This story was originally published on Facts & Trends, an online publication for pastors and church leaders, in July 2018. Click here to view the full story on the Facts & Trends website.
For years, research has shown millennials are much less religious than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. But a recent analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that among millennials there is one group that stands out: black millennials.
While they are still not as religious as older generations, black millennials are considerably more religious than others in their generation, according to Pew.
This is based on black millennials’ responses to Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which asked more than 35,000 people from across the United States about their religious affiliations, beliefs and practices, and social and political views.
The study found that 39 percent of non-black millennials can be characterized as “highly religious” based on a four-item scale of religious commitment, which includes belief in God, self-described importance of religion, prayer, and worship attendance.
However, significantly more black millennials — 64 percent — can be characterized as “highly religious,” based on this scale.
When it comes to belief in God, 75 percent of black millennials say they are absolutely certain God exists, compared to 48 percent of non-black millennials who say the same.
Considerably more black millennials also say religion is very important to them (61 percent compared to 38 percent of non-black millennials) and that they pray daily (61 percent compared to 39 percent) and attend religious services at least weekly (38 percent compared to 25 percent).
Black millennials were also more likely than non-black millennials to say they believe in heaven; feel a sense of gratitude at least weekly; are affiliated with a religious tradition; believe in hell; think about the meaning and purpose of life at least weekly; feel spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly; read scripture outside of religious services at least weekly; meditate at least weekly; and participate in prayer groups, scripture study groups, or religious education programs at least weekly.
WHY ARE BLACK MILLENNIALS MORE RELIGIOUS?
Cicely Corry, a 32-year-old black millennial living in Charlotte, North Carolina, says she’s not necessarily surprised by these statistics. She didn’t really grow up going to church, but even from a young age, she said she knew religion carried a certain sense of cultural importance in her community.
“Even though my mom did not raise me in church, whenever we went to church it was a big deal,” Corry said. “Many of my friends, they all had parents that remembered the music when they would go to church and the dancing and the tambourine playing and the shouting that their pastor would do, and it sort of became this culture. I believe that there is some of that culture of going to church in the black community.”
Corry became a Christian during her senior year of high school, and she now works at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and attends a five-year-old church plant called The Movement Center in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The Movement Center has about 100 to 120 members — most of whom are also black millennials, she said.
She thinks one of the reasons her church has grown is because of the sense of community it provides its members.
“There is some comfort that those there with you are working through the same or similar life space,” Corry said. “It’s like we’re all in this together, and it just became this community of sorts that just so happened to be revolving around going to church.”
Rachel Harris, 21, and a recent college graduate from Louisville, Kentucky, also identifies as a black millennial. Like Corry, she said she wasn’t surprised by Pew’s findings in this study.
She suggested black millennials may seem more religious than their peers because of the cultural acceptance of religion among many in the black community. For example, she cited hip-hop artists who include references to their faith in their songs.
She also mentioned the centrality of churches in largely black, urban neighborhoods. She grew up in a predominately white church and community, and she said she’s noticed differences between the two.
“It seems that in neighborhoods that are predominately African American, you’re surrounded by more churches,” Harris said. “I think about the suburbs, and I think about how those neighborhoods are set up, like the one I grew up in. You kind of have to go out of your way to go to a church and doing so is pretty intimidating.”
On the other hand, she said churches seem more common in predominately black communities.
“I think for a lot of African Americans, not to say all of them but a lot of them that live in the inner-city-type environments that I’m referring to, they’ll see churches every two or three blocks, and a lot of times the churches will end up meeting their needs, which is a big part of opening the door to Christianity,” Harris said.
There are also historical realities to take into consideration, said 32-year-old Vernon Greene, another black millennial.
Greene, who serves as the discipleship and teaching pastor at New River Church in Lake Wylie, South Carolina, said he thinks the experiences of black Americans over the years — such as slavery or income inequality, for example — may have contributed to high levels of religiosity.
In other words, black Americans have historically hoped in God because of the times they had nothing else to hope in, and these values have been passed down over the years, he said.
“I think that has been instilled from generation to generation to generation amongst black people, and probably more so than any other people,” Greene said. “So that would be one of the reasons why I think the research may show that.”
He added that in the southeastern United States — the region where he lives — it can sometimes seem like most everyone is religious, at least culturally. But he said religion may hold even more of a cultural importance among black Americans.
“From my experience, not just in the South but also for a lot of black people, to believe in God is just a byproduct of who you are in a sense,” Greene said. “As a black person, you just believe in God.”
While Greene notes that today there are definitely black Americans with other religious beliefs and those who don’t believe in God at all, he can still see a cultural connection between race and religion.