One size does not fit all: Black millennials demand more

By the Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker

Contrary to the articles we frequently read about black millennials hating the church, my research suggests the opposite. After collecting data from more than 1,000 black millennials, I clearly see that black millennials have a strong affinity and hope for the black church — specifically, the black church of old.

Acknowledging the multifaceted nature of black churches historically and understanding that no essential Black Church exists, this article privileges prophetic traditions of black churches using “black church” as shorthand for the prophetic traditions of black Christianity. While many congregations are preserving the worship practices, rituals and fellowship experiences of the old black church, black millennials desire a return to the core of the black church.

The oft-noted exodus of millennials from the church is not as true for black millennials. They are not all leaving the church, but many bring a cocktail of faith with them when they enter the door. Larger black congregations in metropolitan areas are not seeing the troubling absence of millennials in the same way as other congregations.

Black millennials, according to my research and personal experience, love and appreciate many facets of the black church of old and hold high hopes for the black church today. They desire to see action-based, holistic places of worship with evenly distributed resources as well as messages of and movements toward justice. Millennial Twitter criticism and trending hashtags need to be heard as calls for progress, rather than as excuses for abandonment. Social media may not be everyone’s forum of choice, but it provides many millennials with an outlet for an unrestricted voice and an authoritative perspective. We “luh” church — or what it could be. And we want to see it at its best.

Black millennials cultivate a faith that speaks to social realities that mark historical and contemporary black life. Black millennials do not want to engage conversations about building for our destination as if danger is not on our route. The streets are real and flooded with the blood of the slaughtered — victims of state-sponsored violence and vigilantism. We’ve gone from strange fruit hanging from southern trees to peculiar speed bumps lying in the streets of America. Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin have shown that we may not make it out of our neighborhoods; Eric Garner taught us that we may not make it past our hustle; Rekia Boyd proved that there’s no guarantee that we can live past a night out with friends; Tamir Rice illustrated that we may not make it out of the park; and Sandra Bland confirmed that there’s no guarantee we’ll make it out of jail.

A secure future is not solidified or enhanced by ignoring harsh realities but by acknowledging this reality as familiar biblically and strategizing for change — not building funds for fellowship halls and basketball courts that the average person in the community cannot access. It is, for black millennials, relevant ministry to resist and correct practices in over-policed neighborhoods, police forces lacking diversity, policies set out to destroy us, and people who see us as nonexistent. Pulpits absent of faith and politics will result in pews absent of black millennials.

Millennials seek spaces of refuge, and that is why there is still hope for the black church. There is still a place for the relevant black church, and — while it may not be as easy to retain the participation of black millennials — it is, indeed, possible to enlist the partnership of black millennials.

The Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker is founding curator of the online Black Millennial Café, pastor of assimilation at Friendship-West Baptist Church, Dallas, and chaplain at Paul Quinn College, also Dallas.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.