Every church in America seems to be asking how to get millennials “back in the church.” However, the more appropriate question may be, “How do we get millennials to try God with us?” Realizing there was little empirical data on black millennials and faith, I studied the topic for my doctoral studies.
During my research, I interviewed a 24-year-old, black, unemployed, college graduate. She spent her childhood in a large, black Baptist church and her teenage years in a smaller, predominately white Methodist church. Today, she finds herself not only away from church, but not a believer. While many would see her as a “prodigal,” the name applied by author David Kinnaman to millennials who have left the church, I term her a fugitive.
Kinnaman, in his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking, places millennials who have left the church, in three categories of dropouts—prodigals, nomads, and exiles. After studying black millennials and the Church, the existence of another category of millennials became clear—the fugitive.
Black millennials in this category attended church and actively participated in youth groups and children’s programs, attended Bible study, and volunteered, but never believed, unlike those in Kinnaman’s three categories. I have defined them as fugitives because they were held captive to church practices, principles, and praise of others. But, they were never engaged for the sake of belief and conviction. They are on the run from the Church, and now, are vehemently being pursued.
Some fugitives are willing to attend special Sunday services with family members. Others may be living in the home of pastors, deacons, or church leaders. If they are exposed as unbelievers in a family of believers, their experience is likened to a coming-out-experience. Parents feel guilty for not doing enough, relatives are embarrassed, and it becomes a family secret. Everyone would have known this secret had earnest engagement occurred throughout childhood.
The church is hunting this demographic and parents are attempting to herd them “back” to church. However, they are hunted typically for the wrong reasons. Some will be notches on the belts of churches that major in numbers. Some are hunted as strong hands for dying churches that view them as a great labor pool but will withhold authority. Still others are hunted to increase the church respectability of relatives. The fugitive has escaped the Church and the church is in definite pursuit.
Fugitives may have escaped because churches assumed that they would accept the inheritance of Christianity, as did previous generations. Churches may have believed officiating the wedding ceremony of the parents, eulogy of the grandparents, and infant baptism in the early years secured these millennials as heirs to Christianity.
The most respectful millennials are politely denying the Church’s offer because there is not a t-shirt that says, “Dear Church, Been There, Done That, Not Going Back!” It is actually illogical for churches to pursue strongly persons they could not “capture” in 18 years of consistent engagement, especially since these churches have not changed in any manner.
How does a person spend up to 18 years in a church and that church never discover that the person has not accepted their truth or adopted the beliefs of that church? Perhaps, churches were proud that these millennials added to their numbers, but neglected to give them a voice. Imaginably, the Youth Ministry in these churches never substantially explored Christianity with these now fugitives. There is room here for parental culpability as well. But, since ministries are willing to provide transportation and whisk away youth for Bible study and church activities, today, youth and other ministry leaders should assume that they are primarily responsible for the faith formation of potential fugitives.
My interviewee’s story includes a turning point that may have been the Church’s best opportunity to share genuinely the Christ, who previously served as the elephant in the room. After being forced to go to church for years, this young woman began to attempt to have a relationship with Christ. In her attempt to grow closer to God, she read the Bible, “started listening” in the church she attended, and asked questions of both the senior pastor and young adult pastor.
As she searched for a relationship with Christ, she found that she did not believe in the Bible or God. She says, “I tried to believe.” When she started listening and things did not connect, she began to ask questions. While the pastors were open, they never had answers “that made sense.” “I just never really felt it. But I tried to feel it because everybody else around me felt it so I was thinking, well, everyone else around me can’t be wrong,” she explained. Perhaps the missed moment occurred when no one walked alongside her as she journeyed or simply never took her unbelief and questions seriously. Or, perhaps those answering were too poorly trained to address the questions she raised.
This mission to get millennials back in the Church, in far too many instances, is rife with presumptions and detachment. It is presumptuous because churches assume they are the only place of theological engagement. Contrary to popular belief, millennials are “having church.” It is happening on the rooftop of restaurants at brunch over mimosas, after workouts when millennials meet to discuss navigating their difficult lives, and even on civic service projects as millennials volunteer for causes in which they believe. The mission is detached because many churches maintain an air of “you will assimilate if you want to succeed in this church.” Forced assimilation, even when kindly presented, will never take the place of sincere relationship.
To get millennials to come back to church, welcome them into a relationship that allows mutual and reciprocal growth. Make space for questions that may be uncomfortable and seem “inappropriate.” This may require that clergy and church leaders be well-trained (theologically and culturally). Lastly, and above all, enter into authentic engagement with them without strings attached.