Church membership among Black Americans has decreased by 19% over the past (2) decades, and Gen Z and Millennials are leading the charge. 47% of Black people attend church weekly. 36% attend church a few times a year. 17% seldom/never go to church. 49% claim to be Christians. However, 78% of Americans think that religion is losing its influence on their life. 52% of Americans identify themselves as Atheist, Agnostic, or non-affiliated with any religious group. The largest group of people that attend church regularly were born in 1949 or earlier. If they were born in 1949, they are 73 years old this year. Naturally, this age group is among the patriarchs/matriarchs in most family structures. They are undoubtedly influential because of that, and they may influence the church attendance habits. However, once they have transitioned, will they continue going? Unsurprisingly, 64% of 18–29-year-olds that grew up in the church have withdrawn from church involvement. When I asked why the reason listed included: it’s the white man’s religion, the pastor doesn’t know what he is talking about and responded poorly to probing questions about what he taught, and that they believed nothing substance was being taught anyway.
Many spiritual leaders love God with all their heart, but only possess limited knowledge of science, geography, history, and even theology. Our leaders are poorly educated, but their target audiences are more educated than they ever have been. The internet has made self-education and research easier than ever and now even those that don’t have a university education can attain robust knowledge on any subject they want if they’re willing to put in the work. The body has questions, but our leaders simply can’t answer them. The young people want facts and sources to back them up to quench their desire to understand the word of God at a level only those that have studied show themselves approved can. Our leaders can no longer use shortcuts in the forms of manipulation, intimidation, or charismatic speech. They’re being called out and corrected as fast they can speak. Their shortcomings, and hidden sins, are now more obvious than ever. How can one adequately teach the bible if you don’t know the origins of the book and the ancient world? How can you tell them what not to do and what to pray if you don’t understand why is written as it is and what the original Hebrew text was saying? Is what you’re saying what the writer meant or was it only intended for that audience 2000 years ago?
The importance of education, wisdom, and proper training is emphasized throughout the bible and is a bare minimum requirement for holding any office of importance. The warning in James 3:1, “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly”, seems to have been forgotten as the pastors and teachers become more preoccupied with status and amassing a following rather than the immense responsibility of stewarding those individuals. The prominence of undereducated and unseasoned leaders heading the church today would be incomprehensible to ancient Christians and Jews. Ancient schooling meant undergoing years of rigorous training from a young age that covered a myriad of theological and secular subjects. Rabbinic and Pastoral were not given simply because you wanted them. You studied to show yourself approved.
Therefore, the church should be taught about the ancient world and how it has shaped the world they live in today.
With the emergence of more information regarding our history and how Christianity has shaped that, it’s beginning to fall on the wrong side of the moral issue as many young people of the diaspora have trouble reconciling the way the bible has been used as a tool in their dehumanization and the poor social justice record of the American church during critical points in black history. It’s more important than ever that we start teaching the history of Christianity to dispel the theory that it’s a white man’s religion. White supremacy has done incalculable damage to the body of Christ. It is one of the principal ideologies this country was founded upon and everything that has existed within this country has to mold itself around that founding principle or rebel against it. Because the church never sought to set itself apart from it, but rather embraced it wholeheartedly to maintain control of their capital and personal interests, the very voices that Jesus would have silenced and rebuked have been among the gospel’s chief representatives.
If the fraught history of the church was not enough, then one would need only look as far back as a year or two ago when conversations around the murder of George Floyd pressed American pastors across the country to begin addressing the racism within their own congregation. While some pastors rightfully rebuked racism and the church’s role in it, the social justice uprising has brought about those who believe in “simply preaching the gospel” and leaving the issues of racism and bigotry, mighty sins that need to be repented of, out of the pulpit. But if we believe in a God that is the ultimate defender of the marginalized, why would he in good conscious be left out of the conversations around it? The uprising of this seemingly benign sentiment has proved to be effective. As it began to take hold, it naturally gained traction and went from seeking a sort of negative peace to anti-intellectualism and callousness. As a result, we see pastors boldly claiming to not be “politically correct” and taking part in the movements fiercely against the teaching of critical race theory (an academic concept that race is a social construct and that racism is larger than individual bias/prejudice, it’s something that effects legal systems and policymaking). These pronouncements seek to further hide sin within not only the church, but the country. The nation was uncomfortable and, perhaps, convicted by the weight of its sin. Instead of leaning into it as we encourage each other to do when faced with the pain of our sin, they rallied against it and proclaimed themselves the real victims.
Black communities in the United States are disproportionately affected by poverty and because of this, black Christians are among the most vulnerable to predatory prosperity gospels teachings. But the younger people who grew up hearing these teachings are disenchanted with them. The overemphasis on sowing a seed for wealth is usually a poorly veiled attempt to push larger and more frequent tithing, but how much has this practice yielded results and caused an increase in wealth for the churchgoers? On the other hand, if the recipients of this message were from stable households with good incomes, how beneficial is this message? What if I don’t need money but I want my dream interpreted or I am seeking deliverance or healing? Some of the younger people who grew up hearing these uninspiring teachings told me it’s like watching a carnival show where the pastor is the ringleader. I suppose it would be if you truly are judging them by their fruits.
At the root of this, is the way we’ve allowed human beings to distort and pervert the gospel’s original intention for the sake of money and the consolidation of power. We’ve built entire institutions where we’ve allowed sinful behavior to become the cornerstone and we’ve expelled and oppressed the most vulnerable among us. Those institutions have produced Christians who are so unlike the Jesus they claim to fear and follow that even the world is telling us we are performing beneath our own standards because, unlike us, they’re actually reading their bibles.
We must stop getting mad at grass because it grows back after we cut it because that is what it is supposed to do. Unless you kill it at the root, to ensure that it will not grow back. In my research before writing this article, I consulted several people that I knew were not attending church regularly, to get their feedback. I have a few Pastors as clients and when I shared the feedback of people from Gen X, Gen Z, and Millennials generations they were all surprised.
It’s time to pay more attention to the red flags and stop making a scarf out of it.
Resource – Pew Research and the documentary “Unspoken”
By Doctor Belinda Kendall