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This pastor is trying to bring young Black people back to church


Fewer Americans may be going to houses of worship, especially younger Americans. A Pew Research Center study published last year showed that about 30% of Black Gen Zers and millennials do not subscribe to any religious faith. About 1 in 5 Black Americans say that they are atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. The Reverend Dr. Justin Lester is senior pastor at Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence, R.I., and he joins us now. Reverend Lester, thanks so much for being with us.

JUSTIN LESTER: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I have to ask, is attendance down?

LESTER: I think that's a big question. And we just recently opened up after being shut down for COVID for a while, but what I am noticing, especially as it relates to Generation Z - you do see the college students - right? - so the 20- to 35-year-olds, they're there, that Gen Z-millennial bridge. But the 12- to 18-year-olds is the one group of individuals I'm noticing are a little more inconsistent and a little more not as involved in worship as they were before, when church was in-person and, you know, things were a different pace of life.

I think this on-demand culture, the Hulu Netflix culture or, you know, this on-demand church culture that we've engendered in COVID may have played into that. But I also do think that it also speaks to all of the social movements, all of the deconstructionism, just a lot of different competing priorities that are contributing to, yes, seeing less and less 12- to 18-year-olds and not seeing them as involved and engaged as I think we would want to see in our churches (laughter).

SIMON: Well, how do you read that? - because certainly, I can recall a time when many Black churches were very much involved in social movements.

LESTER: I think it's a lot of - a lot of the unsaid and unspoken agreements and things that we have inside of churches, I think that speaks to patriarchy. I think it speaks to not being involved or having a stance on social issues or being too involved in it, right? I think there's a - there has to be a balance between all of that. I think it's the navigation of pastors, navigating their own calling and self, and then also having ministries and programming that's relevant to individuals and not relevant in terms of technology because a lot of people are streaming. A lot of people are, you know, online. We figured out Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and TikTok.

But the real questions of life - dealing with divorce and parents and depression and sex and sexuality and gender identity and - we're not giving people the space to ask questions. And we're - preaching, in and of itself, is such a monologue, anyway. The church ought to be a refuge, and I feel like there's a lot of spaces where I can see where it's not as safe as it needs to be for people to grow.

SIMON: And I wonder, Dr. Lester, what you might say, what have you said, especially to Black Gen Zers or millennials who say, look; I feel like I'm an atheist or an agnostic or nothing in particular, and I just don't see, all due respect, what the church can add to my life?

LESTER: Yeah. And I tell them I have the same questions (laughter). That's why I didn't want to be in ministry in the first place, right? I ran from ministry. I was a part of church my entire life. My parents were pastors. I've seen the ugly and the beautiful parts of church. I've seen how they can be involved in community. I also see how they can kill and hurt their own, right? And so for me, the reason that I fell in love with and have followed through on this call and followed through on this ministry is because I see there's so much fruitfulness in faithfulness. And especially, there's so much power in Black, safe communities. And when we make the church about what the church was meant for in the first place - and that is a space for people to be together, to care for one another, to build community with one another, and to share the love of Christ, and to talk about Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit - it becomes a lot easier to get our focus on that.

SIMON: Reverend Lester, we're speaking during Black History Month, and you just cannot and should not tell the story of a Black America without touching on the important and vital role of the Black church.

LESTER: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: Do you feel some special sense of responsibility?

LESTER: I do. This is the one institution that, you know, was a safe harbor even when it wasn't safe in slavery, right? And our ancestors built this from the ground up. And so this is the one space where someone who was belittled all week long came and had a sense of ownership and a sense of honor. And so I love the Black church. I believe the Black church is one of the strongest institutions that doesn't recognize our own strength. I - long live the Black church. I love the beauty of it, from the music to the people to the food to the preaching to the community.

I just pray that, to go forward, we are open to whatever God wants the church to be because at one point, the Black church rejected choirs. You know, at one point, the Black church rejected praise and worship. At one point, the Black church even rejected people like Mahalia Jackson, right? Like, we rejected women coming and singing. And so I just pray that we continue to see that it is one of the most innovative - like, the Underground Railroad was an innovative piece, right? It was so innovative. And so I think we're innovative people, powerful people, brilliant people, and the Black church has all the bits and pieces of history and the future.

SIMON: The Reverend Dr. Justin Lester is senior pastor at Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence, R.I. Thanks so much for being with us, reverend.

LESTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.