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Black Generation Xers take a broad look at religious experience

They merge innovation, tradition

Friday, January 01, 1999

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Growing up in Philadelphia, Chanel Conley was a soul divided.

 
  Chanel Conley, center, prays with other members of the Young Adult Fellowship at Macedonia Baptist Church in the Hill District after a Bible study session. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Her dyed in-the-wool Baptist family sent her off to private Catholic schools to get a good footing in reading, writing and arithmetic. But her education was grounded in the catechism as well. So when her deeply religious grandmother told her that she "had to go to church on Sunday," Conley, 24, slipped out to Catholic Mass because it was quicker. She dragged herself to Baptist churches, too, mostly during the holidays and other celebrations because the food and music were better.

The duality of those experiences left Conley believing she was more a "child of God" than a follower of any one religion or denomination.

Her revelation mirrors what may be a growing mood among many young black churchgoers in their teens and 20s. This Generation X, say some theologians and scholars, is a group prone to merging innovation and traditionalism in its search for spiritual connectedness.

Young people are still drawn to the ideal of "the church," which for most means the Baptist or Methodist churches that long have dominated black religious life, said Renita Weems, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. They like the tradition, comfort and association found there, she said. But she's noticed that many are moving outside of the box that religion was for many of their parents.

"Gen Xers," said Weems, "want heartfelt, even ecstatic religious experiences. And, they're not bound by denominations to get it."


Laying the groundwork

The trend, at this point, is more anecdotal than statistical.

One study, however, which compiled information from surveys done between 1973 and 1980 on more than 30,000 black Americans, showed fewer than 1 percent considered themselves non-denominational. By 1996, the same study showed the percentage had doubled in a survey of 55,000 black people. At the same time, a jump in the numbers of black worshipers joining conservative denominations - Apostolic, Holiness and Church of God in Christ affiliations - coincided with modest declines in the Baptist and Methodist groups.

Some sociologists suggest that the groundwork for such mobility may have been laid more than 20 years ago, when changing economic conditions and a rapid urbanization exposed more blacks to alternative lifestyles and ideologies outside of the church.

Even then, younger people were prone to church-hop, said Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and African studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"They would often leave their own church and be attracted to the new preacher or the choir across town."

Conley's viewpoints are probably just an extension of the phenomenon that was started a generation before her, said Mamiya.

Conley has lived in Pittsburgh since 1992 and had fallen away from faith until a breakup with a boyfriend sent her reeling.

In search of comfort, the Highland Park resident ended up in a Friday night young adult fellowship at the Hill District's Macedonia Baptist Church. Conley felt embraced and loved by the group and was baptized at age 22.

Don't call her a Baptist, though. Conley is quick to point out that she didn't join a doctrine but a community of friends.

"My focus was not on the denomination" she said. "I saw this as a way to get a closer bond with the people I had come to love."


A different culture

Polls continue to show that black Americans are more active in their religious practice than other Americans. One study found that 84 percent of the black faithful attend worship service and pray consistently compared with 59 percent of all other Americans.

Having such numbers doesn't mean the waters are calm, however.

For young blacks, growing up in a post-cold war, post-civil rights, materialistic era, the culture is different, said Weems.

Many know about the struggle for black equality but they don't identify with it. They don't see themselves as being victims, she said, and expect religion and spirituality to help them transcend problems and issues, not just suffer through them.

They want to be healthy and believe they have a moral right to be well - in mind, body and spirit. They want financial security, "not pie in the sky," and believe they are entitled to enjoy some rewards of their labor now, said Weems, a former stockbroker who was chosen by Ebony magazine as one of the top female pastors in America.

Conley fits that description. Wearing high heels and carrying a portable cell phone, she is all business. After she leaves her full-time job at Blue Cross/Blue Shield as a care manager-service representative, she scrambles on to Robert Morris College where she takes a full load of courses in health services management and long-term health care.

She expects her church to respond to her busy life.

"Churches are very good at being child-focused," said Conley, but they need to pay more attention to young adults. "We need more options in church for socialization, study and networking." Conley also added that the church must be mindful of young adults' college and work schedules and plan classes and seminars during hours when they can attend.

This falls in line with other observations about Generation X made by Weems, a recent lecturer at a seminar on the future of the black church at Vanderbilt's Kelly Miller Smith Institute, which has been studying what it means to be black and Christian since 1992.

"The younger folk are more interested in teaching than in preaching," Weems said. "They are seeking empowerment" and thirsting for practical and spiritual resources on managing finances, building positive relations and coping in their careers, she said. And they count on the church to show them the way.


The latest wave

The last time young people shook religion so was between 1945 and 1965. That's when they grew increasingly impatient with what they saw as churches' passive attitude toward political issues and pushed the institutions into the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he led the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church into the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 and launched the grass-roots attack for equality.

As a new millennium approaches, a similar religious movement may be recurring. Studies by Darren Sherkat, a Vanderbilt sociologist, have found that while the number of blacks who consider themselves to be religious is growing, the population of the largest denominations is shrinking.

The traditional congregations are apparently losing out to churches, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of God in Christ and other Pentecostal groups, and to the nondenominational megachurches, which draw young people - black and white - with their contemporary music and broad mix of programs and activities.

Messages about spirituality by authors with fiery, nondenominational exhortations play to the same audience.

Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes' psycho-social-spiritual texts are bestsellers and Juanita Bynum, whose tapes and videos showcase a style full of Pentecostal emotionalism, has a broad following. Neither claims a denomination and both have huge ecumenical and crossover appeal.


Worshipping anew

Seventeen-year-old Reva Campbell leaves her own Baptist missionary church in Homewood some Sundays and worships at the nondenominational multiracial Covenant Church in the East Hills.

"I wasn't raised to think that being Baptist was being better than anyone else," said Campbell, who was encouraged to love God in general and to try other Christian experiences.

On Wednesday nights, you'll find Campbell at Hearts Afire, Covenant's outreach to teens. Usually there's a prayer service, music and an evening lesson. Campbell said she and her friends - a hodgepodge of different Christian faiths - get the chance to play their instruments.

One evening, the sanctuary of Covenant gives way to Christian rap. Smoke wafts from the floor and a thick, heavy bass booms across the room, bouncing off a graffiti-filled fake brick wall that hangs in the back.

For Campbell, and the 100 or so other teens present, this is worship.

"We're not into the organs and [hymns] that they have all the time in some churches," said Campbell, a junior at Penn Hills High School.

Covenant's Thomas Armstrong, 21, an intern who works with teens, believes they are drawn to non-denominational congregations and programs such as Hearts Afire because they tire of being labeled.

"It doesn't matter to us, what you call yourself," he said. "Christ died for all."

Armstrong said about half of the young people involved with Hearts Afire comes from Covenant's congregation, the remainder from different churches. The rap music and other programs Covenant offers to tap into the talent of young people, he said, may have a special appeal to black youth.

Young people are not after a Baptist, Catholic or Methodist experience, said Conley, but a "transforming one."



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