For nearly a decade, pollsters have been reporting the trend of disaffiliation with the church, particularly among millennials. This shift is playing out in the black church, though the rates of disaffiliation and eschewing overall spirituality are less pronounced. Black millennials are more likely to pray and believe that a higher power exists than other races, but a steady percentage of black millennials are still disengaging — and they are not returning to the church as they age. Instead, they are finding new ways and places where they can be free to stand in their identity.
Case in point: the new Something in the Water music festival hosted by musician Pharrell in Virginia Beach, Va., late last month. Water holds spiritual significance across many cultures, belief systems, and religions, conjuring ideas of blessing, cleansing, and transformation. Pharrell named his first festival — a place where I found the secular and the spiritual share space — Something in the Water, to me representing a transformation in culture, especially for black millennials.
The festival’s main stage boomed with popular music from the likes of Jhene Aiko, Pusha T, and Pharrell and Friends (Snoop Dog, Jay-Z, and Missy Elliott etc.).
A few blocks down, on the same beach, attendees could visit a pop-up church, organized by Pharrell’s uncle, Bishop Ezekiel Williams from Faith World ministries in Norfolk, Va., and featuring artists like John P. Kee, Kirk Franklin, and Mary Mary. The church, which resembled an outside tent revival, featured a host of choirs, poetry, gospel rap, and a mini-sermon, whose preacher played on the festival’s water theme.
“Life is in the water,” he announced, as onlookers nodded their heads and raised their hands in agreement.
As the congregants, who were predominantly black, fanned themselves with complimentary fans, others stood in line for fried fish plates and Jamaican food.
That this pop-up church was situated within a hip-hop festival is a testament to our changing times in which the “sanctified” can create balance with the worldly. After the morning service, a crowd began filing out to see Jhene Aiko’s set.
“I got enough Jesus for today,” said one festival-goer. “Now it’s time to turn up!”
The Something in the Water theme also served as a talking point for the traveling panel conversation #gODTalk. The movement #gODTalk — the g in god is purposely lowercased as a way to transgress boundaries, according to the website — is a mobile conversation, hosted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and partner, Pew Research.
The impetus for the conversation was the data from Pew Research, which found that black millennials (those born between 1981-1996) are less religious than their elders and are leaving traditional religious spaces — yet still remain the most spiritual among their U.S. peers.
“This program came out of a desire to expand our audience and to engage millennials around issues of faith,” said Teddy Reeves, #gODTalk’s moderator and the Museum Specialist of Religion at The Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at NMAAHC.
“As an older millennial, I began to interrogate [the fact] that everyone’s talking about millennials and our experiences but rarely do you see our faces and our voices articulating our struggles, our pains, and our joys,” he said.
According to Reeves, the purpose of the conversation tour, which started in 2018 in Los Angeles, is to create a healthy discussion about why black millennials, of all faiths, are choosing not to subscribe to religion, and what it means for the future. #gODTalk, which comprises black millennials as well as Generation X, and Generation Z panelists from different cultural and religious backgrounds, reflects the trend of young people discussing matters of the church and spirituality in non-traditional spaces, such as the Something in The Water festival.
The #gODTalk hosted in Virginia Beach at the festival — the third of seven planned — specifically discussed the black Christian church, and more specifically the disengagement of its millennial members.
“Black millennials fall in sort of an intersection between these two different broad trends in American religiosity,” said Besheer Mohamed, #gODTalk panelist and senior researcher at Pew Research.
“From our data, we know that young people tend to be less religious than older adults, by a variety of measures, whether you’re looking at attendance of religious services or affiliation with a religion. But then, black Americans are more religious than other people of other races and black millennials or young blacks, more generally, fall in between these two patterns and a lot of them feel a sort of conflict there,” Mohamed continued. “They don’t quite line up with their peers and they don’t quite line up with their elders. They’re a distinctive community.”
There are a number of causes for black millennials leaving the church or opting out of affiliation with religious practices all together. As a black millennial, my main reason for attending church was that my parents required it. But as I got older and began to unpack some of the homophobia, sexism, and blatant erasure of black identity within my Baptist church, I found little reason to maintain attendance. I still believe in God, who I call Spirit, and on occasion attend service whether online or in person. But I believe that there are more ways to connect with Spirit that don’t require attending a physical building every week.
Events like Something In The Water, which combined hip-hop and the traditional church — and even Kanye West’s controversial performance at Coachella, where he performed his recent blends of secular music and gospel — show that the ideas of traditional services and how we experience God are changing.
Many, like myself, have either experienced or witnessed hurt within the church whether through rejection of their identities or physical and/or sexual abuse. Millennials are in search of a spiritual system that affirms who they are in the world without prosecution or shame. The questions that black millennials have, such as why we worship and study a doctrine enforced upon our ancestors, often go unanswered or are rebutted with scripture.
“We have pushed Jesus away,” said Candace Benbow, a writer and theologian, who spoke at the #gODTalk panel. During the conversation, she posed the question, “What would [Jesus] affirm and condemn in the black church?”
According to Reeves, there are many layers to it.
“It’s the ‘I’m tired of being beat down and not being affirmed in who I am,’ and in the language of Candace Benbow, ‘as good creation.’ It’s LGBTQI issues, gender issues, and it’s economic issues,” Reeves said. “… They are seeing scandal around clergy persons and predatory behavior. We are not seeing ourselves reflected in the leadership, and we are not seeing change.”
There is definitely something in the water. While these conversations may be happening within black churches to some degree, those who attend and or once attended them certainly are having them — even if outside traditional spaces.
“Black religious’ spaces across the board have struggled to evolve with the times,” Reeves said. “I think that black millennials are calling for a theological reformation that we have not seen in our lifetime.”