Reaching Generation Z: A how-not-to guide for churches

Reaching Generation Z: A how-not-to guide for churches

Video Courtesy of Congressional Black Caucus Foundation


The headlines are screaming that Generation Z, born from the mid- to late 1990s to somewhere around 2010, is the least religious generation in recorded history.

More than a third of these teenagers and early 20-somethings are “nones,” meaning they identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” on a survey.

And within that umbrella group, the percentage who are atheists is twice that of the general population, according to research by the Barna Group (from 6% of all Americans to 13% of Gen Zers).

James Emery White, a megachurch pastor in North Carolina, gives voice to his considerable anxiety about all this in Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.

Spoiler alert: I strongly disliked this book.

In the guise of helping pastors, parents, and teachers “understand” and “reach out” to Generation Z, this book showcases the very problems it tells readers to avoid. White chides church leaders for clinging to the models of previous generations (door-to-door evangelism, large events) even while demonstrating a remarkable tone deafness to the deeper concerns of this generation (racism, homophobia, violence in schools, and the list goes on).

White begins the book by drawing on standard research from Pew, Gallup, and Barna to demonstrate the scope of the problem—young adults going AWOL from religion if they ever had religion in the first place. So far, so good as books go; White can be a clear and effective writer when he’s not lazily quoting his own previous books ad nauseam.

And then things get vague. The church needs to be “countercultural,” he asserts, but he has an easier time telling us what this isn’t than what it is. It’s not the Benedict Option, in which Christians withdraw from society and politics; it’s not fundamentalism, which is a thoroughgoing rejection of the modern world; it’s not the tactic of the religious right, which is to politicize the bejesus out of faith.

Instead, countercultural means for “the church to be the church” and “truly Christlike.” Which is nice, but tells us nothing.

I’d be more likely to give White the benefit of the doubt about counterculturalism if he weren’t showing on every page that his Christianity is not, in fact, countercultural. It’s bowing to a very specific 1950s American Christianity. So it’s “countercultural” by the measures of today, but not in a good way.

Consider what he has to say about women. To reach Generation Z, he tells readers, it’s important to “target men” first and foremost. His church (which he reminds us many times has been successfully growing despite the godless landscape of . . . um, North Carolina, the nation’s tenth-most-religious state) “unashamedly” puts men first in its marketing materials, sermons, music choices, and décor.

What does it mean to target men? It means you think about male sensibilities in terms of music and message, vocabulary and style. . . . When I give a message, I talk like a man talks, specifically, the way a man talks with other men. Direct and maybe a little rough around the edges. But men talk football, not fashion. So I cater to a man’s humor, his interests, his world, his way of thinking, his questions. (148)

If you can reach men, he says, women and children will follow (“if you get the man, you get everyone else within his orbit”).

There are some real problems with this argument. First, this is supposed to be a book about reaching people in their teens and early twenties. One of the major shifts in American culture is that many adults are delaying marriage until their 30s or not getting married at all. So this whole evangelistic focus on older men with wives and children totally ignores the demographic we purchased this book to learn more about.

Second, he never thinks to challenge the patriarchal structure that would dictate that if you can get a man to church, his wife and children will automatically and obediently follow: If it worked in America in the 1950s, by golly, it’s surely good enough for us now!

What’s especially myopic about that lack of self-awareness is that this is supposed to be a book about “understanding” Generation Z. But this is a generation that can sniff out inequality and white male privilege like a basset hound, God bless them. They care about diversity and inclusion, even to the point where they don’t want to work for companies that don’t share those values.

Why, then, would White assume Gen Zers would fall in line with churches that so obviously disregard gender equality? If they won’t be associated with the old boys’ club when they’re getting a paycheck for it, why would they do so on their own time?

Third, the advice to “target men” may be having the opposite long-term effect from what White wants, which is more butts in the pews. There’s solid longitudinal evidence that young women are now leaving religion at even higher rates than young men—which is a reversal from previous generations. This exodus is likely due to many factors, but it’s not hard to imagine that enduring a childhood of sermons that drew proudly upon hypermasculine football metaphors and assumptions that women were considered less important may play a part. Just thinking out loud here.

It’s not just in this particularly egregious “target men” section that White’s lack of concern for women is made clear; it’s pervasive in the book’s citations and assumptions. He quotes or mentions five men for every woman (yes, I counted). And almost everyone he quotes, male or female, is white. He gives the obligatory nod to MLK, and then . . . nothing. As though African Americans have had little of value to say in 50 years.

We have to do better than this. And doing better begins with an activity White doesn’t seem to have engaged in much: listening to Generation Z directly.

Talking less and learning more.

Not just calling them to account for their generational sins, but being sensitive to the way they rightly call bullshit on their elders.

 


Related posts:

Why Millennials are really leaving religion (it’s not just politics, folks)

The best book about Millennials and the church

Aircraft technician with Tuskegee Airmen dies at 100 in NYC

Aircraft technician with Tuskegee Airmen dies at 100 in NYC

FILE – This photo from Sunday, April 15, 2012, shows Tuskeegee Airman Wilfred Defour, left, with Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel Robinson, right, on Jackie Robinson Day at a New York Yankees’ baseball game in New York. Police say a health aide found DeFour, 100, unconscious and unresponsive inside his Harlem apartment Saturday morning. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

A New York City man who served as an aircraft technician with the famed all-black Tuskegee Airmen died Saturday at age 100.

Police say a home health aide found Wilfred DeFour unconscious and unresponsive inside his Harlem apartment at about 9 a.m.

DeFour was pronounced dead by Emergency Medical Service workers. Police say he appears to have died from natural causes but the medical examiner’s office will perform an autopsy.

DeFour was honored just last month at a ceremony to rename a Manhattan post office after the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Daily News reported that Defour said at the Nov. 19 ceremony that the World War II squadron’s members “didn’t know we were making history at the time. We were just doing our job.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces, which were racially segregated until after the war.

According to Return of the Red Tails, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memory of the Tuskegee Airmen, DeFour joined the Air Corps in 1942 and was assigned to the 366th Air Service Squadron, serving in Italy, after basic training in Tuskegee, Alabama.

He served as an aircraft technician and painted the red tails on the planes that gave the squadron its nickname.

DeFour was a Post Office employee for more than 30 years after his military service.

He remained active into his later years and often spoke to schoolchildren about his experiences.

Newsday reported that DeFour and fellow Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery visited a fifth-grade class in Hempstead, New York, to mark Black History Month in 2016.

Montgomery, who died in September of that year, told the students that when he returned from wartime service to his native Alabama, he was not allowed to vote. “We have lost so much talent, we have lost so much achievement because of discrimination,” Montgomery said.

DeFour added, “We need to spread the word to let them know what went on in our time. It’s history.”

Lawsuit says Virginia jail’s ‘God Pod’ violates Constitution

Lawsuit says Virginia jail’s ‘God Pod’ violates Constitution

Video Courtesy of UNITE & IGNITE


A Muslim civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against a regional jail in Virginia, alleging that the jail has set up a Christians-only unit dubbed the “God Pod.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says officials at the Riverside Regional Jail have set aside a housing pod exclusively for Christian inmates who promise to live in accordance with the Bible. The group says the Christian pod violates the Constitution by favoring one religion over others.

The lawsuit accuses jail officials of discriminating against Muslim inmates and others by preventing them from participating in programs that teach their faith and excluding them from the housing unit, nicknamed the “God Pod” by inmates.

Jail officials did not immediately respond to a call and emails seeking comment.

Lena Masri, CAIR’s national litigation director, said inmates told the group’s attorneys that about 30 to 40 inmates have been moved into the pod since it was established several weeks ago. Masri said a flier posted in the jail described the “Life Learning Program” as a program conducted by chaplains with the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a group that says on its website that it has chaplains providing Bible-based programs in 22 states.

Joe Collins, the senior chaplain at Riverside who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.

Masri said the lawsuit filed Wednesday adds claims to a suit filed earlier this year by an inmate who alleged that Muslims were not provided food before the morning prayer so those observing the Ramadan fast were not able to eat before beginning their fast. Masri said other Muslim inmates have complained that they have not had access to regular Islamic classes at the jail.

Wheeler Correctional Facility inmate William Brewster reads his Bible Feb. 7, 2005, in his bunk at the prison in Alamo, Ga. The Wheeler County prison is one of 22 nationwide where private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America has opened “faith pods” _ living quarters that promote reform and spiritual bonding by separating soul-searching inmates from the general population. Inmates pray and read scripture throughout the day. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

“You have a state entity that is endorsing and promoting Christianity over other religions, so Riverside has unlawfully sent a message of favoring Christianity over other religions, while at the same time actively preventing other faith groups — including Muslims — from practicing their own faith,” Masri said.

The lawsuit contends that the Christian pod is unconstitutional on several fronts, including violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion or unduly favoring one religion over another. It asks for an injunction to order the jail to dismantle the pod and to provide Muslim inmates with access to Islamic programming and adequate nutrition during Ramadan.

The flier posted in the jail said the Life Learning Program is open to inmates “of any faith group.”

“The purpose of this program is to give you the opportunity to learn Biblical-based life-skills and put them into practice so you may experience lasting change in your life,” it states.

Gadeir Abbas, a senior litigation attorney for CAIR, said the program is open only to those who want to study the Bible and live in accordance with the Bible.

“So really, it isn’t open to inmates of all faiths or it is only open to inmates of other faiths who are looking to convert to Christianity,” Abbas said.

NY Times Commentary:  It’s On Men to End Sexism in the Black Church

NY Times Commentary: It’s On Men to End Sexism in the Black Church

From the NY Times:

Although I was raised by a single mother and often talked to her about obstacles women faced, that Sunday service in the 1990s opened my eyes to what had been in front of me all along: Black churches are often oppressive spaces for black women.

Of course, black women have always known this. Delores S. Williams told us this 25 years ago when she wrote about how the Bible and theology are used to marginalize black women in her foundational text, “Sisters in the Wilderness.”

From the pulpit, Neichelle Guidry, dean of the chapel at Spelman College, brilliantly proclaims the truth about how ecclesiastical spaces are often full of “misogynoir,” a term coined and developed by the scholar Moya Bailey and the critic Trudy to discuss the way race and gender play a role in the misogyny experienced by black women.

Yet, even with black women leading the charge against this evil, the reality of patriarchy means many people in the black church will not take these moral failures seriously unless they are voiced by a man who has been ordained. This is wrong and unfair. But I have been ordained, so I’m speaking up.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON THE NY TIMES

Southern Baptist seminary, in #MeToo age, appoints ‘women’s support coordinator’

Southern Baptist seminary, in #MeToo age, appoints ‘women’s support coordinator’

Norton Hall houses the president’s office at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has appointed its first “women’s support coordinator” to address any gender-related “difficulties or challenges” that women encounter on its campus.

“In our own internal review, we determined it was not fully supportive of women to require any woman to have to describe what could be very intimate matters to a man,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., the seminary’s president, told Religion News Service Thursday (Nov. 29).

Mohler announced this week that Garnetta Smith, director of the seminary’s Center for Student Success, will provide “women with a safe, and as much as possible, private opportunity for complaints or requests for assistance. There is no tolerance on this campus for sexual harassment, assault, or disrespect.”

Garnetta Smith will be the first “women’s support coordinator” at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Smith, whose appointment was effective immediately, has master’s degrees in biblical counseling and practical theology from the seminary. She was previously its associate dean for women, academic counselor and manager for disability services. Smith also was recently appointed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to the state’s Commission on Human Rights.

“Studying in seminary doesn’t recuse anyone from sinful attitudes and sinful actions, but in a context that is primarily male, it can be intimidating for some women to speak up,” Smith said in a statement. “Incidents in some church contexts and in our own convention show us that the need is there, and Dr. Mohler and Southern Seminary are taking significant steps toward ensuring those incidents do not happen here.”

Her appointment comes months after the May termination of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson after reports he made comments demeaning to women and mishandled student rape allegations.

Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, who helped Southern Baptist women petition Southwestern’s trustee board to address Patterson’s leadership, called Smith’s appointment a helpful development within the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Seminary, which includes Boyce College and a missions-focused school named after Billy Graham, is one of the convention’s six seminaries.

“I am unaware of any similar positions at any Southern Baptist seminaries or institutions,” Prior said. “Respecting and caring for women has never been rocket science. I’m encouraged by this small, simple — but potentially groundbreaking — step that signals significant change for women within the convention.”

The controversy over Patterson and questions about women’s roles in the church dominated the annual meeting of the denomination in June. Attendees at the meeting affirmed “the dignity and worth of women.” Protesters outside the meeting called for increased training of clergy on how to handle abuse allegations.

Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear has begun a study group to address sexual abuse and it has included meetings with leaders of seminaries, state conventions and abuse survivor groups.

“Seminaries are the training ground for many of the next generation’s Christian leaders,” he told RNS. “So it is a welcome development to see Dr. Mohler announce this position to serve female students.”

Megachurch pastor Jamal Bryant moves from Baltimore to Atlanta

Megachurch pastor Jamal Bryant moves from Baltimore to Atlanta

An Atlanta-area black megachurch led by the late Bishop Eddie Long has announced it has chosen a new leader, plucked from another black megachurch, as its pastor.

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, will move to Lithonia, Ga., to assume the position of senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. He will also be shifting from an African Methodist Episcopal congregation to one affiliated with a Baptist network.

“Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant embodies the rare balance of spiritual gifts and practical educational experiences that connects pastoral leadership and discipleship teaching with prophetic preaching and courageous social action,” New Birth said in a news release on Monday (Nov. 19).

The transition comes months after Long’s first successor resigned after serving for about a year and a half. Bishop Stephen A. Davis said in June that he would return to serving the branch of New Birth in Birmingham, Ala.

Long died in January 2017 at age 63 after fighting health issues for several months. When he became pastor of the church in 1987, it had about 300 members. Its membership reached more than 25,000. When the church announced Davis’ departure in June, the membership had dropped to slightly more than 10,000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“One of the big difficulty with churches that have had nationally significant pastors is precisely the problem of continuity,” said the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College.

And the issue of succession, no matter the prominence or the size of the church, becomes an “incredibly painful problem” when a pastor dies.

“Even though pastors are professional, it is like losing a family member,” she said, and a successor often winds up preaching with “some kind of enshrined shadow or ghost sitting or standing over the person.”

Bryant started his Baltimore church in 2000 with 43 members and, according to its website, now has more than 10,000. It is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an historic black denomination that celebrated its bicentennial in 2016.

Bishop Frank M. Reid, who is in charge of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s ecumenical affairs, said a shift of a megachurch pastor from an AME-affiliated congregation to New Birth would be a new dynamic that would have to be worked out between the pastor and the leader of the former AME district where the pastor was previously located.

“We would have to ask Jamal, ‘Are you leaving the denomination or are you maintaining your ties with the AME Church or are you turning in your ordination papers?’” Reid said. “But that would be between him and the bishop of the district.”

Gilkes said the AME Church, which includes bishops, is organized differently from Baptist churches, which traditionally recognize only the offices of pastor and deacon. But Long became a bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, a 24-year-old network of churches, in the 1990s.

Both Long and Bryant encountered controversy even as they watched their congregations grow under their leadership.

Long faced suits, settled in 2012, from young men who accused him of using money and gifts to coerce them into sexual relationships. In 2011, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa concluded a three-year probe of six ministries including New Birth and found that Long’s staffers declined to respond to most of their questions, including the amount of the senior pastor’s salary.

Bryant and his ex-wife, Gizelle Bryant, who later became a star in “Real Housewives of the Potomac,” divorced in 2009 after he had an extramarital affair. In 2015, he announced a run for Congress only to end his campaign eight days later.

New Birth said Bryant’s first Sunday as “senior pastor elect” will be Dec. 9.