There’s a decline in young people attending the Black church, research shows

Former School of Divinity Dean Bernard L. Richardson closes out the Opening Convocation Ceremony on Sept. 16, 2022, at the Cramton Auditorium. (Kamille Lacy/The Hilltop).

Young Black adults are less religious and less engaged in Black churches than older generations, research shows. Howard students and a youth member of the community agree with the sentiments of decreased attendance and how this impacts the future of the Black church. 

The rate of college-aged students leaving the Black church is slower than the general public, however, the decline remains significant. As Pew Research Center notes 49% of Black millennials and 46% of Black Gen-Zers reported that they “rarely” or “never” attend religious services.  

“When I came to Howard, I didn’t go to church for a semester, because it was nice having Sunday off without any pressure…[Eventually I thought] ‘if I want to be about the faith, I need to start going back,’” said Willie White, a sophomore honors political science major from Blackshear, Georgia. 

Intergenerational attendance and membership are important to a church’s relevance and capacity, according to both scholars and members of the faith community. The Black Church’s youth exodus is unique due to social factors such as race and culture, which make African American faith communities distinct. 

As noted in the Pew study, while older Black Christians are more likely to attend Black churches, only about half of Black Christian Gen-Zers reported attending a Black church.

“Once I found the university chapel it was definitely a home where I could see myself being,” White said reflecting on his experience. 

As young people transition and relocate to colleges and universities across the nation, church attendance can dwindle as students enter new communities, making the exodus of young people broad and less specific to the Black church. 

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Sixty–six percent of American young adults aged 18-22, who regularly attended Protestant churches during their teenage years, dropped out of regular attendance for at least a year during their college years, according to Lifeway research. 

Khariss Bender, a sophomore media, journalism and film major from Atlanta, mentioned that she did not attend church as frequently as prior to attending Howard.  “I think churches are definitely about community and I went to the same church from my infancy until I graduated high school,” Bender said. 

“All of my closest friends and family are at my church back home, and it’s kind of hard to find that in D.C.,” she added, reflecting on her reasons for not attending church as often. 

Generally, there is a spectrum of perspectives and students’ experiences vary, as Carter Semmons, a sophomore history major from Raleigh, North Carolina, mentioned. She started consistently attending church while at Howard, after not regularly attending during high school.

“When I started college I didn’t have the support system that I had back home, and I consider time-management important,” Semmons said.  

The challenge of balancing work and fellowship was another frequently mentioned reason for decreased church attendance in early adulthood. 

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“I thought, ‘Do I have time to read my word? Do I have time to pray?’ as I balanced the importance of my faith while navigating the ‘real world,’” Semmons said. 

In addition to challenges with attendance and finding community, some young adults directly experience multiple faiths for the first time in their lives as young adults. 

“[College] opened my eyes to different things, because where I come from Christianity was pretty much the only accepted faith. If you had any other faith, you were pretty much alienated,” White said

The impact of college on religious beliefs has been debated, as research has found that higher education leads to religious liberalization among young adults and less stringent beliefs, due to new community bonds.

“There’s a lot of diversity of faiths at Howard, and being open-minded to people’s experiences was definitely one of my biggest challenges,” White said. 

Students also discussed factors that they have found alienating about the Black church, with one significant issue being elders’ restrictive engagement with young people.

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“Sometimes the ways [elders in church] interacted with young people made me feel distant. Some elders are not willing to connect with young people on our level and where we’re coming from,” White said. 

Hypocrisy within the church was another alienating factor for 32% of young former church-goers. “People act differently in and out of church. How are you supposed to be Christian if you’re spreading drama or talking about people,” Destiny White, a high school freshman from Blackshear, Georgia, said. 

Destiny White shared her dissatisfaction with how she felt Black youth are discouraged from expressing their opinions and how that culture reflects the belief that “youth are to be seen and not heard,” even as they mature into young adulthood.

“If you grew up in the Black church, you have to follow the rules and you don’t really have a say,” she said. 

Some students felt that divergent views on social issues contributed to their exit. “The most alienated people in the church are LGBTQIA members, who grew up there but are told ‘you’re not going to heaven,’ ‘you’re against God’ and other things,”  Bender said. 

She also believes that the commitment to modern racial movements is lacking in the modern Black church. “I feel the reason young people don’t go to church anymore is due to lack of activism. Compared to previous generations, where the Black Church was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, Black churches are not as involved in the Black Lives Matter movement,” Bender said. 

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Reverend Rudy Daniels, a Masters Divinity graduate from Howard currently pursuing a PhD in Theology at Morgan State while preaching at their chapel, addressed some of the Youth’s criticism with compassion. 

Addressing the criticism that young people are not heard, he noted “There’s a politic that discriminates specifically against the youth in leadership.” He noted this is due to three reasons: “the church is a business and one of the first black businesses” in United States, and it has financial interests to address; the hierarchical nature of the Black church, where new ministers earn respect with time and commitment to the church, however young voices are not reflected; it can be difficult to change the structure and actions a long-standing institution.

Young people often do not have the resources to create sway with how church leadership in their home church spends its money and places priorities, especially if the business is to be self-sustaining. A culture of deference to elders also makes it challenging for Youth voices to be heard. He notes that though young people can learn from and with older generations, there needs to be a place for Youth voices as well. The questions that young people ask lend themselves to “a restructuring to what an older generation has already structured”, but challenges the church to tackle new issues like those surrounding the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter.

He noted that the above roadblocks are frustrating, but offered hopeful solution, young people can redefine the Black church. “Redefining is powerful because it’s no point to reinventing the wheel in terms of creating something that has existed for generations and I mean, it still works however, how we perceive it and our limited scope has to be enlarged.” Though young people may not be able to drive leadership in the direction of their values within the “four walls of the church where they tithe”, they can organize online, through social media, fundraise with non-profits and grants to perpetuate the church’s values as interpreted by this generation.

The three students at Howard noted that campus outreach is strong, offering a safety net and community for Black students who wish to stay in the Black church, however, it can be challenging to find a home church. 

Students also agreed that their home church connecting them with someone in the D.C. area would have been helpful.

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The Black church is enduring similar challenges as Protestant churches in terms of generational divisions, and young people feeling disconnected and searching for new church homes amid their college matriculation. 

Churches in Black communities are uniquely positioned and must navigate the added challenges of stifling young voices, and their ability to ask questions. “Doing so was equated to questioning God, when in reality we are really trying to be the recipients of understanding,” Semmons said.

Rev Daniels noted that young people should ask those questions, and not give up on the Black Church and the power of spiritual discipline in its tradition. Change is possible, but it will be youth led.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew 

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