As the granddaughter of four devout Christians, I know a thing or two about church. My brother and I lived in Ohio but spent summers in Georgia bouncing between both sets — on one side, a now-retired minister of 41 years, my grandfather Winston Martin; on the other, a Sunday school teacher, Marjorie Prater. This meant double the church, and not just any church, but southern Black church. Between both houses, church was heavily ingrained in our routine, from midweek Bible study to all-day Sunday worship, including Sunday school, pre-service, regular service and evening service. Let’s not forget the extracurricular congregational outings, Ladies’ Day Programs, choir concerts and more. We even visited the “sick and shut in” and frequently joined personal Bible studies some people requested. Even more, our Saturday nights consisted of prepping for Sunday — the main event in many lives of Black church folk.
While this seems like a lot, my love for worship grew naturally, considering it was all we knew. Our friends were there, our family was there and most importantly, our beloved grandparents were there. But as I gained more autonomy, my church visits became few and far between. As I grew even older, I realized my sporadic attendance matched a noticeable generational shift in other congregations as well.
Regardless of denomination, the Black church has long been a backbone of the community. But while the cultural connection perseveres, millennials are redefining what worship looks like for ourselves and our families — even church kids like me.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, Black millennials are more religious than others in their generation, but are significantly less religious than older Black Americans. A smaller share of Black millennials described religion as very important to them compared to older Black people, and said they attended church and prayed less frequently. As a core part of the Black community, this decrease in church presence indicates a cultural shift indeed.
“Since the time of slavery, the church has been a pillar or a rock in the community, because it’s an opportunity where people could have and still have the day off, and an opportunity to come together for a common cause and create some measure of joy,” my Grandpa Winston recently told me. “Along with the church being a pillar, the school system has been one too, and those two units have seemed to, especially for Black people, carried us over the years.”
While the church has been embedded in Black American communities for the last 400 years, the recent generational disconnect has put its role up for debate.
“Being forced to go to church takes the enjoyment out of your relationship with God. It makes it very religious and performative,” said Malinda Moore, a former “PK,” or “preacher’s kid.” “I think that being forced kind of created a spirit of rebellion in me.”
Moore grew up in a Black church, but was also surrounded by white religious spaces she began to see as hypocritical and at odds with Christian teachings. This created a “conflict” in Moore, and ultimately led to her change of identification. She now identifies as a “believer,” but not a Christian.
“I still believe in the Trinity. I still believe in God The Father, God The Son and God The Holy Spirit, but I don’t want any attachment to Christianity anymore because of the way it has been used to oppress people and my ancestors, and how it’s still used to oppress them.”
Much like Moore, an increasing number of Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious. But, is there a difference between religion and spirituality? While Moore and I think so, Martin doesn’t see a distinction.
“Pure religion that is undefiled is to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction, and then carry the word of God to the loss,” he said. “That’s our religious responsibility, meaning, religion is an outwardly expression of faith.” “I don’t know how you would separate that from spirituality,” he added.
Since there’s been a decline in church attendance and Christian identification, numerous Black Christians have taken initiatives to get their peers back into the pews. But declining attendance isn’t necessarily a reflection of believer status. Moore reflected on how this is due to the deeply rooted connection with God once it’s initiated, even separated from a congregation or organized religion.
“I think that it’s very true to raise up a child in the way that they should go and when they’re old, they won’t depart from it,” Moore said, explaining her unwavering connection to God and the spiritual realm. “I still have to pray. I still have to talk to Jesus. The Holy Spirit still works within me. I can’t just renounce that. I still will always hold onto the spirituality of it all. Even if I’m not physically going to church every Sunday.”
Many people think of church as a building that houses old hymn books, semi-comfy pews, decorative stained glass and choirs singing joyously on Sundays. While that is true, I think church can be found in you too, and in whatever connects you with your gospel.
Like most identities, religion and spirituality is complex. As we constantly learn, change and experience life, our personal beliefs follow suit. Sharing a similar perspective and background as Moore, I too, have redefined what church means to me. I consider myself a spiritual person with Omnist-aligned ideals, meaning, I don’t filter where my Divine teachings come from, but accept whatever moves and enlightens me instead. This said, I will healthily raise my future children in church to establish their spiritual foundation, and help cultivate their personal relationship with God, too.
Like Moore said, “Church is a destination. Spirituality is a journey.”
Sierra Allen is an Atlanta-based writer who considers herself a creative by nature and storyteller at heart. As a Black culture enthusiast, she writes with purpose and passion while highlighting local and national community-centered topics.