Because Jesus Left the Church

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.

If church is just for those in despair with no hope of a brighter future, fewer and fewer of us really need it.
If church is just for those in despair with no hope of a brighter future, fewer and fewer of us really need it.

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

Can the church handle letting young people express themselves in a way that's culturally relevant but doesn't compromise scripture?
Can the church handle letting young people express themselves in a way that’s culturally relevant but doesn’t compromise scripture?

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

Jesus isn't blue.
Jesus isn’t blue.

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.

Sex

Even this non-sexual act makes church people uncomfortable.
Even this non-sexual act makes church people uncomfortable.

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.

  • Thank you Kevin for the timely article. I feel that one element was left out, and I do understand that space is always limited and we cannot cover everything. However I feel the important element that is missing is that there has been a change in young people as well. There are many that refuse to take ownership of almost nothing. The large group of young adults that have turned away from the church has not always been honest. Many say it is the church that has not kept up with their needs when in fact the major problem is that their needs have become more important than the church. In stead of listening to the gospel that Jesus wants to implant in their hearts, perhaps maybe partially at the fault of the prosperity gospel, they would rather look toward the give-me-ies.

    Often the church is tired and the older people are tired and are looking for those who will take their places in servitude. The problem is that if a group of people are running around with their needs out front, while at the same time refusing to get involved in taking leadership roles, the message of Jesus gets buried under what I want out of this life. Here is an example: I heard awhile ago that one of the mega churches had a early service where child care was provided. I heard they had to put a notice out that parents must be in service on the premises during the time that their children were in children’s church. The back story was that parents were dropping their children off so that they could go shopping or have time to themselves. They took the church’s efforts of providing a service to selfish lengths. They made it all about them!( I bet that some of them when they got the notice immediately said ,”See there they go again, not being relevant.”)
    Again thank you Kevin.
    D, Stevens

    • Thanks so much for the comment (the first one for this blog!). I agree, young people are in part at fault for their lack of faith.

      Still, being a young adult and working in youth ministry, it seems to me that right now the church is dealing with a monster of its own making when it comes to young people. A lot of the shortcomings of the younger generation when it comes to church and faith are either responses to the older generation or actually an imitation of those generations.

      I think the only way to fix is is with a solution focused on making Jesus #1 in the church.

  • Andrew Brown

    Like you I saw the “6 reasons” article on Facebook then a link for this story, both make good points! Before giving my opinion I’d like to provide some back drop. I was raised in the COGIC denomination (my aunt & uncle have 2 churches in the faith) yet over the years their congregation and lifestyle has declined and we constantly bump heads as to why? I think it’s fairly simple as to why young folk and blacks in general are leaving at alarming rates, I’ll provide a few opinions. #1. Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians – you are not like him.-Gandhi. Right now someone(most likely Christian) will read this and pass judgement and it’s only the truth!

    Sunday mornings in America are the most segregated time of the week! And im not just speaking of black & white but of social class rich & poor. Attempt to sit front row at potters house and be politely escorted to another pew due to the front row being “reserved” for the “faithful” tithers! The Bible speaks of a loving god, I can’t recall one verse that spoke to Jesus only hanging around the holy or rich? While we’re at it how many church’s truly invest in the community of the church location? Now I see plenty buying up property for parking lots or expansion but I’m talking about “serving” the community by providing economic opportunities, just imagine a line at the local church instead of the unemployment office what would that mean for that community? Now to this point I guess I would disagree that the church shouldn’t address the social/economic issues of the AA c

    • andrew Brown

      Sorry doing this from a phone. But I wanted to finish the point that the church has a responsibility to address social/economic issues in the AA community. Just think about when the “black church” had the greatest influence on african Americans? It was the day of MLK, Malcolm X etc. these guys weren’t just talking about their respective saviors nor were they preaching prosperity(think rev. Ike had that covered) they addressed issues that effected the majority of blacks during that era. Now I see the argument has been presented that we no longer have these “issues” and no need for the message in church? I’d argue that the majority of black churches have members that are educators, healthcare professionals etc. How many Sundays are spent ensuring the educators help the children that are failing? how many Sundays are spent discussing the benefits of eating healthy? There was a comedian who says “Black folk quick to say diabetes RUNS in their family but can’t tell you the last time they RAN” I think if we as Christians would be open to discussing issues other than listening the pastor perfect his 4 second breathe we’d bring in more folk that will likely draw in others? I could go on and on but recognize my experiences are not those of all but I truly think without a major turnaround the black church is doomed now will the powers that be have the sense to be open to new ideas only time will tell???

  • AG

    Kevin,
    I was very impressed with your article. You may not remember me but I remember you and your family from my days at NCC. I believe your core message that Jesus is not the central focus is the issue and that manifests itself in the various areas Davis’ article addressed. The church today struggles to find relevance because its relevance was compromised when it sought to become all things to all people to win some. You hit that nail on the head with your reference to the church’s role during times gone by.

    Keep up the good work my brother. God has called you to be a voice and people will listen as you continue to lift up Jesus and no one and nothing else.

  • I am going to mention a handful of uncomfortable truths, facts, and evidence. However, if the church would like to attemp to save itself, if it is even interested, one will at least critically think about what I am about to share.

    Social and economic improvements make the church appear less relevant

    I am going to approach this issue from two sides. One, no single indvidual on this earth needs church for anything, period. God is inside of you, christ should be your consciousness, and according to scripture where two or more are gathered in the name, it’s a done deal. Jesus did not attend church, did not tell you to attend church, so why are you?

    And since we do not need the church as a physical structure, but it is indeed here, why should it not be a center of community development? Why shouldn’t it create leaders? What factual premise are you basing the conclusion that a building should take up space, time, and tax dollars, but not improve the very community that supports it? Re-reading the first four gospels and really honing in on what jesus had to say may help you grow mentally and spiritually in this area.

    The church appears to be old and stagnant

    It’s not appearance, my Brotha. The church IS old and the church IS stagnant. Dr. King said, A church will do one of two things, either burn up or freeze up…the black church should have had front row tickets to the movie Frozen because it is on its way to being a wrap. If we eliminate church buildings, however, and worship god in spirit and truth wherever we are, well we won’t get old and stagnant because WE are indeed the CHURCH!

    It actually coincides with exactly what you said, the story of jesus talks about him being against the status quo, but everybody in the mainstream attends church…?! Somewhere the message got way off track. If I am a christian, and jesus didnt do it, I am not doing it. Plain and simple.

    Young evangelicals feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith

    Listen: you can’t base something of of a lie i.e. misinformation and expect it to outlast the truth. This section of your post IS fact. Facts are based on evidence. Faith is based on a belief system. These two lines of thoughts are traveling on different roads in different cars and unknowingly debated together, yet they are not comporable. Once one understand science as the manifestion of spirituality, you cannot look at the bible as a FACT based or completely HISTORICAL document. For starters, the bible itself tells you it is allegory. Two, the stories have been corroborated to be a copy of a handful of ancient African religions and myths, just written to King James liking. Three, if you are a grown adult and you believe these stories as fact and no where else in the history of man have they been corroborated but by the Bible itself, one needs to familiarize themselves with Rome, Constantine, and the ecumenical councils. It will save one a lot of heartache.

    Disagreement with passages in the Bible on slavery and genocide

    This is a good point in that the bible talks of SO much more, but a moot point in that the bible is full enough of contradictions to run a full year sunday school lesson on it with lessons left over. Just keep that in mind in your own biblical readings, growth, and spiritual development.

    Sex

    Bottom line: talk about it! We don’t talk about it enough and that is why we have an unhealthy view of sexuality to begin with. How can one demonize the act that brings LIFE into the world and not expect to see rapes, incest, molestations, and failed marriages because we look at sex from a moralistic level, like it is not physical, mental, psychological, of course sexual, and most importantly SPIRITUAL! When the Vatican is ya daddy, though, this type of thing happens. Their priests sleep with boys and our clergy in the protestant community sleeps with EVERYBODY!

    They are tired of pretending

    NOW, we are getting somewhere. Black youth are not just smarter…their wiser. That means that they are not just reading. They are reading, comprehending, and applying. That is the only way knowledge can be converted into wisdom is via application. Black young adults know what a nursey rhyme is, an aesop fable, a fairy tale is, an allegory…maybe. We don’t tie our salvation to any of these, so why jeus and why the bible? Well, it is simple: our parents told us to do so and we didn’t question them and were taught not to question them. It is a slap in the face to god itself to hear one thing, the first thing, and claim it as gospel without using your own brain to research. We were commanded to STUDY, not just the bible, STUDY to show thyself approved, rightly dividing the word of TRUTH. We are to seek TRUTHS, not bible truths, TRUTHS, period!

    I will tell you one truth that you may not be aware about but when put you on the path to healing: jesus already told you in the new testament not to worship him. He already told you that “they” will say to come in my name, but I am not “him”. And last but not least jesus already came back, so, what are you all waiting for?

    The story of jesus was to make you aware that if you line up with the god that is inside of you, you can tap directly into christ conscisness, WITHOUT jeus. The birth, death, and resurrection are simply man made diversions of previous “messiah” stories to distract YOU from your true god self and your true christ consciousness.

    Be blessed, my Brotha!