Are Millennials Losing Faith?

Are Millennials Losing Faith?

I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.

Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.

Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.

Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.

KEEPING THE FAITH: Surveys show African American millennials, as well as young adults from other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than whites.

Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.

One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a 2010 report, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.

Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.

Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”

As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

What Is Rodney King’s Legacy?

What Is Rodney King’s Legacy?

ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)

Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.

But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).

So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.

Writing at The Root, Sylvester Monroe speaks of King as a “symbol” whose pain and missteps were not in vain. Last year at Poynter.org, Steve Myers observed how citizen journalism has changed since that infamous video of King being beaten by police. An Associated Press report at HuffPost’s Black Voices attempts to summarize King’s significance in shining a light on the injustices of racial profiling and police brutality in urban law enforcement. The article features an interview with Lou Cannon, author of Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.

“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.

In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”

To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.

In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.

What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?

Listening to Immigrant Children

Listening to Immigrant Children

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: ‘Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic.’

“Conversations on immigration are more often politicized than humanized,” marketing text says for the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier’s new bilingual book, Listen to the Children: Conversations with Immigrant Families. In the book, which is a finalist in ForeWord Review’s 2011 Book of the Year awards, she attempts to change both the reality and the discussion by sharing immigrant families’ stories and by offering parenting advice to those in the midst of immigration journeys. Conde-Frazier is vice president of education and dean of Esperanza College in Philadelphia. She is also is an ordained American Baptist pastor with more than ten years ministry experience. UrbanFaith talked to Conde-Frazier about the book and about how Christians should think about illegal immigration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith: Why did you write Listen to the Children?

Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: I wrote the book while I was professor at the Claremont School of Theology in California. Part of my job was working with students from the Latin American Bible Institute. A lot of them came from families that were a mix of persons who had or did not have citizenship and it led to conversations and to my doing workshops around the country.  And so, I started to understand the issues of the people, of the pastors working with the people, of the Sunday school teachers, of the social workers and so forth.

In North Carolina, I did a five-hour presentation with this community, which allowed me time to be with the parents. When we sat down to eat, a lot of children were sitting at the table with us. There had been a roundup of persons at a particular place of employment, and I looked at the reaction of the children to the conversation about this. They recoiled; they became very fearful; they left the table; they began to cry. This was hard enough for the adults. But, for the children it was even more so.

Having been a teacher myself, I realized the children were not able to articulate their feelings. And so, I later spent time sitting on the floor in this room where they were playing. Rather than asking them questions, I began to use felt puppets to tell the story of Ruth and Naomi and how they had immigrated. Then I allowed the the children to retell me the story with the same figures. In doing so, the children used the figures to tell their own stories. I began to see how they were feeling. When I finished my time with that community, they came to me and said, “Where is your book on all of this that you have presented to us? We need you to write a book.” That to me felt like a call, and so that’s what I did. But I wrote the book not so much from the perspective of the adults, but for the children and their needs.

What are the primary challenges these children experience?

Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic. Let me create a metaphor for you to describe it. If I take a bunch of dominos and I stand them up and create a pattern with them, that is life the way we know it, where we are sure about the different institutions and how life is, how the culture names things, what our traditions are that create parameters around our identity and so forth. If I take my fists and bang them on the table, the dominos fall apart and the patterns that are there fall apart. Some of the dominos may even fall on the floor. That’s how immigration feels. The patterns of life and everything about life as you know it falls apart. You may try to rebuild, but there are pieces that you lose in the process.

Then, on top of that, if I take a bunch of marbles and I roll them out on this same table with the dominos, now you’ve got all these elements of life that you have no idea how to manage. You have to take the dominos, which are the things that you think you know how to manage and you have to use them in new ways to keep all these marbles from falling all over the place. In the midst of your trying to do that, I can continue to come back and bang my fists again, and the things that you thought you had begun to construct again once more fall apart.

When children are living in the midst of that, it is very traumatic. It says there’s no routine, there’s no structure, and the most important thing that children need in life is routine and structure. The routine creates the structure. Not having work creates chaos and poor families don’t have a sense of structure. That affects the child’s intelligence. That affects their ability to organize their thoughts, it affects how their brains are formed and so forth. Putting together life parameters, relationships, and so forth becomes twice as difficult.

Children also have a sense of abandonment. The adults can leave them at any point. They have no control over any of those things. Trust cannot be built. When families are separated for long periods of time, you see how difficult it is for children to reconnect to parents and parents to children. And so, there’s this continuous sense of loss that people are experiencing, but they can’t quite put their finger on it.

How can those of us who may be in relationship with immigrant children support them and their families?

In everyday life we are on committees in the community perhaps, we have food banks, we may be in the PTA, wherever we are, we can find opportunities to help change or expand the agenda of that place so that it is sensitive to those who may be alternately documented.

If a church has a program to the community and is serving these persons, then they need to be aware of how their program can address these needs, or how they can partner with others so that rather than being limited only to what their program has to offer, they have a network of other programs to pull from in a moment of crisis.

Advocating for the laws at this time is very important. Writing to our different legislators does make a difference. Legislators do listen to that. What does it take to have a night where you serve soup and bread? I say soup and bread, because it’s a very simple meal and it’s probably what persons who have just arrived here are going to have to eat. In solidarity, what we do with this evening is we pray, we have this meal, we write these letters, we talk about the issues, and we send the letters out. It forms the compassionate heart of a people of God who do justice. And what does God require of us in Micah? Whatever it takes that we can internalize persons who are different from ourselves, whose lives are different, that’s what we want to do as the faith practice of the church.

Given your target audience’s transience, how will readers find the book?

Remember that there is the network of churches and families. That is a network that’s beyond marketing. They pass it along. For example in the summer, I teach in Texas. People come from both sides of the border to learn. They’re pastors and lay persons and they’ll use the book. They’ll take it back across the border. The section on preparing children for border crossing or separation is helpful not only to people who might be thinking of immigrating, but it is also helpful to persons who may have already done so. It allows them the opportunity to reflect on what they did or didn’t do, so that then they can ask themselves, “Oh, what do I need to do at this point, because I did it this way or that.”

How would you respond theologically to those who may criticize you for providing helpful information to people who may be planning to do something illegal?

First of all, the theological piece has to be informed by a political piece, because theology is not done in a vacuum. People need to realize that the laws of our country and the free-trade laws are taking land away from people and making it impossible for many of the farmers [in Latin American countries] to survive. Those countries do not have the safety net that we so far have. And so, I would love to see those critics find themselves hungry, with nothing to feed their children, with no way of having a job and prayers that seem to go unanswered. I’d love to see how they would stay within the confines of what they call law.

What Christians need to ask themselves is: “When is the law unjust?” If it is unjust, then it is not a law according to the purposes of God. Our response to that should be that the church is called to denounce unjust law. Corrie ten Boom was a Christian. We glorify her story because she saved the Jews. She broke the law of her time. Today, after the fact, we say, “Oh how wonderful!” We’re also okay with those who break the law in China because they become Christians, but we’re not okay with people breaking the law because they’re hungry, or because the law is unjust?

I recall from research I did for an article I wrote in 2006 that the number of legal immigration slots for Latin American countries is the same as that for countries with whom we don’t share a border. Is that still the case?

Yes, it is. And the thing for people to look at is the following: The United States has a history of always needing cheap labor. Ever since we had enslavement, we have needed cheap labor. It’s just which immigrant group gets to be the cheap labor. That changes. In order for us to ensure that cheap labor what we do is we create an underclass of people with the law. So we say, on one hand, “We need you to come and work,” but on the other hand, we create laws that say, “If you come, we can’t give you citizenship; we can’t give you your benefits and your rights as a human being.”

Matthew 25 speaks about what human rights are. It speaks about it in the language of the kingdom of God. And so, for someone to eat, to drink, to dress, to be sheltered, to have human companionship, those are the things that are important for sustenance, and the kingdom of God is about sustenance. When we have laws that do not provide for the sustenance of a group of persons, then we are the ones who are against the law, but it’s the kingdom law that we are against.

There’s a discussion in the book about the “worthiness” of immigrants and you advocate using terminology like “alternately documented” and “uncertain” or “precarious” status instead of “illegal alien” and “undocumented.” What’s wrong with using language like “illegal alien”?

The most important thing for Christians is to recognize the Imago Dei, the image of God in all human beings, because to do so is to honor God. To fail to do so and to shut our wells of compassion is to dishonor God. How we call one another needs to reflect what we truly believe. I don’t believe that you are the only one who is in the image of God just because you happen to come to my church or you look like me, or you’re a citizen like me. All human beings are. When we do mission work—and these churches are very happy to go out and do mission work—is it only because it makes them feel good? Or is it because they believe in the image of God in others?

And so, the theological and biblical roots of worthiness come from there. Worthiness also comes from the laws in the Old Testament about how we are to treat those who are foreigners in our midst and how we are to treat the poor and the widows in our midst. There should be no one who is poor in our midst. There should be no on who is discarded in our midst. The words we use have to reflect honor. Rather than using words that reflect distance from others and categorizing them as not being a part of ourselves, we should use words that demonstrate the ministry of reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 5, we’re called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. “Illegal” and “alien” are words that reflect disconnect with others and say they’re not my neighbor, so I don’t have to watch over them. They are words that go along with a current in our country, and around the world really, that categorizes human beings politically as being far away from us, and not deserving of any type of rights as the rest of us, whereas in the eyes of God, that is not how to do it. And so, we need to use words that allow the space for worthiness.

The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

DANGEROUS LOVE: Whitney Houston in 1997 with then-husband Bobby Brown. (Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Newscom)

Over the past week, we have been riveted by the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s untimely death. Accounts of drug use and a fallen icon have flooded the media. Yet, little has been said about how her self-professed faith may have contributed to both her downfall and eventual escape from an unhealthy marriage relationship.

In her last major interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Whitney states that she stayed in the marriage, endured abuse and humiliation, and engaged in self-destructive behaviors in her effort to be a “good” Christian wife. No matter what happened, she felt she had to remain because as she quotes, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

Yet, Whitney’s statements about letting, indeed inviting, her husband “to take control of her life,” and that a wife must do whatever her husband says is not a new concept. In fact, the concept of women being required, as a matter of faith and faithfulness, “to submit” to their husbands in all things is the pervasive normative gospel preached in churches across racial, denominational, and geographical lines. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance.  Rarely is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either.

This kind of uncritical, a-contextual acceptance of a half-developed theology leads many women to unconditional obedience to a man regardless of how he treats her, much like Whitney Houston. It rebuffs and chastises women who critically analyze its meaning much like slaves were chastised for questioning the ever popular scripture of slave masters, “slaves obey your masters,” (Col. 3:22). Both the Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:22 texts are biblical since they do appear in the Bible. But both have the potential to be misused to oppress and disenfranchise whole groups of people. They’ve also been used to maintain the status quo of unjust power structures in society.

Moreover, in 2011, CBS News reported on a Glamour/Harris poll that found that “30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused. Of that 30 percent, 62 percent were hit, 33 percent were choked or strangled, and 11 percent feared their partner would kill them. Even more shocking, another 30 percent of the women said they had experienced behaviors by their partners that can be categorized as abusive, whether they be emotional or physical.”

With this kind of data, it seems incomprehensible that the church would continue to simply preach the gospel of female submission without critical reflection and further context. It is also sad that we do not give equal attention to stressing that violence has no place in any dating or marital relationship. Finally, since 83 percent of Americans categorize themselves as Christians, according to ABCNEWS/Beliefnet, this is relevant to a huge portion of our population.

Yet, Whitney’s is not just a cautionary tale of how one’s theological premise can lead them to accept abuse, disrespect, humiliation, infidelity, and neglect. In the end, it was her faith that gave her the strength to finally realize that the God she believed in did not want her to continually make herself and her talent small, so that her husband could feel big.

AMAZING GRACE: Houston was baptized in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee during a Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2003. (Photo: Ygal Levi/Newscom)

Whitney recounts her mother’s prodding her, telling her that the life she was living with drugs, abuse, and chaos with then-husband Bobby Brown was not God’s best for her. According to Houston, her mother, a strong Christian, reminded her of God’s presence and power to bring her out. Whitney says in the 2009 interview, “I began to pray.  I said, ‘God, if you will give me one day of strength, I will leave [this house and marriage].” And one day, she did. Much like Tina Turner left her husband, Ike Turner, with only the clothes on her back, Whitney Houston left her home and husband with only a change of clothing.

The transformative power of her faith can be seen in her public discussions. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 what she was addicted to, Whitney rattled off a number of drugs and added that she was “addicted to making love [to Bobby Brown].” But when Oprah asked Whitney in 2009 who she loved, the singer said, “I love the Lord!” And it was that part of her faith that had her on the way to a professional comeback and personal redemption.

In the end, Whitney Houston did not conquer every challenge that haunted her. And none of this excuses the decisions she ultimately made for her life. She owned that. But to understand her life, it is critical that we analyze the thinking and theology that animated her decision-making and helped lead her to such a tragic place.

In the Christian tradition, good theology illuminates, liberates, and pushes us to be our best selves. Bad theology takes bits and pieces of scripture out of context and threatens any who has the audacity to ask questions or to critically analyze the paradigm put forth by those in power.

Whitney’s story is the story of millions of women. It is a cautionary tale that reiterates the importance of thinking critically even about matters of faith. It also invites remembrance of the core tenant of the faith, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). A God who does not want anyone to perish in the afterlife surely does not condone them perishing at the hands of another in this one.

Whitney’s Homegoing Gives God the Glory

Whitney’s Homegoing Gives God the Glory

GOODBYE: Flowers and memorial tributes were abundant outside New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where Whitney Houston's funeral was held. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Newscom)

There is no doubt that God was glorified on Saturday afternoon at pop icon Whitney Houston’s emotional homegoing service. Rev. Marvin Winans preached to nearly 1 million online viewers via UStream and millions more on CNN. If you followed the Twitter feed, it was as if the entire world sat down together for one powerful church service, and it was utterly beautiful.

There were performances from gospel singers Kim Burrell, CeCe Winans, as well as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and R. Kelly.

Watch Stevie Wonder’s touching performance below:

Watch R. Kelly’s performance of the song he wrote for Whitney’s final album, “I Look to You”

One of the most interesting takeaways was the power of God’s public glorification. Twitter was flooded with an overwhelming sense of humility and genuine appreciation of life. Though some expressed concern about a hint of “prosperity gospel” preaching in Rev. Winans’ eulogy, for the most part the twitterverse and blogosphere seemed genuinely stirred by the presentation of God’s Word. Many people tweeted that they hadn’t been to church in a while and that they were grateful to hear the Word today. Others seemed proud, like they were watching their favorite team playing in the Super Bowl. God was #winning.

God’s presence is so real, so tangible that it can be delivered even via the Internet. But there’s something about corporate worship that brings believers and non-believers to their knees. I am grateful that Whitney’s family didn’t allow Hollywood to dictate the service, and I am certain today that God was pleased. To God be the glory.