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Future at risk: Historic black churches face challenge of attracting youth

Many of the Upstate's black historic churches have weathered the storms and lived to see 100 or more years.

To extend their lives to perhaps another 100 years, they'll have to weather more, including a generational gap in attendance.

Traditional black churches, as part of organized religion nationwide, are experiencing an exodus of millennials and youth.

A Pew Research Center's study titled "America's Changing Religious Landscape" found that 35 percent of adult millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated. Far more say they have no religious affiliation compared with those who identify as evangelical Protestants (21 percent), Catholics (16 percent) or mainline Protestants (11 percent), Pew said.

The Rev. James E. Speed Sr., pastor of the Allen Temple A.M.E. is seeing a reality of the study with generational gaps in his historic downtown Greenville church.

The church is trying to hold on to the young adults it has and draw new ones through its young adult ministry, youth department Sunday school and other efforts.

"We have seen it. There has to be a concentrated effort to find out the cause and change that because it could adversely affect the future of the black church," he said.

Jubilee Baptist Church in Taylors also has noticed a decline in millennials and youth, and has been very intentional about going out and getting them back, said the Rev. Reggie Garrett, Jubilee's pastor.

"They're important to the life of the ministry. They're the next generation," he said. "Whereas we had to go to church, I think there's more of a choice with this new millennial generation."

"We're having to step out of the box and use technology now. We're building a park; we're trying to do something that will show them that the same God that brought our grandparents over, that brought me over is the God that will bring you over," Garrett said.

​Speed and the Rev. Kippie Brown, pastor of Springfield Baptist Church, also in downtown Greenville, said churches nationwide are either suffering or no longer in existence due to dwindling membership.

"As the older ones have gone on to be with the Lord and with no younger blood, no younger folk coming in behind them, they’ve been unable to withstand themselves and they had to be closed," Speed said.

The traditional church has long been a spiritual anchor, as well as a driver of social change and justice for African-Americans.

Even today, "when something dramatic happens within the confines of the black community, the first person that’s looked to is those leaders within the black church to step forward and speak to those issues," Speed said.

He said it's important to understand that the traditional black church has a place.

"With the uncovering or the exposing of the systemic racism that exists in our society which has come to the forefront and been more visible since the last presidential campaign and the last few years of President Obama's tenure, it becomes vitally important for us to understand the place of the black church and the fact that it needs to be a vibrant part of our lives," Speed said.

Because of the changes that have occurred within society, "I'm not sure that millennials see the relevance of the black church as it relates to equality and justice.

"I don’t think they fully understand the importance the church has played in the history of society moving forward and helping to make things better for them. In so doing, they don’t see the church as relevant and so as a result, there's been a falling away," he said.

Pastors are leaving pulpits because of this frustration, Brown said.

"The church needs to understand we’re not healthy right now, especially the African-American traditional church. We’re not as healthy as we need to be and we need to robust about whatever it is we need to do to become healthy and relevant again."

The church has to let youth know that the church is still relevant, Garrett said, that's not an old fashioned thing but a relationship thing.

"We have to go back to telling our children like our parents taught us and their parents taught them that you need the Lord," Garrett said. "I think the disconnect is we're not encouraging our children, telling them why it's so important that they need the same religion that great grandma had, that my parents had or I have."

Brown said there are a plethora of issues behind the exodus of young adults. One, he said, is a change in the family dynamic.

"I'm 44 and in my generation, all roads led to the church," said Brown, who did practically everything in a church from sleeping, waking up and doing homework.

"I think my generation’s parenting has not given that demand of youth going to church. A lot of youth have divorced themselves from the church because they don’t have the same connection," he said.

Brown also cites changes in Blue Laws, meaning many people have to work on Sundays.

"These are just valuable reasons that have come up, and with that being said, the church has not adapted," Brown said. "We miss the important role of adapting to different times of services, different days of services.

"We know that Sunday is the Lord’s day and it is our biblical identity with the resurrection that leads us to Sunday, but I think there’s some need to adapt to midweek services and to family times during the week where we can still have the significant worship time and the kind of evangelistic and discipleship time even during different segments of the week rather than just on Sunday mornings so that the church has a greater identity in the life and role of people.

"We kind of live on the rule that God never changes, God stays the same. That’s true but there’s no biblical identity of God doing something the same way all the time. So even God has different routines, different methods of accomplishing His same goal," he said.

Brown applauds what new churches are doing but believes the traditional church still has a role in developing families and individuals.

Harlan Lovestone, a Greenville artist, educator and millenial, believes the disinterest millennials are having with churches is because churches are "falling asleep."

"They tend to be very insular. They are not active in the community, don’t seem to know what is going on around them, and they try so hard these days to be politically correct," he said.

Meanwhile, Lovestone said, people are hurting, people are confused, they are in pain and "they are literally dying for the truth and for some compassion."

"I think what churches need to do is get back to basics. They spend too much time trying to be all things to all people and trying to become wealthy mega churches. The original mission has been lost. These days, churches have become spectacles and entertainment as an attempt to entice membership," Lovestone said.

"That's a temporary fix because people can get entertainment anywhere and probably better than what church as to offer.," he said.

He believes that when churches get back to preaching "the straight, uncompromising testimony, " the actual Bible truth," become proactive in helping the spiritually, financially needy, and carrying out the mission of Jesus to spread the good news, "that’s when you will see millennials head back to church in droves and you will see revival like in the age of the protestant reformers and like the rise of the black church in America. You will see all God’s remnant unite upon truth."