizes large, so that your needs are met while having room for you to continuously grow on your spiritual journey. I do not claim to have all (or any) answers on this matter, but I believe that I laid out a theory on how to improve the macro-level relationship between the church and millennials based on my micro-level observations. Many of them may be hard to accept, on both sides, but it is rooted in love — love I have for the church and my peers. And if we all believe that love is the greatest commandment, then we will do what it takes to make church a better place for everyone.
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