History of African-American Faith
John Mbiti once said that “Africans are notoriously religious.” This cultural norm has extended to the African diaspora throughout the West, as African Americans are among the most religious groups in our society. We believe in God and faith. Furthermore, as African Americans fought for justice throughout each generation, the Church has been the pillar to give us strength, hope, and inspiration in the midst of great struggle. It’s no surprise that many “Black adults say they rely on prayer to help make major decisions, and view opposing racism as essential to their religious faith.”
Atheism and Modern Society
Millennials and Gen Z, statistically, have the highest number of atheists when you compare them to previous generations. “The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. population.” Even among African Americans of this age, the number of atheists has increased. Statistics say that roughly a quarter of Black Gen Z (26%) and Millennials (22%) claim no religious affiliation. These numbers show us that despite a rich history of faith, there has been a shift with this generation.
Following the Civil War, racism in the South led to millions of African Americans moving to the North, Midwest, and West in what would be called the Great Migration. Lasting from 1916-1970, this movement led many to re-discover what it meant to be Black in the United States. With this re-invigoration came the birth of new ideas and the cultural zeitgeist led to an explosion of art, culture, music, and intellectual thought. The Harlem Renaissance, Black History Week (later Black History Month), and increased black activism in the political arena are all hallmarks of what came from the Great Migration.
We, also, witnessed a shift spiritually, as many left the church in hopes of finding a faith that spoke to the soul and experiences of Black America. During this time, we saw the rise of Black Hebrew Israelism, the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, Black atheism, and humanism.  
Impact of Racism
The rise of the ideologies mentioned above, ultimately, is a response to the sin of racism and oppression. Scripture is clear when it says that all of us are marred by the effects of sin (Romans 3:23). Our need for God’s grace and regeneration can be clearly seen by how we sin against one another, both as the offender and in our response to the offense. This must be understood because African Americans were systemically sinned against for generations. As a result, many have responded by rejecting the Risen Savior and the life He offers due to white Christians who endorsed slavery and the injustices that followed.   Though misplaced and spiritually damaging, the rejection of Jesus often grew from a desire to distance African Americans from generational trauma and hypocritical brethren. Lost in all this is the fact that we have an enemy, Satan, who uses this history to create strongholds of hate and resentment, which further blinds souls from seeing the beauty of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Knowing this, we must move beyond the simple answer of, “The fool says in his heart, ‘there’s no God’” (Psalm 14:1), when we discuss atheism in this context. The Scriptures teach us that God’s people bear some culpability when people fail to revere or acknowledge His presence due to their sinful practices and poor character. Paul highlights this principle in Romans 2:24 when he quotes Isaiah 52:5, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” As God’s people, we are called to represent Him in a way that draws the outside world as we marry our words with deeds. Failure to do so can cause stumbling blocks for weary souls.
In apologetic studies, one learns that the “problem of evil” is the biggest stumbling block for skeptics and unbelievers. Viewing the “problem of evil” from an African-American perspective means understanding the painful history of racism found in the American church and how it has helped lead to the faith exodus we see today. This is something that the American church must understand as we attempt to re-engage a new generation.
Helping A New Generation See Jesus
In 2021, PBS released a 4-part series on Black faith in America entitled The Black Church: This is Our Story. This is Our Song. This documentary gave a transparent look at how the Black Church has been a powerful source of strength within our nation. As the film turned its attention to a younger generation, it highlighted that Millennials and Gen Z want a faith that is active in promoting equity and justice. One of the telling quotes from this segment came when one of the interviewed guests spoke of the protests that occurred because of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake. Regarding these protests for justice, she stated that the young people being in the streets and protesting justice was “their church.”
Knowing that many Millennials and Gen Z are passionate about justice, one of the best ways to engage them is to help them reframe justice through a gospel and biblical lens. Here are three ways to explain this:
1. Justice in the Universe – In the book New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Robert J. Spitzer gives compelling evidence of how the universe proves God’s existence. Toward the end of his informative case, he shares how inside humanity is the desire of five yearnings for the ultimate, and one of those is justice (also called goodness). Despite our sinful nature, we each desire perfect justice when we encounter violation, yet when we look out into the world our desire falls short. The desire for good and justice resides in the human conscience, and though stained by sin, it still points to a divine imprint visible within all humanity. Paul references this when he says that God’s laws are written on the consciences of men (Romans 2:14-15).
When talking with atheists, our response should be one where we advocate for the existence of an eternal and righteous Judge rejected by humanity. As a result of this rejection, sin, death, and chaos entered the cosmos. Therefore, we live in a world where perfect justice is absent and/or perverted.
2. Justice in Salvation – Just as human beings yearn for justice, according to Spitzer, we also yearn for perfect love. We crave it. Just as our desire for justice comes from an eternal being, so does our desire for true and perfect love. This eternal being (God) is both loving and just, meaning He desires to give mercy and grace, and still punish evil.
Ultimately, this is why the Christian faith is the most unique and distinct religion and faith in human history. In the gospel, we see a God who seeks to restore His broken cosmos. This brokenness was ushered in by the men and women He created in His image (Genesis 1:26), and instead of sentencing us to eternal damnation, He made a way for us by providing a mediator (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15) and atonement for our sin (John 1:29). This work is found in the person, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. A real person, as ancient Roman history records, but also, God in the flesh (John 1:14; 14:9; Colossians 1:15). Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished what only an infinitely wise God could bring about. We see the “love and justice of God revealed.” Both collide in a way that forever changed the eternal trajectory of those who have put their faith in the Risen Son. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23-26, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.”
To God be praised.
3. Justice in the Church – Those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ are members of the body of Christ and the Lord’s Church (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:4-5; Colossians 1:24). Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Greek word for “righteousness” in this verse is the same word used for “justice.” It is the word dikaiosýnē, and as members of God’s church, not only are we called to live godly and righteous lives, but also be a “community of the just.” Being a just community means that believers of Jesus must not be found to show partiality based on ethnicity, gender, or economic status. It means affirming each man and woman as being made in the image of God, and by doing so, all forms of oppression are declared incompatible with God’s righteous character and ours.
Furthermore, we must be intentional about advocating and demonstrating justice, both in our society and church (Philemon 8-16). As we do this, men and women can see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Therefore, for a generation who has become skeptical of the church’s commitment to justice, we must preach and live out the gospel in both content (life, death, and resurrection) and scope (every area of life), so that many may experience the liberating message of hope found in Jesus Christ.
As this happens, I believe that the Lord will continue to use His Church to bring Shalom and gather a remnant from this generation.
May the Spirit continue to empower us for the ministry and work He’s prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10) and may we bring his name glory (1 Peter 4:11). Amen.
- Mason, Eric. (Urban Apologetics: Restoring Black Dignity with the Gospel. Michigan: Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing, 2021), pg. 168.
- “Faith Among Black Americans,” https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/02/16/faith-among-black-americans/, accessed October 14, 2022.
- “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z,” https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/, accessed October 15, 2022.
- “Trends in the Black: More Faithful, But Not Immune to Decline,” https://www.barna.com/black-church-trends-faithful-decline/, accessed October 14, 2022.
- “The Great Migration,” https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration, accessed October 5, 2022.
- See “Great Migration.”
- See Mason, pg. 7, 46, 168.
- Curtis IV, Edward E. and Danielle Brune Sigler. (The New Black God: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African-American Religions. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009), pg. 7-8.
- Leonard, Bill J. (Baptist Ways: A History. Pennsylvania: Valley Forge, Judson Press, 2003), pg. 185-190.
- Williams, Jarvis J. and Kevin Jones. (Removing the Stain of Racism From the Southern Baptist Convention. Nashville, Tennessee: Baker Academic Publishing, 2017), pg. 1-14.
- Emerson, Michael O. and Christian Smith. (Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pg. 34-37.
- Alcorn, Randy. (If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 2009), pg. 11-12.
- “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song (Episode 2),” https://www.pbs.org/video/the-black-church-episode2/, accessed October 13, 2022.
- Robert J. Spitzer. (New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing Co., 2010), pg. 259.
- See Spitzer, pg. 270
- See Spitzer, pg. 259.
- Bettenson, Henry and Chris Maunder. (Documents of the Christian Church: 4th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pg. 1-2.
- Stott, John R.W. (The Cross of Christ. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2006), pg. 131.
- “Dikaiosýnē ,” https://biblehub.com/greek/1343.htm, accessed October 14, 2022.
- Gorman, Michael. (Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), pg. 121.
- Evans, Tony. (Oneness Embraced: A Kingdom Race Theology for Reconciliation, Unity, and Justice. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2022), pg. 335-338.
Published January 30, 2023