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How Black pastors under 40 are trying to get their peers back into the pews

Churches have long been a bedrock of Black American life. But with Black millennials and Gen Zers abandoning churches, young pastors attempt to invite them back in.
An illustration of black pastors.
Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Getty Images

Empowerment Church in Southfield, Michigan, has a robust 1,000-member, mostly Black congregation. The Rev. Carlyle F. Stewart IV, 26, an associate pastor focused on youth and community outreach, however, says he sees the writing on the wall: His Black peers are abandoning traditional faith communities because they're not finding solace in churches or meaning in religion in the same way their parents and grandparents have.

Would-be churchgoers, Stewart said, see hostility toward the LGBTQ community and the reinforcement of patriarchal gender norms, among other antiquated ideals, in direct contention with the promotion of a just God of love and fairness. He said Black millennials and Gen Zers have decided not to tolerate that as they're asking "the hard questions that were forbidden back in the day."

"The church has been pushing these theologies to where our generation was born into a situation where we look back and we realize the hypocrisy and the errors of the past," he said.

While churches have been a bedrock of Black American life for generations, especially through their roles in racial justice movements and community building, a significant portion of Gen Z and millennial Black Americans don't attend church, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, 28 percent of Black Gen Zers and 33 percent of Black millennials are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 11 percent of baby boomers, who are ages 57 to 75, the report said. 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 lives, the report said.

So what are young Black pastors doing to engage with young people and perhaps lead them back to the church?

Why young Black adults are abandoning churches, Christianity and religion altogether

Jeanne Ernest was raised in the Baptist church but was never particularly religious, and she attended church only a couple of times a year. Now, at 22, she's one in a growing group of "nones," young adults who are religiously unaffiliated.

Ernest, a paralegal in New York, said she would rather avoid the trappings of traditional churches and outdated theology for a more personal relationship with a higher power.

Her approach to faith "is questioning the concept of God in general and exploring what that means and trying to detach that from a white, patriarchal figure," she said. "'God' just sort of feels like the wrong word for whatever that force is for me at this moment."

Justin Lester, senior pastor at Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, said more young adults are exploring other ways to engage with religious practices beyond the pews. He said they may be gathering at home for Bible studies, using apps such as YouVersion or streaming worship services as their schedules allow. 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 are also rejecting ties to a religion in which white Christians and churches used the Bible to justify slavery and racial segregation.

Marquis Clark.
Marquis Clark.Carrington Alexander

"What Black people have done in understanding our Christianity and our identity as Black Christians — we've had to develop some sort of relationship with God and some sort of sustainable church model within a greater context of Christianity in America that was oppressive," Stewart said.

Marquis Clark, 27, a pastor in Detroit, stressed that Christianity may have more inclusive roots than skeptics perceive.

"Many people say things like 'this is the white man's religion, this was forced upon us,' when, in actuality, the Bible predates the trans-Atlantic slave trade," said Clark, who is a youth pastor for Born to Win Ministries, a predominantly Black church. "Africans are heavily endowed in the first-century church. It's 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's done for us and how much he cares for 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 stemming from scandals like embezzlement, adultery and sex abuse at the hands of religious leaders. Lester said skepticism about whether pastors' personalities and personal lives line up with what they preach is another barrier.

To address the concerns, Lester, 32, regularly visits the five colleges in Providence as part of an outreach program for Black students. During visits, Lester said, he can feel students sizing him up.

"Every encounter is an interview," Lester said. When he meets with them, he wants to reassure them that "the same person you're going to get on Sunday in the pulpit is the same person you're going to get on Monday in small groups and the same person you'll get on Thursday at choir rehearsal."

"When you know what you're going to get, that helps," he said.

Jesus and justice

Stewart and Lester said the role churches have played in the Black community can't be replaced and that continuing that legacy includes expanding access to leadership roles, reimagining church structures and taking new approaches to how the Gospel is taught. Stewart said Empowerment has been increasing its social media presence to reach younger audiences. Lester said his church's virtual services, which were introduced during the pandemic to offer convenience and flexibility, will continue after the pandemic.

Justin Lester.
Justin Lester.Pamela Price / Congdon Street Baptist Church

Lester said he also thinks young Black adults are simply choosing to socialize in other shared places, such as coffee shops, gyms or online. The same goes for organizing efforts, which had long been central missions for some Black churches.

Even though there's a divide in attending church, about 75 percent of Black people across different faiths and age groups said Black churches have played a role in achieving racial equity, and nearly half of Black Protestant church attendees have heard a sermon on racism, the report said. But younger generations don't feel dependent on the church to practice activism, Stewart and Lester said.

"A lot of people realize that the church has been, in a lot of ways, an institution that has served its purpose in the sense of protecting Black people," Stewart said. "But now, I think our generation doesn't need that in the same way that our parents and our grandparents did, because we have different and more spaces where we can move now."

Black churches' role in social action has included serving as stops along the Underground Railroad and educating Black students before segregation was abolished in schools. During the Jim Crow era, faith leaders and church members hosted Black travelers when hotels and diners wouldn't serve them. Prominent faith leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. William J. Barber II and Sen.Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., deliver sermons about racism and injustice while spearheading initiatives for equitable change.

Stewart, who worked with Barber's Poor People's Campaign last fall, said that equity, providing aid and community-based initiatives are biblical acts but that they are often caught in the crosshairs of political partisanship.

IMAGE: Carlyle Stewart
The Rev. Carlyle F. Stewart IV.Courtesy Carlyle Stewart

"This is not a matter of Democrat versus Republican," he said. "This is a matter of right versus wrong in the sense of what is God calling human beings to be? Jesus was trying to encourage people and radically shift the mindset and the heart posture of people to let them know that so long as we have this system, we can never fully know God. It's about creating the kingdom of God on Earth, creating a society that is just, that includes everybody."

Beyond the church's walls, Lester and Congdon Street have championed programs to improve student attendance in three local schools, donated socks and coats to people without homes and offered free access to mental health professionals. In Congdon Street's 200-year history, it has been subjected to racial terrorism from 1863 to 1870, organized marches in the 1960s and launched a housing subsidy program in 1974 for elderly and physically disabled people.

Clark and Born to Win are hiring mental health professionals for church members, they have launched a project aimed at ending homelessness, and they are working with the state of Michigan on a job placement program. Clark said the church must continue its legacy of activism and develop more holistic approaches to serve the community and reach people.

"It has to be something that meets our everyday lives," he said. "And as the church, as the leaders of the church, we have to start thinking from a servant-leadership perspective. What do the people need on Monday through Saturday in collaboration with the Word of God?"

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