Ethnic churches do better with Millennials, but challenges remain
Some African-American and Hispanic pastors say Millennials are not leaving their churches like they are white evangelical congregations. But some also say ethnic churches face their own pitfalls in retaining younger members.
By Jeff Brumley
Go to Google and type “Millennials, church,” and the screen will be dominated by links to articles, blogs and studies documenting that generation’s exodus from American congregations.
What irks some, however, is that evidence is being overlooked that the problem is not one that plagues the ‘capital-C church.’
A growing group of African-American, Hispanic and other ethnic ministers are pushing back. And they are armed with yet more articles, blogs and studies — this time revealing that the departure of young adults from churches is a largely white-church problem.
Writing for the Christian Post recently, theologian Anthony Bradley kindly asked if white evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, would please stop projecting their own demographic declines onto “the Church” as a whole.
“For example, many Southern Baptist writers … have been writing on the issue of Millennials leaving the church,” Bradley writes. “It turns out, that this is not an evangelical problem nor an American church problem, but a white problem in certain circles.”
Bradley, an associate professor of theology at The King’s College in New York City, added that Asian American, Hispanic, and African American Millennials are actually growing.
“Black Millennials are not leaving the church,” he added.
Others say the tendency to paint with a broad isn’t brush not limited to Southern Baptists, and some African-American and Hispanic pastors contend that their own churches face challenges similar in seriousness to the exodus of Millennials from white churches.
Less conservative Baptists are often just as guilty of assuming their experience with Millennials is true across the larger Christian church, said George Bullard, a church consultant and president of The Columbia Partnership
“Many moderate to progressive Baptists who consider themselves open and liberated in their thinking about race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, and other issues are at the same time very myopic and parochial in seeing issues from a middle class, white, Baptist perspective,” Bullard said.
Nor is it a tendency limited to whites.
“I would agree we project our issues and expectations on different parts of the body of the church, and there are certainly times when that can cause some trouble or misunderstanding,” said Jesse Ricones, a Lubbock, Texas, pastor and executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas.
While the Christian Post article raised valid points, Ricones said Hispanic churches are struggling with attracting and retaining young people. However, the reasons are unique to Hispanic and other ethnic traditions: language.
Many congregations are shrinking because their first-generation members still want and need Spanish as the language of worship. But that’s a turn-off to younger Christians who want English to be the dominant language at church.
Internal struggles ensue: should Sunday school and youth group activities be offered in English? Ricones knows of churches where those offerings ceased, angering youth who could no longer invite friends to church with them.
‘Lost an entire generation’
Catholic parishes where English is the dominant language are doing better than those where Spanish is mostly spoken, he said — which mirrors the situation for Baptists and other Protestants.
“We also see that in Asian congregations where second- and third-generations lose the native language and it becomes a challenge for the pastor — who also has to deal with generational issues,” Ricones said.
Once those issues are dealt with — if they are dealt with — ethnic church leaders then have the same challenges at keeping Millennials that their white counterparts do, Ricones said: providing that sense of community and vibrancy that young people yearn for in a church.
That are rigid and do not adapt to the challenges are the ones in decline, he said.
“I think we’ve lost an entire generation.”
‘A cultural transformation’
And those losses will continue as long as churches — white, black, Hispanic — continue to strive for relevancy, said Barry Wright, pastor of Destiny Ministries, an Orange Park church plant of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida.
The issue isn’t race, or even age, but how Christ and the gospel are presented, Wright said. Some of the fastest growing churches are ones that cater to Millennials and Baby Boomers.
“They are leaving the traditional settings in droves,” he said. “I think we are seeing a cultural transformation in how people do church.”
Church doesn’t always have to be at church for many Americans, he said. “They may go to a financial conference that uses biblical principles.”
That would be an example of where an everyday need — solid money management skills — are being met in a spiritual context, he said.
‘Where the needs are met’
And that’s what churches need to do across the range of daily needs and challenges of its members. That’s the only way they can stem the tide of Millennials, Wright said.
It’s what Destiny Ministries, a mostly ethnic congregation, was designed to do from its beginning two years ago. So in addition to worship and Bible studies it offers counseling sessions and support groups focused on addiction recovery, personal loss and family trauma.
Wright said an African-American church can lose Millennials just as fast as a white one can if leadership doesn’t provide relevant worship experiences and isn’t tuned into the struggles of its people.
“Some churches are not adjusting to the needs, and people are going to flock to where their needs are being met,” he said.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.