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Stop Trying To Make Church Cool

Buddy Christ

A friend sent me Rachel Held Evans’ opinion piece, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’

Rachel is a well-known author (Searching for Sunday, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Faith Unraveled). She provides pretty standard statistics of decline:”…no religious affiliation at all,…significantly more disconnected from faith…” I hadn’t heard of some of her examples of church responses: Churches giving away tablet computers, TVs and even cars at Easter! Rachel and I might have a good discussion about presence on the internet (she appears unenthusiastic about church web designs; I think that mission and ministry in our digital world is essential), but we agree on the central paragraph of her article:

Recent research from Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” While we have yet to warm to the word “traditional” (only 40 percent favor it over “modern”), millennials exhibit an increasing aversion to exclusive, closed-minded religious communities masquerading as the hip new places in town. For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,” argues David Kinnaman, who interviewed hundreds of them for Barna Group and compiled his research in “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith.

I have regularly written about bait-and-switch tendencies in churches, attempting to be something that others do much better (concert, cafe,…). Let us be clear what it is that we are – and what we do – and put our energy into being and doing those things as best we can. The article quotes blogger Amy Peterson:

I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.

Rachel continues:

According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’ ”…

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God…

My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one’s trying to sell me anything. No one’s desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They’re just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith — that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again — which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, I still believe most days….

I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.

The article arrived about the same time as our diocesan statistics for the year. Our national church, embarrassingly, keeps no national statistics, but individual dioceses keep statistics of what they individually determine is important. Some months back, I did some longer-term analysis of these: End of the Anglican Church? Does anyone still act surprised (shocked?) when essentially every significant statistic has gone further south in just a year? Is anyone even looking at these statistics? [Seriously: the average parish has about 6 funerals – yet one, in a small, rural township, has recorded 1,123 funerals! And another small, rural parish has recorded 6,460 communicants at Christmas. These have been entered without blinking. Funerals in our diocese, because of this, appear to have gone up four-fold!]

Hold alongside this, Brian Dodd’s lessons for the church from the declining attendance at National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). We have previously learnt from David Putnam’s Bowling Alone – people are still bowling; they are just doing it alone and not joining bowling clubs. People are still seeking meaning and spirituality – they are just doing it alone. Brian Dodd notes parallels with the decline in NASCAR: people feel neglected; key leaders are not being replaced; new leaders are poorly formed; success is being redefined; committees are being formed; We no longer focus on the bottom line.

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6 Responses to Stop Trying To Make Church Cool

  1. “People are still seeking meaning and spirituality – they are just doing it alone.”

    Which isn’t church.

    Church is supposed to be about modelling the Trinity, the active relationship between Father and Son mediated by the Spirit.

    It’s also a non-negotiable part of Christianity – I’d say the hardest part, because there isn’t room for propositional faith (where you can no more prove God’s existence than Dawkins can disprove it). This is a matter of evidence.

    It’s why I am not a Christian any more.

    • Thanks, James. I didn’t see your punchline coming – and would love you to expand on that. You make several, to-me dense and enigmatic statements, starting from a line about what you see church is supposed to be (your comment without supporting foundations). I feel as if we have much to learn from each other, and look forward to your expanding your points. Blessings.

  2. Interesting. I’ll have to check out Rachel Held Evans’ post. Thanks for pointing it out. I thought it was just that I was becoming an old fart that I didn’t see the point of trying to lure people in by being cool. Maybe not.

    I had some serious issues with a former pastor who wanted to improve our “marketing outreach”. Yes, we do need to get our story out. But “marketing” by its very nature seems to be all about flim flam to me. I don’t want any part of that.

    • Thanks, Larry. There is a balance, isn’t there – sharing good news or making God and the gospel into yet another product? Blessings.

  3. Interestingly, I find that I would be open to a more liturgical approach to worship as I get older. It would have been anathema to me when I was growing up or when I was the age of today’s millenials. I grew up Presbyterian and migrated to Congregationalism (in part because we don’t much have Presbyterians in New England).

    I was, however, married in an Episcopalian church. Does that make the marriage sacramental? I only thought Catholics considered marriage to be a sacrament, but after reading Rachael Held Evans’ book, I’m beginning to wonder. My spouse, who grew up Episcopalian has no idea. Nor does she much care.

    • Thanks, Larry.

      I understand liturgy to be worship in community. So I read “liturgical approach to worship” as “community approach to worship”. I know what you mean – more formal; more prescribed;… I think you might really appreciate watching my talk here.

      As for your marriage being sacramental. My understanding is that Christian marriage is sacramental – the ministers of that sacramental act is the couple; so it makes no difference where you were married. The Episcopal Church calls Holy Matrimony (Christian Marriage) a sacramental rite (BCP page 861).

      Blessings.

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