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How black pastors under 40 are trying to put their peers back on the bench

Empowerment Church in Southfield, Michigan, has a strong congregation of 1,000, mostly black people. Reverend Carlyle F. Stewart IV, 26, an associate pastor with a focus on youth and community outreach, however says he sees the writing on the wall: His black peers are abandoning traditional faith communities because they cannot find of comfort in churches or sense in religion in the same way as their parents and grandparents.

Future worshipers, said Stewart, see hostility towards the LGBTQ community and the strengthening of patriarchal gender norms, among other archaic ideals, in direct conflict with the promotion of a just God of love and fairness. . He said black millennials and Gen Z have decided not to tolerate this because they are asking “the tough questions that were forbidden at the time.”

“The church has pushed these theologies where our generation was born into a situation where we look back and realize the hypocrisy and mistakes of the past,” he said.

While churches have been the foundation of black American life for generations, particularly through their roles in racial justice movements and community building, a significant portion of Gen Z and millennial black Americans do not attend church, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, 28% of Black Gen Zers and 33% of Black Millennials are not religiously affiliated, compared to 11% of Baby Boomers, aged 57 to 75, according to the report. As a result, younger generations are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in black churches, and less likely to say religion is an important part of their life, according to the report.

So what are young black pastors doing to engage with young people and maybe bring them back to church?

Why young black adults are completely abandoning churches, Christianity and religion

Jeanne Ernest grew up in the Baptist church but was never particularly religious, and she only attended church a few times a year. Today, at 22, she is part of a growing group of “nuns”, young adults with no religious affiliation.

Ernest, a paralegal in New York City, said she prefers to avoid the pitfalls of traditional churches and outdated theology for a more personal relationship with a higher power.

His approach to faith “challenges the concept of God in general and explores what it means and tries to detach him from a white patriarchal figure,” she said. “‘God’ kind of feels like the wrong word for what this force is for me right now.”

Justin Lester, senior pastor at Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, said more and more young adults were exploring other ways to engage in religious practices beyond the pews. He said they could gather at home for Bible studies, using apps like YouVersion or streaming worship services according to their schedules. Other options include following Christian artists like Poets in Autumn or listening to Bible teaching podcasts, such as the Jude 3 Project.

Stewart also pointed out that many young black adults rejecting Christianity also rejected ties to a religion in which white Christians and churches used the Bible to justify slavery and racial segregation.

Marquis Clark.Carrington alexander

“What black people did to understand our Christianity and our identity as black Christians – we had to develop some kind of relationship with God and some kind of enduring church model within a larger context of Christianity in America that was oppressive, ”Stewart mentioned.

Marquis Clark, 27, a pastor in Detroit, pointed out that Christianity may have more inclusive roots than skeptics realize.

“A lot of people say things like ‘this is the religion of the white man, this was forced upon us,’ when in reality the Bible predates the transatlantic slave trade,” said Clark, who is a young pastor for Born to Win Ministries. , a predominantly black church. “Africans are highly endowed in the first century church. It is important for us to understand not only who we are, but our presence in the Bible and how much God loves us and what he has done for us and how much he cares about who we are as individuals. “

On a more modern scale, these young black pastors also know of young adults who have left churches citing hypocrisy resulting from scandals such as embezzlement, adultery and sexual abuse at the hands of religious leaders. Lester said skepticism about whether pastors’ personalities and personal lives matched what they preached is another hurdle.

To address concerns, Lester, 32, regularly visits Providence’s five colleges as part of an outreach program for black students. On visits, Lester said, he can feel the students gauging him.

“Every encounter is an interview,” Lester said. When he meets them, he wants to reassure them that “the same person you are going to have on Sunday in the pulpit is the same person you are going to have on Monday in small groups and the same person you are going to have on Thursday at the rehearsal of the choral.”

“When you know what you’re going to get, it helps,” he said.

Jesus and justice

Stewart and Lester said the role churches have played in the black community cannot be replaced and that continuing this legacy includes expanding access to leadership roles, reimagining church structures and adopting new approaches to how the gospel is taught. Stewart said Empowerment has increased its social media presence to reach a younger audience. Lester said his church’s virtual services, which were introduced during the pandemic to provide convenience and flexibility, will continue after the pandemic.

Justin Lester.Pamela Price / Congdon Street Baptist Church

Lester said he also believes young black adults simply choose to socialize in other shared places, such as coffee shops, gyms or online. The same is true of organizational efforts, which have long been central missions for some black churches.

Even though there is a divide in church attendance, about 75% of blacks of different faiths and age groups said black churches played a role in achieving racial equity, and nearly half of black worshipers in Protestant churches have heard a sermon on racism mentioned. But the younger generations don’t feel dependent on the church to practice activism, said Stewart and Lester.

“A lot of people realize that the church has been, in many ways, an institution that has fulfilled its role in protecting black people,” said Stewart. “But now I think our generation doesn’t need this the same way our parents and grandparents need because we have different and more spaces we can move to now.”

The role of black churches in advocacy was to serve as stops along the Underground Railroad and educate black students before segregation was abolished in schools. During Jim Crow’s time, religious leaders and church members welcomed black travelers when hotels and restaurants were not serving them. Prominent religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend William J. Barber II and Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., Deliver sermons on racism and injustice while leading initiatives for change fair.

Stewart, who worked with Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign last fall, said fairness, aid and community initiatives are biblical acts, but they are often caught in the crosshairs of political partisanship.

Reverend Carlyle F. Stewart IV.Courtesy of Carlyle Stewart

“It’s not a Democrat versus Republican question,” he said. “Is it a right-versus-wrong question in the sense of what God calls human beings to be? Jesus was trying to encourage people and drastically change the mindset and posture of people’s hearts for their sake. let it be known that as long as we have this system, we can never fully know God, it is about creating the kingdom of God on Earth, about creating a just society that includes everyone.

Beyond the church walls, Lester and Congdon Street championed programs to improve student attendance at three local schools, donated socks and coats to homeless people, and offered free access to schools. mental health professionals. During Congdon Street’s 200-year history, it was subjected to racial terrorism from 1863 to 1870, organized marches in the 1960s, and started a housing subsidy program in 1974 for the elderly and disabled.

Clark and Born to Win are hiring mental health professionals for church members, they’ve started a project to end homelessness, and they’re working with the state of Michigan on a work placement program. Clark said the church needs to continue its legacy of activism and develop more holistic approaches to serving the community and reaching people.

“It has to be something that fits our everyday life,” he said. “And as a church, as church leaders, we have to start thinking from a servant leadership perspective. What do people need Monday through Saturday in conjunction with the Word of God?”

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