The Black Church No Longer Serves Me
Over twenty years ago, one of the most poignant aspects of my Black adolescence was being in Black churches. Admittedly, Black churches didn’t fulfill my spiritual needs as much as my social needs; I was an introverted, shy child living in a predominately white suburban neighborhood with limited interpersonal relationships with other Black children. In Sunday school, I playfully engaged with other kids, cracked jokes during adult communion, and treated church service as a grandiose social hour where I could shine in the children’s choir.
As time passed, however, something changed. Family treks to that small church on Sundays became less frequent, without explanation. My mother’s appearances in Sunday school became sparse, as did my father’s visit to Bible study. Confused as to why we no longer attended church service, I hesitated to inquire into “grown folks” business, until one day, I overheard my mother discussing church matters with my aunt, and then blurted out the question in the most innocent fashion I could muster. After some hesitation, she finally disclosed to me that she and my father grew weary of performative Sundays, in which the conservative congregation feigned community and acceptance—circumstances which led them to withdraw their emotional and physical presence from church. Intrigued, I leaned back into my seat, contemplating her confession. Decades later, in my budding Black adulthood, I longed for something else that served to fulfill my leftist, radical development, and need for a spiritual sustenance that differed from repressive church experience like that of my parents.
The Black Church is a political, economic, and social institution in the fabric of Black America. During enslavement, Africans who were forcibly converted to Christianity fused traditional African spirituality with the new religion. Early Black church attendees in the deep Southern backwoods regularly practiced hoodoo, folk magic descended from West African spiritual systems. Ring dancing, the laying of hands, in addition to jubilant shouts of ecstasy, were prominent aspects of African spirituality, and noticeably distinct from predominately white churches; such a difference triggered criticism from conservative white churchgoers. As a consequence of racist social surveillance, the Black church shifted their religious ethos in alignment with settler-colonial aspects of Christianity, creating a social atmosphere concerned less with community and more with superficial sanctimonious representation. While the 1970s saw spike of Black liberation theologians attempting to apply Marxist principles to Christianity, this sect of the gospels is not predominately popular in mainstream Black religious life, save for the brief, occasional acknowledgments of past collective trauma. The Black Church, for its various intersections in historic and modern Black life, fails to adapt to the perspective of radically politicized and critically thinking generation of younger Black folks.
Coincidently, other Black millennials I encounter share the same sentiment, vocally proclaiming our socio-political divestment from the Black church. Fewer millennials are attending church in the 21st century, with 59% of those raised in church making the decision to leave the ecclesiastical communities we were raised in, with 35% believing that church is harmful, and are the generation least likely to be interested in church attendance.
Allison, a long-time friend of mine, factors into these telling statistics. As a Black millennial, she and her sister were raised church, attending dutifully. Despite her upbringing in the Black church, she grew distant from church members and her pastor, whom she commented were not supportive of her life-style and hypocritical. She attended Fellowship Chicago on 47th street in Chicago, when news of the pastor engaging in an affair, and his mistresses’ six figure salary. Distraught, she ceased attending church services. “Reverend Jenkins was the man before those pics came out. Apparently, he was messing around with another woman, and she shared pics of them on social media. When that came out, I was through with churches,” she shares. “Now I only go with relatives, and I treat it like a Sunday morning music meditation. I was bothered. That hypocrite prayed for me. He was a leader, but he lied. It made me feel terrible. Like, why do we even come here?”
Black millennials, constantly challenging archaic social mores erected during enslavement, clash with the repressive politics of the Black church. “Specifically, during 100 years between emancipation and the Civil Rights, Black people carefully traversed the space between establishing self-hoods/communities that celebrated Black life and the self-policing that emerged as a way to assimilate into American society…Victorian ideals about inter-gender behavior, and white American middle-class notions of ‘nuclear-families, Black norms, and practices of kinship established a politics of respectability that would act as a foundation for Black moral subjectivity. The role of Black churches in continuing this politics of respectability has been vast, multipurposed, and multifaceted,” writes Thelathia Nikki Young in Black Queer Ethics, Family and Philosophical Imagination. Allison further elaborates on the particular pain that this social policing of her life caused her. “Well, now in churches, you’re accepted, you’re just put into a big ass box of all the young people, old and young folks. Unfortunately, even simply looking a certain way can cause our elders to treat us differently. They think we’re bold, but immature—like we are a permanent phase of life that’s terrible,” she explained. “That’s the real problem. You’re welcome to come in—you just have to deal with the scolding, back talk, disrespect, lack of support and mediocre recognition.”
Then, there’s the added element of Black queer life intersecting with Black church institutions complicating the narrative; with people of color more likely to identify as queer, and more likely to face anti-queer attacks, imprisonment, and poverty, how does the Black church provide alliance with this marginalized community? Allison alludes to the system of cisheteropatriarchy in Black churches, deeply palpable in the fabric of religious social life. While queer people are visible, the amount of acceptance Black queer people experience is surprisingly dependent on status, Allison admits. “It’s interesting because they’re usually associated with a regular family member or something so it’s like a rite of passage. The church has an interesting social structure. If the church is small you instantly become a stigma on your family name. They’re like, ‘Oh that’s Lisa’s boy; he got the change.’ It’s not something openly discussed, though. They would never do that but everyone knows and everyone says something behind their back, and it’s wild to witness. ‘You know what you’re doing is wrong right? The Bible says that your body is a temple! Sodom & Gomorrah, blah, blah, blah.’ I’ve had a number of friends cry from it over the years.”
While more Black millennials question the deeply problematic aspects of church institutions, Allison makes the point that there are still Black millennials who don’t question the church’s teachings, even if harmful. Her reasoning: “It’s easier [for them]. We all have to believe in something. We are also living in a world where time is somewhat inconsistent. We are able to relive our experiences in a way that has changed the way we view life and its preservation. So a lot of people want to maintain certain aspects of it—things that feel good to them, moments if you will. Being religious now is almost like remembering those times when Big Mama was queen, and Sunday dinner was mandatory, and Papa don’t take no mess, and all that good ole wholesome, Black goodness we hear is missing from back home. It gives us a reason to share our amazing God given love. One that is especially unique to Black folks in how wholesome and jolly and open we are with our feelings emotions and spaces.”
She currently follows Church LA online, which she connects with because it feels more like getting advice from friends, rather than being preached to. “I’d like to see open-minded elders who respect everyone who is a good person, no matter who they are. I’d also like to see more support spiritually, emotionally and financially or socially, being committed to creating safe spaces for all of us not some of us, and understanding that it’s going to take time to adjust, but it’s worth it…they don’t even know what they’re missing, to be quite honest.”
For many Generation Y adults, the Black church serves as a testament to the survival of African descendants in the United States, albeit, an institution shrouded with outdated social, political, and economic mores that fail to serve the needs of a changing Black community. As my fellow generation of Black millennials radically take on the prison industrial complex, policing, decriminalizing sex work, the politics of colonization, and gender abolition, the very fabric of the Black Church remains but a distant memory in the search for a community I seek to call home, as I search for communities progressing into a radical future.