If national trends state that young adults are less interested in religious congregational life, does the same hold true for young adults in the Deep South? Is this a new phenomenon, given the way we often think of Southerners as being fervently religious? The following essay, by Marc Boswell, attempts to chart a course through these particular questions in light of my own experience working in such a context over the past several years. His full bio is below.
Deep in the rural South, in a Delta parish of Louisiana, about a mile from the Mississippi River, I teach adult education (GED) courses in one of our country’s most impoverished regions. Demographically, my students are roughly 85% African American, with the other 15% identifying as white. Poverty rates reach well over 50%. The racial diversity found in other areas of the country has yet to hit this geographically isolated region. The parish is so destitute, in terms of economic opportunities, that immigrants don’t tend to find their way here. There’s no financial reason to come.
Many of my students have dropped out of school because of destabilized home environments. Parents often are battling addictions or have passed away or have been incarcerated due to New Jim Crow types of criminal justice legislation. Other students didn’t receive a full measure of help to contend with learning disabilities, or, when they did, they were too far behind to complete the standardized tests necessary to graduate high school. Others dropped out after they became pregnant and needed to stay home to provide childcare to their newborns.
What’s true for many of my students, black and white, is that they have faced significant traumas related to the instability that often pervades high poverty areas - particularly this one where life has stagnated in the wake of the Jim Crow culture of the 20th century and the move to a service based, gig oriented economy. While I’d be remiss not to point out the success of several families and young adults who find ways to thrive in face of such conditions, I tend to work with those who are just beginning to pick up the pieces of their difficult lives and make a fresh start in their young adulthood.
It is from this context, over the last three years, that I have read the literature being produced out of sub/urban centers related to the decreasing participation of millennials in the Church. Typically, these generational studies do not have young Black millennials in mind. It also tends to follow that white oriented, church-based publications rarely start from the position of the young adult Black Christian. Even more, this cottage industry tends not to be concerned about rural youth - especially as “rural” tends to be synonymous with “white evangelical” in our national imagination. The lives of faith of my Black millennial students seem not to factor at all into these research concerns.
As I’m not a young Black millennial, I won’t pretend to speak from their experience, but later in the essay I’ll relay the nature of the conversations I’ve had with my students over these years and what I’ve gleaned from our interactions as it relates to spirituality and religious observance. I’ll also speak to my own experience as a white millennial who grew up in a rural, Southern area and is now once again living in such a place.
First, we’ll turn to the ideological climate of the Delta.
The Delta Context
Despite stereotypes about the religiosity of the South, most of my students, black and white, have little interest in or knowledge of the Church. Though they’re not the hipster millennials whom white churches try to lure to their congregations through sudsy, craft beer evangelism, they are, nevertheless, among those who are identified by sociologists and religious pundits as “nones” (those who claim no strong religious identity) or “dones” (those who once participated in a religious tradition but are now “done” with their involvement).
The social world of the Delta inherited by my students, by and large, is conservative. After Trump’s election, there were no public protests or Women’s Marches. One won’t see gay pride flags or #MeToo take downs. It’s not that some people aren’t in agreement with these social movements. Rather, it’s the public display that tends to happen more reluctantly here, undoubtedly due to past histories of repressive measures taken by politically powerful white and male leaders. In small rural towns, speaking out carries a greater degree of risk. There’s much less anonymity here than for those in larger, urban settings. One can wrap up a protest in the city and, unless you choose to display it on social media, many people won’t know you ever participated. This is certainly not the case in smaller towns.
It should also be clarified that although many Delta parishes are predominantly Black and often vote Democratic in presidential elections, this doesn’t mean that Black Democrats in the Deep South all share the presumptive liberal platform of urban, progressive white cultures. Many Black voters with whom I interact regularly still have reservations or dissonance around issues of gun control, women’s reproductive rights, immigration, and/or LGBTQ civil rights.
Even outside of the Black community, it’s hard for a white Democrat in Louisiana to be elected to public office if that person is avidly pro-choice or an advocate for stricter gun control measures. I mention this simply as an observation about what party planks are presumed to be normative and acceptable in greater national conversations internal to political party platforms. These policy planks don’t always translate easily across region, class, race, or religion, something which many progressives who are not in Southern, rural areas often forget.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Delta’s faith communities (white and black) are mostly conservative evangelical branches of Christianity: Pentecostal Holiness, non-denominational, Southern Baptist, Methodist (UMC, AME, AME Zion), Jehovah’s Witnesses, COGIC, Seventh Day Adventist, Missionary Baptist, and conservative wings of the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Catholic churches.
What, then, do we make of this decline in church attendance relative to the rural South - a place that’s still considered the holier-than-thou buckle of the Bible Belt? If religiosity in the South isn’t to be solely defined by the white Christianity of either Andy Griffith or Jerry Falwell, then how might we think of millennials’ relationship to the Church and their own spirituality, more broadly speaking, in this region of the country?
First: A Personal Reflection
I grew up in a rural, farming community of Eastern North Carolina. The racial and religious demographics were similar to the Delta as we were in the northeastern end of the Cotton Belt/Slave Belt which stretches down into Louisiana. Thinking back to my childhood in the 1990s, I remember older friends and family members who didn’t attend church with regularity, if at all. Some of these folks were antagonistic toward pastors and church goers, often citing judgmental attitudes and hypocrisy as reasons for their disassociation. Most of these folks, though, didn’t opt out of church because they were theologically at odds with certain doctrinal tenets of the faith. In other words, they weren’t opting for other denominations or religious traditions, properly speaking. Instead, many believed that they didn’t need a pastor’s help or church attendance in order to please God. Or, if they did, they delayed looking into such things until a time later in life.
If you asked these individuals if they identified as Christian, as with a demographic poll, many of them would have certainly answered “Yes.” Christianity was not seen in terms of “yes or no,” but in terms of “good or bad,” or “enthusiastic or not-so-zealous.” Everyone, for instance, would have identified as Christian rather than atheist or Muslim or Buddhist, but they would have differentiated themselves from other Christians based on who kept up certain associated moral practices (i.e., abstention from alcohol and swearing) or who regularly attended a particular congregation, or who prayed and did daily Bible study (or not). In other words, many of the non-church-attending folks I knew would say they weren’t “good” Christians, by which they often meant something pejorative: “We’re not ‘holy rollers’ or the obnoxious holier-than-thou types.”*
It was also common for many in my generation and above (towards the beginning of the millennial generation and Generation Xers) to shy away from participation in a congregation until they were married and they began to have children. Whether it was the gravity of adult life sinking in or simply the desire to have their children receive religious values, many younger adults grew a bit more interested in congregational participation as they became concerned about their child’s moral compass. It’s one thing, the thinking goes, to be a bit “bad” and not find the church useful in young adulthood, but it’s something different to not give your children the same religious foundation you may have received as a child. This tended to be true for both black and white individuals I knew.
In this practice of joining back up with a congregation later in young adulthood, there’s certainly a mix of nostalgia, virtue signalling, and a sincere desire on the part of parents to see their children grow up to be decent persons. Others, though, may have been turning to the only source they knew of that might help them cope with stress related to failed relationships, or economic instability, or other daunting adult matters. As therapy is expensive and mental health care continues to be stigmatized in the South, a pastor might be the only authoritative source of guidance that a person can imagine turning to when life becomes difficult.
With this mostly anecdotal material, it’s not clear how these patterns break down along socio-economic lines. In the South, there’s still some vestige of middle-class respectability that comes with church attendance. If one wants to prove to your community that you’re a respectable or decent person, then you better be equipped to answer the question that you’ll inevitably get from older generations (black and white): Where do you go to church on Sunday?
It seems that those millennial and Gen Xers I knew who were getting some amount of college education and veering into white collar work were also those who were more conscientious about taking their families to church. Increasingly, older millennials with families have been opting into either the “megachurch” and/or nondenominational models, usually found in sub/urban contexts. Both models seem rooted in providing a buffet of consumer goods and services to upwardly mobile families and a less “traditional” form of worship (i.e., offering a more entertaining, engaging, polished production of a worship service).
Nevertheless, my sense is that this type of church-related respectability politics is breaking down, albeit more slowly than in other parts of the country. This class lens also begs an examination of the middle-class assumption that everyone is off work on the weekends and able to attend worship at 11:00 AM. There are, obviously, a great many people in the service and manufacturing industries who have to work on Sundays.
Second: The Delta “Nones” and “Dones”
It’s the good (or bad) luck of my students to have a teacher with a background in religious studies, so I make it a point to have lessons and conversations about religion and spirituality in the more neutral space of a classroom. If we’re having a lesson in figurative and literal language, for instance, I’ll pull a poem by Rumi, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, or Rainer Maria Rilke. On other occasions, we’ve read selections from Martin Luther King, Jr., Friedrich Nietzsche, Maya Angelou, or snippets of the Bhagavad Gita or the Pali Canon. History lessons on the Holocaust have lead us to discussions about anti-Semitism and Christianity. We talk about world history, major revolutions in religious practice, and contemporary religious developments.
I typically entered these conversations braced to hear the standard anxieties and concerns about non-Christian religions or evangelical stereotypes about “the Other.” What I’ve tended to find, though, is that the overwhelming majority of these students don’t begin from a place of conservative evangelicalism, no matter how thick it’s presumed to hang in the air of the South. These are young people who either haven’t been raised in Church, and, thus, don’t have these theologies, or they only occasionally enter church spaces and haven’t adopted the “culture wars” that are often drummed up by older, leading religious conservatives.
If Christianity is part of their cultural orbit, it’s similar to how we may know people who are in the Lion’s Club or Kiwanis but have never directly participated in those organizations for ourselves. If my students were to rally around Christianity, it would be in the sentimental manner in which one might support the American Legion because your uncle belonged to it, or the Freemasons because the organization meant a lot to your grandfather. You may not choose to participate in it on a regular basis, if at at all, but, if such institutions are disparaged, then you’ll rally to their defense.
Obviously, my students know Christianity exists, but they struggle to articulate things like the books of the Bible or the names of Christian denominations. When prompted to name the “holy book” of Christianity, for instance, most students were unclear that the answer is the Bible. This isn’t only the case with Christianity. They are equally unsure about the holy book of Islam, or who founded Buddhism, or what branch of Christianity is associated with the papacy.
While this might be dismissed as a simple deficiency in religious literacy, it’s also the case that many of these students are disconnected from a local congregation or any other faith tradition. It’s hard at this juncture to tell if this is akin to the patterns of religious involvement I witnessed during my own teenage years and young adulthood. It’s possible that these young people will decide to attend church later in life, perhaps after having children or running into a particularly difficult problem. But if these young adults go the way of larger, national trends, then there’s little reason to suspect that these issues will nudge them in the direction of church participation.
It’s a longstanding myth that Southerners have been inherently more religious than people in other parts of the country. This is a myth certain politicians, artists, and religious leaders like to tell about the South, certainly as compared with the so-called “godless North.” Nevertheless, there are plenty of “godless” good old boys, blues folks, heathens, intellectuals, trailer trash, “can’t get rights,” artists, writers, and others who distance themselves from the Church - especially the evangelical church, which is often the only version of Christianity that people know.
Outside of certain periods, like the two Great Awakenings or the post-World War II era, a full-throated, zealous participation in Christianity has never been 100% in these Southern states. Perhaps what we’re witnessing in the rural South, then, is similar to a decline in church membership elsewhere in the country, and perhaps it’s also more in line with the general trends throughout the South’s own checkered past. We’ve never collectively been as fervently Christian as what is often told about us or what we tell others about ourselves.
I bother writing this at all because I know the literature related to “nones” and “dones” does not have young adults in rural areas at heart, and, just as much, they tend to ignore the lives of faith of young African Americans and other non-white groups, regardless of geographic location. The literature seems to suggest, rather, a growing concern about the financial viability of predominantly white, sub/urban, mainline institutions, relying as they do on regular giving by adults. If people aren’t attending, then whence comes the finances we need to secure the long range health of our cherished seminaries, churches, pension funds, and parachurch organizations?
I also want to check any tendency to automatically assume that millennials, in general, are naturally becoming more liberal and open-minded. Some left-leaning Christians assume that young people are leaving the church because of their righteous sense of social justice and disdain for the homophobia and racism that still are present in far too many Christian congregations. Being unconcerned with the Church in the rural South, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that one has seen the error in the ways of conservative ideologies (which I suspect is also true elsewhere).
My students, in other words, aren’t opting out of the Church in favor of yoga mats and mindfulness and vegan diets and homebrewing. They’re not exchanging their Bibles for copies of Marx’s Communist Manifesto or the latest book deconstructing gender norms. Those things don’t exist around here.
Perhaps they would enjoy all of these things, and, certainly, I wouldn’t discourage them from any such pursuits. I delight in broaching those conversations with students when and where appropriate. However, my students and I are here together in a part of the country where such generally assumed cultural realities have yet to permeate or take root. The grim reality is that many of my students will never enroll in humanities courses at an undergraduate college, not by dent of academic inability, but because life comes at you hard and quick in impoverished rural areas, and it can feel next to impossible to get several hours away to an actual undergraduate institution.
My goal as their instructor, then, certainly isn’t to proselytize them, though I do see our time together as a way to ask certain questions that they may not normally have the space to ask in other parts of our shared Southern culture. If this encourages them to one day engage Buddhist thought, or Christian spiritual practices, or Islamic devotion, or a justice-minded social ethic, then that’s great. Perhaps, even, our time together in class is “church” for us, though it’ll never be counted in the demographic research on “nones” and “dones.”
Such are the limitations of theological reflection, most of which continues to be produced out of sub/urban centers and predominantly white, middle-class institutions. Perhaps some solace is to be found, then, in remembering that the Spirit has often tended to move on the margins and in the hinterlands and in the places the religious elite often ignore and don’t engage. Such may be the case in even a small, quiet adult education classroom way “down in the Delta.”
Rev. Marc Boswell, Ph.D., is founding editor of Progressive Southern Theologians. He currently serves as the director of the faith-based non-profit, Together for Hope, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He has lived in the Delta for the past two years and enjoys photography and writing. His research and teaching interests include constructive/liberation theologies, community development, and race in American culture. He is a proud alumnus of the University of Mount Olive and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.