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Millennials Breaking from Organized Religion

African-American millennials, arguably among the most educated and credentialed in their families, are more spiritually grounded than their counterparts of other races, but less beholden to the church body than previous generations, data from the Pew Research Center shows.

This significant deviation from conventional religion has become a topic of concern in recent years.

A spirited discussion at an epicenter of African-American history and culture on the West Coast during the latter part of last month allowed a collective of millennials, representing Black people born between 1981 and 1996, to contextualize their contemporaries’ mass exodus from the church pews, providing insight about the conditions that compelled their exploration of other means of worship.

“There’s something inherently ungodly about a doctrine that tells me I can’t experience joy and pleasure, and I have to wait until I’m chosen by someone who’s going to be trifling,” writer and theologian Candice Benbow told audience members at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles during an Aug. 24 panel discussion hosted as part of the “gOD Talk: A Black Millennials and Faith Conversation Series.”

Benbow, a self-described womanist of the Baptist faith who said she’s breaking out of the confines of the Christian denomination, counted among the members of a small group who conversed with Teddy R. Reeves, museum specialist of religion at CAAM.

Other panelists included Besheer Mohamed, senior researcher at Pew Research Center, Tyree Boyd-Pates, CAAM’s history curator, and Rev. Michael J.T. Fisher, a pastor, recording artist and radio host, each of whom spoke at length about the educational and cultural factors involved in the schism between youth and organized religion.

During the first half of the 90-minute program, themed “Faith in Context,” Benbow explained how her spiritual evolution, which involved a return to her African roots and fellowshipping with her friends outside of church, manifested out of her matriarchs’ marginalization in religious institutions and society at large.

“As Black women navigating this world, we try to do it happily,” Benbow said in response to an inquiry about the intersection of sexuality and gender in the church. “We have to be very strategic. If a brother asks us for our name and number and we don’t want to give it, we don’t know if we’ll come out of that exchange alive. There are other issues that beat us down and you tell me that I can’t experience intimacy that’ll remind me I’m human and worthy of love.”

The flight of millennials from the church, researchers contend, has happened amid a cultural and political shift in the past decade that has clashed with what’s considered the patriarchal, scripture-centered dogma of organized religions.

As various secular schools of thought enter the mainstream, young people, frustrated by their church families’ unwillingness to answer questions about the origins of conservative church doctrine, have sought other means of the spiritual expression.

As data from the Pew Research Center, a sponsor of “gOD Talk: A Black Millennials and Faith Conversation Series” in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Northwest, has highlighted, youth have increasingly designated themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” and maintained routines they learned in the church, like praying, while depending on critical thought and research, not exclusively what elders told them, to shape their worldview.

“We want to engage our parents about the faith, but they don’t seem to have answers,” Boyd-Pates told audience members. “When I was asked to stop critically thinking about aspects of my life and how they intersect with my faith I was dissatisfied. We can never shelve the critical mind we got with education. We’re not an ignorant generation. Give specific answers, and we’ll rock with you.”

Fisher, pastor of Greater Zion Church Family and host on KJLH Radio, both in Compton, echoed Boyd-Pates’ sentiments, saying that in the age of social media, young people have greater access to information and demand the same from the adults in their community.

“You have a generation where everything is out in the open. We’re following celebrities that show everything about them,” Fisher told audience members. “The church will have to be really honest and transparent about gender and sexuality and how we got here. I wrestled with this whole notion in the Baptist Church that women couldn’t preach. I couldn’t digest that women couldn’t be used by God, especially when you look in the Bible and see women.”

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