I decided to embark on another three part series to kick off things this month and talk about the influence of the Black Church for creating and sustaining Black Love. The Black Church has been the cultural cauldron that Black people created to combat a system designed to crush their spirit. Collectively and with enormous effort, they refused to allow that to happen. And the culture they created was sublime, awesome, majestic, lofty, glorious, and at all points subversive of the larger culture of enslavement that sought to destroy their humanity. The miracle of African American survival can be traced directly to the miraculous ways that our ancestors reinvented the religion that their “masters” thought would keep them subservient. Instead, religion enabled them and their descendants to learn, to grow, to develop, to interpret and reinvent the world in which they were trapped; it enabled them to bide their time — ultimately, time for them to fight for their freedom, and for us to continue the fight for ours.
We cannot forget the fact that the Black Church was the centerpiece of the modern civil rights movement under the direction of a charismatic young minister named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We can’t forget the fact that our first Black President, Barack Obama was mentored by a prominent Black Minister named Jeremiah Wright, who was a key influence on Barack Obama’s life…even according to Barack Obama himself… and you will not understand the mind of Barack Obama without understanding the ideology and spirituality of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. As a matter of fact, President Obama took us back to church on several occasions during his presidency. Two prominent examples are when President Obama and the First Family joined thousands of Americans in Selma, Alabama in 2015 for the 50th Anniversary to honor the sacrifice and bravery of the men and women who bled there in 1965, in support of voting rights for all African Americans; he also brought church home for us when he led the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in singing “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
The music that we listen to from jazz to the blues, to rhythm and blues, and hip hop music, all have origins from the Black Church.
Despite the fact that the Black Church has had an amazing influence on our history and sustainability as a community, there has been a shift in the belief from within the Black Community as to whether the Black Church remains as prominent of an institution as it did for our ancestors as a place for refuge, safety, spirituality, and community. As a result, church attendance is down, and this shift is so prominent with the life experiences of GenXers and Millennials, which is where I will spend my time talking about for Part One of this series:
Part One: The Influence of the Black Church for GenXers and Millennials
First, let me provide a quick definition of GenXers and Millennials:
GenX: Gen X was born between 1965 and 1980.
Millennials: Millennials (Gen Y & Z) were born after 1981
Of course I can spend loads of time talking about the multitude of differences between the two groups from financial wealth prospects to expected life span but let’s just talk about the differences in how church has influenced the life of these two groups of folks. Speaking as a member of GenX , I can share some bullet points about my experience with the Black Church and shifts in how it influenced me. While my experience is unique, I do believe that many GenXers can relate to one or more of these basic five experiences:
- One or both of our parents came from a family in which in person church attendance was expected on Sundays and you dressed up for church.
- All of us have a relative that was a minister.
- When you attended a wedding, the wedding took place in a church, even if the reception was elsewhere.
- Meeting other Christian Singles meant that you attended an “in person” Bible Study or event and it was appropriate to “pray” for a spouse.
- When you attended church, you may have been craving for your ministers and church families to speak to current societal realities that were never addressed from the pulpit in Sunday School.
Well, for many GenXers, they were also the products of living with parents who eventually separated and divorced: this included parents who may have met in church. GenXers were also the first young people who saw the Black middle class grow into larger communities across major cities in America and the options on Sundays were not necessarily church: those options included brunches, concerts, movies, plays, operas, and attending sporting events. For many GenXers at least one out of ten may have met their current spouse (or ex-spouse) in a church setting. Many of us experienced the rise of Black Mega churches which offered a variety of educational and social activities: we also saw the leading ministers of these mega churches not only gain great wealth, but many prominent celebrities and wealthier African Americans attended these mega churches as well.
GenXers also experienced the new rising genre of Black music with hip hop artists who in some ways were ‘preachers” as they chronicled life in the hood and the hypocrisy they experienced from church, parents, elders, and the rising toll of young people dying from gang violence and police brutality. These realities could not be ignored and certainly there was a need to address these issues as the messages resonated with a growing silent majority.
The growing interest in hiphop music and artists amongst GenXers certainly put us at odds with church elders and ministers who labelled all secular music as inappropriate.
Yet, we still had an amazing group of Black artists who sang and performed Gospel music such as the Winans Family, Sounds of Blackness, and Take 6 that we grew up with. We certainly cannot forget the ground breaking song ‘Stomp” by Kirk Franklin and God’s Property which sampled its hook from the group Funkadelic and received heavy rotation on MTV as well as BET. ( One of my fondest memories was when I attended the Gospel Brunch at the Annual Congressional Black Caucus in 1997 and Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams (Open My Heart) performed magnificently)
Many Black Women who are GenXers were still single after the age of 25 and were underwhelmed by the offerings from the Black Church Singles Ministry in recent years. The skewed gender balance left little opportunity to meet a potential suitor even though they would hear sermons about praying for “the one”.
Many Black men who are GenXers attend church but there are also a good number who do not attend church as they are distrusting of church, education and ministers.
Millennials have had very similar experiences as the GenXers:
- Many Black millennials grew up in church as children and stopped going to church once they turned 18 because they may feel disconnected from churches that have not grown and matured with them from their youth into their young adulthood. So many are drawn to non-traditional churches.
- Millennials do not have to be bound to attending church in person only: with the multitude of online services and the fact that many churches have services throughout the day on Sundays, millennials get their spiritual connection when it works with their schedule, not because they have to be bound to someone else’s schedule.
- Black Millennials do not believe that they are less religious than someone who may attend church more often in person than they do.
- Despite the shifts in church attendance, millennials seek spaces of refuge, and that is why there is still hope for the black church: Black Millennials have remained, at least on the fringes, in a way white millennials have not because white believers have never had nor needed the same spaces of refuge that people of color have come to rely upon.
- For black millennials, relevant ministry is to resist and correct immoral policies and practices in over-policed neighborhoods; it’s to challenge police forces that lack diversity; to agitate policies set out to destroy us and to bring discomfort to people who refuse to see our humanity.
As we gear up for the post pandemic life, there is still a place for the black church, but given the times we are in, it’s important to understand that pulpits that are devoid of faith and politics will result in empty pews.
Speaking as a GenXer who began to experience the shifts in the influence of the black church, I can say that the digitalized, global community Black people live in today demands that the church constantly elevate how it will be relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s emerging generations. My recommendation would be to partner with Black millennials about the ways/methods that the black church can thrive as they are the future and the world is becoming their domain to continue the legacy of our ancestors.
When we come together we can continue to cultivate Black Love in the community.
Just Keeping it 100,
Picture Courtesy of ThyBlackman
Next up in the series:
Part Two: Before We Say “ I Do”
Part Three: Where Do We Go From Here?