In recent years, the Black Church, long a cornerstone of African-American communities, is contending with a decline in attendance, particularly among its younger constituents. Recent data from the Barna Group reveals that only about two-thirds of Black millennials and Gen Z identify as Christian. This shows a 10-point decline compared to Black Gen Xers and a 20-point decline when matched up against Black Boomers. While these numbers seem alarming, they offer more than just a grim outlook—they offer a lens through which to understand the evolving landscape of faith among the younger Black generation.
The narrative that Black millennials and Gen Z are leaving the Church collectively is an oversimplification that overlooks a more nuanced reality. While formal religious adherence is dwindling, spirituality—a personal, individualized belief in a higher power or universal force—remains strong among these cohorts. A robust 72% of Black millennials maintain a firm belief in God, challenging the narrative of wholesale religious departure.
Many millennials argue they haven’t left the Church; rather, the Church has left them. Young Black adults are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be spiritual, often finding faith in places beyond the four walls of a church. This demographic frequently draws from a blend of spiritual traditions, incorporating elements of ancestral veneration, astrology, and even social justice into their belief systems.
Pastor K.C. Pierce of Hopewell Church echoes this sentiment as he himself is a millennial pastor.
“Pastoring a church that has many generations but, for sure, has a very large number of young people, I often have this conversation. I’ve found that millennials are leaving and have identified themselves as being religiously unaffiliated. They are leaving the Church as in the four walls for reasons such as hypocritical, judgmental, inauthentic, exclusive, or even political views,” Pierce said.
The Church, for all its merits, has been criticized by many for what they say is a slow adaptation to societal changes and an even slower response to addressing critical issues that affect younger congregants. Conversations surrounding LGBTQ+ rights, the role of women in leadership positions, and issues of racial justice in wider society have often been avoided or openly rebuffed. The failure to engage in these dialogues, critics say, alienates young members who find themselves at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.
For instance, the silence on Queer identity in many Black Churches forces LGBTQ+ youth to seek inclusion and understanding elsewhere. Similarly, young Black women are exploring spaces that validate their leadership abilities and embrace intersectional feminism.
“So now trying to pastor this generation I realize (we) millennials grew up in the era of social media at our fingertips,” said Pierce. “So, we now have unlimited access to information, and it has never been more readily available. The elders before us went to Church based on tradition and of course their love for God. So, yes, we believe in God as well, but this generation needs more than just a Sunday morning church experience. I believe this is the ‘beyond the walls’ generation.”
The advent of the internet and the necessity for online church services during the COVID-19 pandemic have also contributed to this shift. Virtual platforms not only offer an alternative for those who find traditional church environments stifling but also introduce a buffet of spiritual choices. The internet offers diverse theological perspectives and religious practices at the click of a button, allowing for a more curated spiritual experience. This ease of access to various philosophies and interpretations encourages young Black people to form a more personalized, composite understanding of spirituality.
Personal relationships, too, are increasingly viewed through a spiritual lens, further reinforcing the idea that this generation’s spirituality cannot be neatly boxed into organized religion. It’s not uncommon for Black millennials to find spiritual connections through community activism, viewing their fight for social justice as an act of faith. For many, God is not just found in scripture or hymn but in the act of uplifting their communities, protesting injustices, and working toward a more equitable society.
Spiritual Wellness Educator and Michigan Chronicle Managing Editor Miss AJ Williams is no stranger to the dynamics of faith and spirituality, particularly within the Black Church. Raised as a preacher’s kid in the Pentecostal denomination, her upbringing instilled in her a foundational understanding of Christian teachings. However, even as a child, she found herself grappling with questions and curiosity about the religious environment she was in, particularly noting the emphasis on rules—or, as she put it, the “don’ts”—without adequate explanation as to how they aligned with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
For Williams, the journey didn’t end with her childhood; it was just the beginning of a continually evolving spiritual path. She underscores that her experience has been far from static. Over the years, she has allowed herself the freedom to question, to explore, and to grow in her understanding of spirituality. Today, she finds herself on an ever-changing spiritual path that she is keen to keep exploring and deepening as she moves forward in her spiritual journey.
“My transition between Christianity and coming into where I am now – I don’t adhere to a specific religion. I consider myself a deeply spiritual person and probably more so now than when I was in Church. I hold myself more accountable rather than God vs. the Devil,” she expressed. “I view myself as an extension of God.”
“Up until my early 30s, I felt a shift but was hesitant to act on it because I was so indoctrinated. I didn’t want to go to hell, which I thought was the inevitable outcome if I left the Church,” Williams recounts.
Her journey then took a transformative turn, leading her to what she now describes as “the dark night of the soul where I felt that the universe took me to truly be born again through a spiritual perspective in recognizing my higher self.”
This experience changed how she perceived her spirituality and her relationship with a higher power.
“Through that transition, I really recognize the Holy Ghost as my higher self, and I see God as myself—a part of a higher source,” Williams says. “I believe I have a definite soul contract, and I believe in karma and personal reincarnation. Oddly enough, these beliefs make me feel more Christ-like than actually attending Church.”
Astrology deserves particular mention for its resurgence among Black millennials. While many churchgoers dismiss astrology as a fad or even deviation, many young Black people find it enriches their spiritual lives. Astrology allows for a personalized interpretation of one’s life events and personality, adding another layer to the complex mosaic of millennial spirituality.
“Interestingly enough, astrology is the reason why people are back into astrology. It’s an astrological energy that’s bringing this energy back,” said Williams. “An explanation that resonates with astrology is ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ and Millennials and GenZ-ers are really showing up in that space. Is this the end-all of everything? No. But no religion or personal belief system is. At the end of the day it’s all faith.”
Many spiritual leaders remain steadfast in their approach to ministry, though, maintaining that God is unchanging in his word, so they will remain unchanging in the way they profess it. They acknowledge that Jesus Christ took the “meet people where they are” approach to ministry, but that does not mean that the things he professed changed; only the places where he taught and how he taught changed.
So, what do these shifts mean for the future of the Black Church? Far from a crisis, this could be viewed as an opportunity for reevaluation and growth. Millennials are not necessarily rejecting faith; they’re transforming it. What we may be seeing is the emergence of what could be termed “Black futured faith,” a more fluid, encompassing understanding of spirituality that doesn’t discard the Church but calls for its evolution.
“Young people love God, however instead of singing songs, they would rather go feed the hungry. Instead of shouting, they would rather clothe the naked,” expressed Pierce. “As a Pastor and a millennial, I try to remember that the message of God doesn’t change, however the methods in how we reach people have to change. We can’t catch hip-hop fish using gospel pearl bait.”
Overall, the perceived exodus from the Black Church by the younger Black generation is not an abandonment of faith. It’s a complex renegotiation and deviation, or expansion, of cultural norms. Young people’s spirituality is still strong, according to research, but spirituality manifests in forms that break from tradition. For the Black Church to bridge the widening generational gap, both the younger and the older folks might need, dare I say, a spiritual awakening, engaging openly with alternative modes of spiritual expression. Far from a crisis, this could well be the next necessary phase of the Church’s evolution, one that respects and incorporates the changing tapestry of what it means to be both Black and spiritual in the 21st century.