When you’re an author and a blogger like Rachel Held Evans, then the odds of a Washington Post Op-ed going unnoticed is quite slim. The last two or three days, quite a few bloggers have discussed this article in some way or another. There’s just one thing – it assumes that the reader lives in a city where they have their pick of churches from denominations from styles and from sizes. Readers who live in the countryside know that rural churches operate under the principle of: “What you see is what you get.”
In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology.
While some of my churches have brought in technology, none of the other elements have been added in. I think quite a few of them realize that even if they were able to make all of these changes, there just aren’t a lot of young people who would come back for that – so in response, many churches don’t try to make any changes. They don’t make any effort to reach out to millenials. Which makes quite a few of the suppositions about marketing Christianity invalid.
Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.
And making absolutely no changes won’t pack-in the young people either. My county is 80% Southern Baptist. Most churches sing hymns, but a few offer contemporary music. Having been to both sorts of churches, I can tell you that my fellow millenials don’t much care for how they were done. Having fled the church, quite a few millenials aren’t familiar with hymns, some (like me) never learned how to read music or sing to that music. But contemporary must be done well or not at all.
The young-adult group at Ed Young’s Dallas-based Fellowship Church is called Prime, and one of the singles groups at his father’s congregation in Houston is called Vertical. Churches have made news in recent years for giving away tablet computers , TVs and even cars at Easter. Still, attendance among young people remains flat.
That’s the difference. Mega churches have lots of people from every walk of life. Rural churches has at most dozens of people – in some cases I was the sole millenial. Rural churches don’t provide a young-adult group or singles group or college-age group when there’s just one person. When there’s no group, nothing for young adults, they don’t see a reason to stay. As to the giveaways, churches in my state made national news for their gun giveaways. Millenials grew up watching everything from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook unfold on our televisions, as such, our ethics regarding guns are different – many might not like them or any church that gives them out.
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. (https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/689-designing-worship-spaces-with-millennials-in-mind#.VUdpy45Vikr)
For some people, appearances are everything – being trendy or modern, having an auditorium or a sancturary – but the country churchs have no such conundrum. Almost every church is “classic” with a “sancturary” but they’re also almost always “traditional”. For a great many of these churches, the only thing that separates “Hope Baptist Church” and “Faith Baptist Church” is thirty miles of hilly countryside and different people in them. Otherwise, they’re clones of each other that have the same hymns and the same traditional theology. I call it tradition for the sake of tradition – and that’s one thing there’s no shortage of out here.
When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.
When I said “traditional” I meant: the sort of churches that are Bible-believing inerrant literalists who can quote chapter and verse about the evils of homosexuality. One such church gave a very Southern Baptist sermon on that point just a few months ago. There’s not one church that I know of that welcome the LGBTQIA community. Most churches are also against women participating in worship as pastors – that’s what young people see as sexism.
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.
Traditional churches are allergic to weirdness. Normalcy is ideal – not just being a normal person, but one that’s living out the heteronormative princples: men marry women. Husbands lead wives – in both secular and spiritual senses. Wives care for children. That church that preached on homosexuality – the pastor lamented that there weren’t any homosexuals in the audience kissing and hugging (said with an audible disdain that hung on those last two verbs) for him to preach to change their lifestyles, to find their identity in Christ and abandon their identity in their sexuality. In other words: “sure, homosexuals are welcome to join this church, but they are going to have to commit to celibacy.” But local millenials know that asking “why?” Is always turned around on us – we are being heretics who refuse to believe in the gospel truth, the interpretation that the pastor preaches.
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
Baptism, Communion, and preaching the Word are the three sacraments of the Southern Baptist Church. Some churches do baptism once a month, others once every few months. Some churches do Communion every Sunday, some every other Sunday, and some just one Sunday each month. Preaching the Word is done every Sunday. She’s right in that no two believers respond the exact same way to everything – sadly this truth is lost on Christianity. We’re all expected to respond the exact same way to the exact same thing. What a lot of Millenials see is that the church picks and chooses what it believes and we’re expected to just go with it.
My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself …
There isn’t an Episcopal Church in my county. Of the 20% Other Churches, Methodism makes up the vast majority – all of the other denominations are regional ones I had never heard of until I moved down here. What do you do when the vast majority of churches where you live are just the sort of churches that at odds with everything you believe?
80% of Americans live in cities – but that doesn’t mean that these cities are all big enough to have a variety of church denominations, styles, and sizes. 20% of Americans live in the countryside where options are non-existant: “what you see is what you get”. What we see are churches that in their zeal for normalcy do not tolerate weirdness. We see churches that are not inclusive and are not diverse. We see churches that are not open to change and have no openings for us to contribute. We see churches that sing “Just as I am” but deny those words by their actions.
So don’t make the mistake of assuming that you’re doing everything right by not being trendy – at least trendy churches recognize the value of change. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you worship in a sanctuary in a classic church with an altar covered in Christian symbols that you’re everything millenials want – your own traditionalism is your sacred cow and millenials want a barbeque.