The Christian church is going to die. At least, the African American church as we know it is heading towards a catastrophic end. In the next ten years the black church will suffer a painful demise unless something changes quick.
This is the prognosis one is left with after reading “6 Reasons Young Black People are Leaving the Church.” The article was posted by Leo Davis on blackstaratlanta.com‘s web site and was shared with me on Facebook by my cousin. Like me, he’s a young black church-goer. On more than one occasion, we’ve discussed the direction of the church (both our home church and the greater Christian community) in relation to young people.
Let me stop right now and say as a disclaimer: I not only attend church but am a church employee. My statements in this space represent my personal thoughts, not the positions of my employer or the ministry I lead. Furthermore, the topics I’m addressing are of concern for Christian churches in general, and not just my home church.
If you buy into the premise of the article, you accept that the black church is loosing young people. Indeed, statistics from the research available indicates that overall young people in American are moving away from organized Christian churches. As this trend continues, the church is being whittled down at both ends: young people are walking away and old people are dying away. Davis suggest that there are six primary reasons for this.
I approached the article with both skepticism and curiosity. Because of my role in the church, I’ve read many other articles that are basically list of reasons why young people pull away from church. However, as I read this particular article, two things became clear. First, I really agreed with what was being said. Second, even though I agreed with the arguments, it was clear that they were really six symptoms of one major reason why the church is hemorrhaging young people.
Young people are leaving the church because Jesus has left the church. Actually, that may not be the best way to phrase what I’m trying to say. It’s not that Jesus has walked away from the church, it’s that we as a Christian community have decided not to make him the center and focus of what we do. We’ve rooted our identity in so many things other than Jesus, and that’s what’s led to the six problems Davis identified in his article.
What I decided to do in response is to go through each of the six reasons and demonstrate how they each represent a removal of Jesus from his proper role in the church.
Social and economic improvements make the church appear less relevant.
The basic argument here is that African Americans has fewer economic and social opportunities than today. From the time of slavery, through the Jim Crow era, and into the Civil Rights Movement African Americans relied on the church for social and economic support and leaned on their faith to get them through tough times. Now that we as a community (if not as individuals) have crossed a certain threshold of economic and social access, we no longer need to church to fill that role in our lives.
The issue here is that this was never what church was supposed to be in the first place. The church is the tool Jesus is using to bring his kingdom onto this earth. However, the church does not embrace this role as central to its existence. Too many churches want to be community development corporations. Too many pastors want to be civil rights leaders. Churches are to point people to Jesus, not to economic opportunity. Now that we have a generation emerging that is less reliant on the church to meet its economic needs, we’re seeing more young people who don’t feel the church plays a relevant role in their lives
The church appears to be old and stagnant
This isn’t just an appearance, it’s a reality. Churches become old and stagnant when we stop worshiping Jesus and start worshiping ourselves and our traditions. Sadly, this is often the case in American Christianity. We confuse the way we worship with who we worship. We start with what be are comfortable with church being and then try and fit Jesus into that. We need to start with Jesus. Once we do that, we can more easily change our style to be relevant to the shifting culture without compromising the timeless substance of scripture.
One thing Davis got wrong in this section: Christianity hasn’t always clashed with young people’s culture. The first Christian leaders were young radicals. They had a message that spread like wildfire throughout primarily urban areas because it spoke to the hearts of the people. All people struggle with some aspect of the Christian message, but it’s when we get away from the true essence of who Jesus is that young people are most repelled.
Young evangelicals feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith
The idea here is that you go to high school and/or college, get educated, and realize all the things that are wrong with the Bible. The fact that this is happening is partly a reflection of the fact that churches and parents aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching the Bible to their children.
The Bible is not wrong. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use our intellect and education to understand the world around us, but the Word of God should be the standard by which we judge all other information presented to us. The challenge is that we’ve created a false gospel where we – the created beings – are at the center instead of Jesus – the creator of us all. This is characterized by self-help, prosperity preaching. We see it in what I call the Genie Jesus Syndrome – the idea that God is there to grant us our wishes (Sadly for those of us who grew up watching Aladdin, he’s not). This type of humanist Christianity just lends itself to young people believing that the Bible must be wrong, “because my professor proved it to me,” and not knowing what to do about it.
Disagreement with passages in the Bible on slavery and genocide
Let’s get this clear: the Bible is not about slavery and genocide. Slavery exist in the Bible, as do mass killings. Nowhere in the Bible (if you read it as one book and not separate, independent sections) we we see God genuinely happy about someone being a slave or a whole nation of people being killed. The Bible is about Jesus. The Bible – the whole Bible – was written to tell us about Jesus, not to be a guide on slavery or genocide or gender roles or environmental science. If you’re obsessed with these areas, you’re missing the point of the Bible: Jesus. Of course, if you grow up in an environment where Christians are routinely shifting the focus away from Jesus it’s easy to make this mistake.
One more thing on this point: Jesus is God. That means that he’s the chief arbitrator of justice and it’s not our place to criticize him because we feel he’s being unjust.
Such a large topic, such little space. Let me say this first: the way the church talks about sex is off-putting because it’s so clearly about what makes the powers-that-be comfortable and not what pleases Jesus. Churches either avoid discussing certain issues because they don’t want to offend anyone or focus on a narrow band of behavior that certain people find particularly upsetting.
I don’t believe that lie that the church should change it’s definition of what is sexually moral. I do believe that instead of using the Bible is as a tool to manipulate people towards the behavior desired by other fallen sinners – church mothers – pastors – people, we should put the focus on what Jesus wants. We need to openly discuss this topic, firmly sticking to what scriptures teaches, in a way that is non-judgmental. That will only happen if the focus is on Jesus, not us.
They are tired of pretending
This is where I wanted to shout. This may be an issue in other cultures as well, but I know it’s a challenge in the black church. We’ve been so influenced by this crazy prosperity gospel that some people look at you like you’re crazy if you admit hardship in your life. The truth is some people love the Lord, pray, read their Bible, and are filled with the Holy Spirit and still deal with problems. Young people deal with student loans, getting cars, relationship problems, sick parents, depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addition, STDs, and on and on. The Christian life is not easy, and sometimes you feel like it would be easier to give up.
In spit of all this, church people love to wear masks. They like to dress up and pretend like everything is peachy, like because they have Jesus they’re happy all the time. Why must we try to act perfect. The whole point of Christianity is that we can’t count on our own perfection, that’s why we need Jesus. When we place so much importance on masking our problems, we’re putting ourselves in the place of Jesus. We’re disobeying him by not giving him all our cares. We’re robbing our young people of the chance to experience his true saving, healing, life changing power in their lives.
The bottom line is this: Jesus already told us how to get people into church. Lift him up and he’ll draw all unto himself. That’s got to be a lot better than lifting ourselves up and wondering why people are running away.