Black millennials are less likely to be religious than previous generations. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 64% of Black millennials are “highly religious,” as opposed to 83% of older generations. This shift has resulted in many young adults in the Black community leaving their churches.
Sherry Williams decided to join the mission to bring young adults back into church after receiving information on the Engaging Young Adults Project from the Center for Congregations.
Williams, a four-year member of Living Word Baptist Church, organized a series of youth summits to bridge the gap between churches and young adults throughout Indianapolis. The non-denominational gatherings consist of open communication between several church leaders and young adults through panel discussions.
“We partnered with several other churches within the community,” Williams said. “We had a conversation with them about what we were trying to do to find out what we could do to get young adults to stop leaving church.”
With one summit gathering completed, Williams now has a better understanding of what young adults are looking for in a church.
“My biggest takeaway is that young adults have a different path to get to church,” Williams said. “They aren’t traditional. They would opt to have smaller groups and discussions, and they want dialogue and not a monologue.”
Beyond communication issues, Williams finds that the fear of being judged is keeping young adults from attending church.
“The number one thing I hear about is judgment,” Williams said. “They feel judged, and they don’t feel that the older community understands them or their thoughts. If we have an older clergy who can’t relate to what is going on in young people's lives, they can’t relate the Bible to what these younger people are going through.”
Both Williams and Living Word pastor, Reginald B. Fletcher, worry about the long-term effects that leaving church could have on young adults and the churches themselves.
Williams, who began going to church as an adult, sees the role of church in the community as a place you can go when there’s nowhere else.
“The role of the church is to be that safe place for young adults,” Williams said. “Somewhere they can come and not get judged, to get help and to just be taught the Word as it was written.
With young people drifting from their churches, Williams is concerned about the effect their absence will have on the congregation.
“When they leave, we don’t have those young mindsets to let us know the ins and outs of your life,” she said. “We can’t thrive as a community if they continue to leave. They’re taking their creativity and ingenuity with them, and that affects our ability to be able to connect and make the changes that need to be done within the community.”
Fletcher, who has served as pastor of Living Word since he founded it in 1990, worries that leaving the church could lead to isolation for young adults.
“When we leave church, we leave that safety net where we could go when we were having a bad day or going through a struggle in life” Fletcher said. “Paul said in the Book of Ephesians that while we were without Christ, we were aliens and had no hope. When we leave the church, we leave our constellation. We leave our safety net and hope behind, as well.”
While future youth summits are still being scheduled, Williams has already seen several changes take place in her church to appeal to younger congregants.
“Our youth curriculum has changed, and we now have a totally separate church service,” Williams said. “We’re trying to get to them while they’re young so we don’t lose them when they get older. We’ve introduced a Sunday School for teenagers 14-18 years old that is led by me and my husband. That’s more of a dialogue.”
Williams hopes to take what she learns from future summits and discussions to fully bridge the gap between the church and young adults throughout the city.
“The changes could be creating a safe space for them, where they could feel comfortable coming and sharing and having small groups,” Williams said. “They might have an issue walking into the sanctuary, because they feel they’re being judged. This would help them create their own dialogue and how they want to approach a Bible study.”
The church needs to get out of the mindset that change is detrimental to their faith, Fletcher said.
“We’re not tied to tradition,” Fletcher said. “We’re tied to the word of God. We need to understand the difference. The word is the principle, the tradition is the practice. The principle never changes, but the mode and the method of how we practice is always changing.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.