Should blacks be counted as Millennials?

That’s the question Thabiti Anyabwile, an African American pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, asks when handwringing commences about young people leaving US churches.

“Researchers describe millennials as a fairly privileged and special group, which is so far from the reality of so many African Americans,” said Anyabwile. “When it comes to describing broad demographic trends, you’re woefully in danger of building a profile based on the assumed normative experiences of majority culture.”

At large, millennials are less religious than were earlier generations of Americans. In 2012, Pew Research Center released data showing that 32 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are religiously unaffiliated. This was an 11 percent increase over any other age group that year, and a 7 percent jump from the 25 percent of young people who responded this way in 2007.

Yet a deeper dive into Pew’s study suggests whites are overrepresented among those who are not religiously affiliated. Anglos make up 66 percent of the US population, yet they compose 71 percent of those with no religious affiliation. In contrast, blacks make up 11 percent of the population but only 9 percent of the so-called “nones.”

Black Protestants have retained the greatest number of millennials compared with Catholics, white mainliners, and white evangelicals, according to 2012 data from the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. These traditions have seen their market share of millennials drop by 8.4, 7.3, and 2.2 percentage points, respectively. In contrast, black Protestant millennials have decreased by 1.5 percentage points.

The black church’s unique history and culture help to explain why it is keeping millennials while other traditions are losing them. In the Antebellum Era, the black church was a place of “communal and spiritual encouragement” for slaves, says University of Albany professor Roxanne Jones Booth. And during Jim Crow, the church was one of the few institutions that let blacks lead.

Consequently, the church “served more than a religion function,” said apologetics pastor and researcher Carl Ellis. “There are institutional, social, and cultural reasons why people attend church. They’re not all theological.”

Today, while some blacks have further integrated into majority culture, many “still feel on the outskirts of community,” said Bryant Parsons, a Trinidadian American MDiv student at Westminster Theological Seminary. “The church provides a safe haven.”

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“When you get to the black church, you’re not always having to explain yourself,” said Ellis. “It’s the same phenomenon [as] why black kids sit together in the cafeteria. It’s a place where . . . everyone knows where you’re coming from.”

That sense of sanctuary could be one reason why many, believers or not, are comfortable with overt expressions of Christianity in black culture.

As an undergraduate at Howard University, Parsons noted that the school’s annual gospel homecoming concert was well received.

“You don’t hear from any black atheists complaining, ‘Why are we having a gospel concert? Why are we doing something so blatantly Christian?’ ” said Parsons.

Another reason why such expressions are permissible may be the black church’s “distinct cultural expression.”

“If blacks saw Christianity as the same [religion] whites practiced, they would probably feel more alienated from it,” said Parsons, citing worship and preaching styles as examples where the traditions diverge. “Blacks don’t fear that Christianity is the white man’s religion.”

But the black church’s distinct cultural role may be changing. Anyabwile notes that more and more historically black churches are moving from urban to suburban areas in order to expand. This could create a “mismatch between where the churches are located and where much of this demographic lives,” he said.

Another demographic challenge: the paucity of women in church leadership roles.

“Increasingly the creative leadership that is emerging in the church, emerges with women,” said Willie Jennings, a Duke Divinity School professor. “But women seem to be locked out of significant leadership roles, especially in older, more established black churches.”

Others share his concern. In a 2010 article, “The Black Church Is Dead,” Princeton University professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. said that the black church had lost touch with the affliction of the black community.

“We see organization and protests against same-sex marriage and abortion; even billboards in Atlanta [making] the antiabortion case,” he wrote. “But where are the press conferences and impassioned efforts around black children living in poverty, and commercials and organizing around jobs and healthcare reform?”

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Ekemini Uwan, a contributor for the Reformed African American Network, suggests this shared suffering traditionally has brought the church together. “People typically look for refuge in the education system, corporate America, or politics,” she said. “Our lives have been rigged in such a way [that] we can’t take refuge in these areas. We are constantly reminded this place is not our home.”

Joy J. Moore, an associate dean at Fuller Theological Seminary, says the black church explains a worldview that aligns with the reality of its community.

“In the African American church, the narrative of Scripture has become our story. You know what you’re facing when you encounter oppression, racism, and injustice Monday through Saturday, because you were given the capacity to recognize that oppression, racism and injustice on Sunday,” said Moore.

“Millennials are looking for the type of authenticity that lives beyond the worship hour.”

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