Much of the talk among my social media church people these days is about what we need to do to get the Millennial Generation back in the church.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on cnn.com’s belief blog about it and then responded further here. I am a big fan of her writing, and even though her religious experience as an evangelical is much different than my mainline protestant journey, she manages to distill situations down to larger truths. And I commend her article, but not just for millennials. I think the problems she describes are true for how to make church better for all ages:
“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”
She goes on to say:
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
And that is all well and good. I completely agree that the presence of a drum set will not bring anyone back to church.
The conversation continued at a gathering of Presbyterians this week in Louisville, KY. The event, called “Big Tent“, is ten different church gatherings all in one place, and I confess I wish I were there. My friend Chad Herring posted this Big Tent reflection on Facebook yesterday:
From a #bigtent2013 twitter feed on six reasons why churches “lose” kids who are growing into adulthood and are considering the claims of Christianity:
1) teaching is shallow
2) church demonizes everything outside
3) church afraid of other faiths
4) unfriendly to doubters
5) antagonistic to science
6) simplistic sexuality
If I grew up in that kinda church, I would have left too…
And I agree with that list too. Maybe there are people who want a shallow, fearful, unfriendly church, but I don’t know them. Here is another article about that Big Tent conversation.
I see us (“us” being the institutional church–whether at the local or denominational level), I see us making all of these lists, coming up with all of these reasons people have left the church, frantically trying to come up with the magic solution to bring them back to church, and then hoping that everything will be great once our pews are full again and everyone is back where they belong, in worship.
There are, no doubt, some people who would love to come back to worship if they discovered there were progressive, free-thinking, questioning, authentic, and open communities, and yes, let’s have those conversations about how to find them and help them find us.
But here’s the thing.
I think many of those people who would agree with us theologically, politically, and socially know exactly where to find us.
And they still don’t come to worship.
We can make lists and come up with new marketing plans and and write hip music and put our pastors in ironic eye wear or whatever, but it won’t make people come to worship. Because they don’t want to come to worship.
They want to sit in coffee shops with the New York Times. They want to go mountain biking. They want to sleep in. They want to have a day when they don’t have to get the kids up early for school, or soccer games, or swim lessons. They want to do whatever it is they want to do, but whatever that is, it doesn’t seem to be sitting in worship.
And this isn’t just a morning worship service issue. Many churches have tried adding evening services, figuring the crowds would come flocking in the doors. In many of those cases, it hasn’t worked. Because the people who aren’t in church don’t seem to want to be in worship.
They might like Jesus just fine.
They might consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”.
They might volunteer regularly in their community in ways that churches have historically been involved in the community.
But they don’t seem to feel they are missing anything by not being in worship on a regular basis.
Maybe I’m completely wrong about this. But I know many of my readers fall into some of those categories. Because you tell me things like “reading your blog is church for me.” You send me messages on Facebook about how you agree with Jesus’ message, but you don’t see any reason to deal with the hypocrisy of his followers.
I’d love to hear from those of you who don’t worship in a faith community.
Is there something keeping you from going to church? (schedule/timing, theology, politics, music, etc)
Is there something the church could do to get you back? (stop being jerks who only talk about homosexuality, abortion, and sex immediately comes to mind, but there may be other things we need to change….)
Or do you feel your life is just fine as it is, thank you very much?
And let me broadly define worship for the purposes of our discussion, before someone tells me “I worship when I’m by myself on my morning hike”. You might have a spiritual experience by yourself in the woods, and that is fine. But the worship I’m thinking of is the corporate act of praise of a faith community. The community may be as small as a house church. It might be a mega church. But it is the gathering together of people in praise, study, and prayer.
For those of us in the church world, do we need to reconsider our questions?
Clearly, the rhythm of the church world works for me. I love going to worship. I always have. And I’ve gone to churches with great preachers, and horrible preachers, and amazing choirs, and tone deaf choirs, and with lots of people my age, and with no other people my age.
I love being with other people and sharing in the experience of singing together, of confessing our sins together, of passing the peace and feeling God’s mercy together, of listening to Scripture read and proclaimed, of baptizing babies and promising to be there for those kids as they grow up, of struggling through the questions and the difficulties, of being there for each other. I love worship.
I love the way worship challenges me to take that experience out into the community so the glimpses of God’s kingdom that I experience in worship will become visible in the world around me. I love the way worship reminds me that I am God’s beloved child, that everyone I meet is also God’s beloved child, and that the world is too small for anything but that kind of love.
And churches do things other than Sunday worship. We feed the hungry. We volunteer at schools, shelters, and prisons. We go bowling. We go to camp. We meet in pubs and talk about theology. And people are always welcome to join us in those endeavors.
But, ultimately, it seems our only way to “incorporate” people into our family is by getting them to come to worship. “So glad you had fun at our neighborhood outreach picnic. Now come to church on Sunday morning.”
So, to my church colleagues, while it is all well and good to make worship authentic and awesome (and we should all do that. Just because.) do we need to really think outside the box (throw the box away) and ask ourselves if can imagine people might be seeking the church (might need the church) but have no interest in joining us for worship as we know it?
What if we stopped worrying about why people aren’t in worship, or how to make them come back, and instead, found them where they are and joined in their work?
The 1,001 New Worshiping Communities initiative from my denomination (PCUSA) comes from this new paradigm. And I love it. Here’s the mission:
Seeking to create the conditions that will allow existing worshiping communities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to flourish, and to give birth to over 1,001 more in the next ten years.
Read about it. These worshiping Communities come together over a very specific identity and acknowledge they may only be together for a specific period of time. I’ve heard people talking about it, but I still think that while they say, “isn’t that great that this group of bicyclists gather together as the ‘sweaty sheep’ faith community”, I wonder if they are also thinking “which church are the sweaty sheep going to join so they can worship?”
This is not an easy paradigm shift for me, I confess. I am a worship person, and I have no intention of canceling worship. But can I imagine making space in my faith community for people to identify as a “Southminsterian” even if they never walk through the door on Sunday morning?
Talk to me.