Why Are White Millennials Leaving White Church in Droves?

I guess this could be subtitled “part 4” of my current series. But since I’m shifting gears a bit, I decided to let it sit as a stand alone, yet related, blog. After reading my first post in the series, my friend Derwin Gray Tweeted me a message saying that the flood of Millennials leaving the church is largely a white problem. African-American, Asian, and Hispanic churches aren’t generally experiencing the same exodus.


This intrigued me. My immediate hunch was that he was right. Partly because of my own intuition, and partly because it was, well, Derwin friggen Gray who said it. I’m always hesitant disagreeing with an ex-NFL football machine who could crush my face with one hand. In any case, I did a bit of research and it does appear that African-American churches in particular aren’t generally experiencing the same departure.

In their book Church Refugees (the one I’ve been raving about), Packard and Hope acknowledge up front that 92% of the respondents to their surveys were white and say that “It would be impossible to speculate about how far the findings presented here would extend into he African-American church in America” (Church Refugees, 10-11). Ed Stetzer’s extensive research reveals that unchurched and dechurched African-Americans have a much higher view of church and its teaching than their white counterparts. For example, 98% of unchurched African-Americans still believe that God exists compared to 76% of Anglos (Lost and Found, 22-23). In terms of Millennials, I’ve found no clear evidence that African-Americans are fleeing the church like their white counterparts. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Millennials in black churches is roughly the same percentages as Boomers—about 24%.

In an excellent article on the subject, Bryan T. Calvin explores the reasons why Black Millennials aren't fleeing the church in droves. (See also THIS article in CT, though you have to have a subscription to read it...and I don't.) One reason is particularly telling. Black churches have deep roots in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. The church’s teaching and focus went far behind maintaining personal morality and church attendance. Rather, its members were joined together in a common Christian casue that deeply affected their public lives every hour of every day. Their Christian commitment extended far beyond a Sunday service; it couldn't be contained inside a church building. Before white people invented the term “missional” and made it sexy, Black Christians have been living missionally for the past 150 years (and more) as they applied the gospel to the most basic tenant of a Christian worldview—all humans are created in God’s image and therefore posses equal worth and dignity n the eyes of their Creator.

There’s also the related theme of living like an exile in a strange land, a (largely) white land dominated by privileged, power, and systemic injustice and racism that goes unnoticed by most white people. For African-Americans, church has been a countercultural exilic sanctuary, a place where the faithful can find rest from the Babylonian narrative. “Living in a predominately white (but racially changing) country, sometimes it is freeing to spend a few hours in a place where you are not a minority,” says Bryan T. Calvin.

As I was reading Calvin’s article (Bryan, not John), it struck me how much white Evangelicals can learn from this. We’ve become way too comfortable in our culture. We’ve lost our edge. We don’t normally see our church as “a place where we are not a minority.” But we are the minority. We're Christians. We are the 8-10% who have not bowed the knee to Caesar or Baal and have confessed Jesus as president and Lord. Our white culture has blinded us into thinking that we are just like everyone else out there. But we’re not. We’re different. We’re exiles. We can speak Babylonian but we are not of Babylon.(Or at least we shouldn't be.) And we can learn a lot from our Black brothers and sisters who have been living this way for hundreds of years.

If I can be honest, I’m a little bugged that most of the “Millennials are fleeing the church in droves” books and articles don’t explicitly acknowledge that this is a white problem. Heck, I didn’t even know this until Derwin alerted me to it. Why? Why hasn’t it been made explicit that we’re largely talking about white people and white churches? Perhaps because the very notion of “Evangelicalism” has lost its diversity. 

Calling all white evangelical leaders:We should humbly seek out wisdom from our African-American, Asian, and Latino Christian leaders and ask them to help us do a better job at keeping our Millennials connected to Christ, since they've been doing it for years. And then perhaps we can apologize for not asking them sooner.