Articles – “Stop trying to make church cool”

Chapel of the Cross, an Episcopal Parish in Chapel Hill, NC
Chapel of the Cross, an Episcopal Parish in Chapel Hill, NC
Photo by Ildar Sagdejev, CC BY-SA 3.0

Spoiler alert: I’m a Christian.  I’m about to discuss an article related to religion.  If someone being religious scares you, or makes you angry, now would be the time to close this tab on your browser, but I hope you don’t.  The article I’m about to discuss probably will speak to a lot of us – even those who aren’t religious at all – and you might get something out of it.  I promise not to try to convert you, and while I may speak from time to time on religious topics, that’s not the bent of my blog: I will never ever use the term “blessed”, and I will do my best NOT to be one of those hypocritical Christians who aren’t loving, welcoming or forgiving, because…ick.  That’s not who I am or what I want my faith to be perceived as.  I’m also happy to listen and talk about any of this (OBVIOUSLY), so…yeah.  Come at me bro.

This is all in preface of a couple articles I’ve seen recently about why millennials (basically, anyone between 21 and 35) aren’t attending church.  And if you happen to be one of the people in that age group who DOES attend church, you know how many other adults, but predominately those over the age of 60, will stop you after the service and ask “How do we get more people to come to church?”  My answer has always been that I’m a special case, that I sort of never stopped going to church (despite my best efforts in college), and that I just found a community and stuck with it.  My story is not the story of everyone else.  I can’t tell you how to get your son, or niece or neighbor to come.  They aren’t me, and they want different things because we are all human, and that’s how things work.

So, the articles in question, which I’m not sure how I missed.  The first is by Rachel Held Evans, an Episcopalian writer, about how attendance by young people at church is flat, if not declining, and part of that may be all of the marketing towards young people trying to make Jesus fresh and new and interesting.  Her point is that my generation of millennials puts a lot value on authenticity, and many are trying to reconcile their beliefs in science and the treatment of LGBT individuals with the way that more traditional or evangelical communities approach those topics.  Her article points out that people might want to feel something real – not feel judged because they don’t fall in lock-step with the dogma of that branch of Christianity.

The second by Jonathan Aigner basically agrees with Evans, and also gives suggestions to churches on ways to make themselves available to a younger generation that might actually be appealing for those who are still searching for a faith home.  Suggestion 1 is to not expect contemporary worship to draw in all the young people.  For some young adults, that will be appealing, but for many others, the commercialization of worship waters down the message.  Which relates to the second suggestion – focusing on liturgy.  So much of the time, churches hope that by entertaining attendees, they’ll return.  What if they returned instead for consistency in message, in the rhythm and cycle of the church year?  Suggestion 3 is about not targeting millennials.  By focusing solely on bringing one age group, you will stereotype the needs of that group, perhaps excluding those who don’t fit into the perfect generational mold.  Some people will want to be in a congregation that’s a blend of all ages, and by being part of a wider community where they are not catered to, will feel more value as an active/participatory member.  The final suggestion being the one that would bring in the widest number of young people, and that is actively encouraging everyone to come in with hard questions.  So many progressive societal beliefs do not match up with the traditional/evangelical Christianity, and so trying to find a way to balance these beliefs with those preached by the church can be hard.

Love your neighbor, "did I stutter" meme
One of my favorite memes

My take on all this is that yes – a big part of making church appealing to young people is NOT changing.  I love the old-style music and liturgy and my church (and churches I’ve attended in the past), while also being drawn to a modern message of love and redemption.  This message, when combined with the ability to talk seriously about science and modern society means that I don’t feel like I belong to a regressive organization.  By going back to the revolutionary ideas of Jesus’ teaching instead of the modern ideas of exclusion, maybe we win back the hearts of those who left because they felt no connection to the church.  It also helps adjust to a new group if you see other people like yourself.  An all-white church is not as likely to appeal to a non-white person or family, even though they may be welcoming and loving, and a great community.  Likewise, a graying church with no visible young adults is hard to walk in to if you are in your 20s and just want to continue on your faith journey.

Anyone else have thoughts?  Do you not go because you don’t believe?  Because you were jaded as a young person?  Because it’s something you outgrew?  Because you can’t find a church you like?  Because you can’t find a congregation that was welcoming?  How many of my few readers were once regular or semi-regular church members at one point in their lives who have given it up?  I’d be super-interested to hear what drove you away…or what would make someone come back.

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