How church growth strategies keep missing the point

Rachel Held Evans tells about how churches that want to reach young people keep missing the point, trying to be cooler and hipper and more contemporary instead of attending to the far greater issues of substance.  Yes, she is calling for a measure of liberalism, but notice what else she is calling for.  Read what she says after the jump and then consider my comments.

From Why millennials are leaving the church – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs:

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain [to pastors asking why millennials are leaving the church] how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

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.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

HT:  T. Doig

I appreciate her main point.  We might wonder, though, why she and her fellow members of the Millennial generation don’t  just go to the plethora of liberal mainline churches.  There they would find welcome for their LGBT friends, a preoccupation with social justice, caring for creation, etc.  And yet we don’t find young adults or many other folks beating down the doors of the liberal Protestants.  Why not?  Well, they don’t find Jesus there either.

If you are sick of churches that concentrate mainly on politics, leftwing congregations will be little better than rightwing congregations.  The social gospel isn’t the real gospel, whether it is the older liberal version or the more recent conservative version.  If you are tired of the culture war, you don’t escape it by just going over to the other side.

And yet I know what she means.  Hers is a plaintive plea.  She wants Jesus.  What would Jesus do?  Die for our sins.

What if churches could come across as places of forgiveness?  Now a church that teaches that you are not a sinner is not offering forgiveness.  Here again we see how legalists and antinomians are just two sides of the same coin, both of which deny their sinfulness and so shut out the need for forgiveness.  But what if millennials, LGBT friends, poor people, narrow-minded conservatives, old fogeys, obnoxious adolescents, little children, substance abusers, rich oppressors, and everyone else were to find in the church a place of absolution?  A place were they heard the Gospel in all of its undiluted radical magnitude?  A place where Jesus is really present, where they could find Jesus placed in their mouths?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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