Follow-up Post on Millennials and Church

Rule #1 in blogging: Controversy = Clicks. Since we re-launched PopTheology.com on Patheos, we have gotten no stronger response after the initial rollout than with my post commenting on the piece on CNN’s Belief blog by Rachel Held Evans describing what Millennials want in a church. A repost by a friend at my PhD alma mater led to a rip-roaring discussion thread on Facebook. And the comments on the blog itself were also thoughtful and articulate.

Controversy=Clicks. Next post: The Pope Is a Vulcan

Mostly, the comments were polite but hostile. (One response from the blog comments section: “In general, I hate your suggestions. :D I really do.” At least this poster emoticoned a smile.)  The responses seemed to fall along two lines: 1.) Evangelicals claiming the Mainline Church has already sold out to culture and needs to start preaching the Gospel again (one respondent referred to it as the “TRUTH”). 2.) Mainline Protestants, they seemed to be mostly Episcopalians, telling me they’ll keep their hymns and liturgy, thank you very much (one respondent referred to my suggestions as “B******t”).

As for the claim that the Mainline has already sold out to culture, I would assume the respondents were referring to the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination in our denominations. They may also be referring to variations in theology (many of our churches have moved away from juridical or “blood atonement”) or scriptural interpretation (decidedly historical-critical). There has been a longstanding evangelical mistrust of Mainline insistence on social justice issues, as opposed to the “real purpose” of “saving souls,” at least since the era of the Social Gospel at the turn of the 20th Century. Who knows, these commenters may disagree with our ordaining women or allowing birth control.

If the Mainline church is to die because we have embraced LGBT people, tried to give women equal power in our churches, focused on social justice, and allowed for diversity in matters of theology, scripture, and ethics, I’ll gladly ride that train right off the cliff.

But what Evans described in her piece was a Millennial need for churches that are less dogmatic, that honor inclusion as a central goal, that show allegiance to God rather than to the United States and the Republican Party, and that consider ethics to be a matter of social justice and concern for the poor and not just one’s personal sexual behavior. In other words, something that sounds an awful lot like Mainline Protestantism.

If Evans was right, and Millennials are hungering for the teaching and social orientation of Mainline Protestantism, we must assume somewhere there is a breakdown in communication between the younger generation and its chosen church.

Here’s where my comments on liturgy and style of worship came in. I was high on what may be called physiologically, “manic blogging euphoria,” so my memory is a bit hazy, but I believe I said Mainline churches should throw out the hymns and the monologue sermons, put a screen in front of the church, put their pastors in skinny jeans, and amp up their Web sites.

This is where my traditionalist Mainline friends jumped in (one of them had a Facebook profile photo where he is literally bowing down at the grave of English choral composer Herbert Howells). They explained to me that everybody in their church loves hymns and anthems. They like traditional sermons without visual illustrations, full of thick theological language. And they would be mortified if someone stuck a screen up in front of their beautiful Gothic sanctuary.

What the kids really want.

To which my response is, Hey, I went to music school and have been a paid section leader in multiple church choirs; I get the classical sacred music tradition. I’ve heard several thousand sermons in my life and some of them have affected me deeply. I’ve given sermons full of thick theological language. And I love nothing more than a good Compline service with nothing but candles, liturgy, and choral music, where I can ponder my relationship with God.

But the fact that you or I are sitting in church, are familiar with hymns and choral anthems, can explain theological terms and recite several of the better-known creeds of Christianity, means just one thing – you and I are not typical Millennials (whatever our collective age may be).

If “Church people” wish to attract “non-Church people” we’re going to have to stop thinking like “Church people.”

I have not heard of a vast movement of Millennials gathering to sing hymns or listen to the English choral anthem tradition. I haven’t heard of a surge of theology discussion groups, where the works of Barth and Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and Cobb are debated among twentysomethings. (For some reason, a particularly vicious strain of neo-Calvinism has caught on among some Millennials in Seattle, and I would love to know why.)

I do know where you can find Millennials: at Comi-Con, the latest Iron Man movie, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj concerts, Bonaroo and Coachella, Burning Man, on Snapchat, Tumblr, and Facebook, in bars cultivating tastes in high-end beer, bourbon, and vodka, at farmer’s markets, and at Barack Obama rallies. One of the ideas behind this blog is that in studying these phenomena of popular culture, we Christians might understand something about the culture and reach out to this generation.

My post makes some assumptions—that Millennials are familiar with traditional church culture, or at least have a working stereotype of what it is; that they’re familiar with the “hipper” evangelical culture that Evans laments; and they have rejected both. I don’t know, maybe they haven’t experienced “church done right,” where the liturgy, music, and preaching are well organized and transcendent. Maybe if they did—if we just do what we’ve always done, but somehow better, somehow more sincerely—the younger generation would show up in droves.

But based on my observations of culture and conversations I’ve had with younger people, I sense that if Millennials are at all interested in Christianity they want something that looks and feels completely different from both traditional and evangelical forms of worship and structures of church.

There will always be a place for high church or formal worship, just as many people (again, including myself) enjoy going to the symphony or the opera. But participating in these historic art forms involves making a cultural compromise—I will check my culture at the door and enter into a separate culture with its own traditions, terminology and rituals. In return, I’ll gain a deeper understanding of being human or a transcendent sense of spirit that I will take with me back into the world. But, I will leave that separate, specific culture behind when I walk out the door, because that historic, anachronistic, culture has nothing to do with the everyday culture of my life.

The cultural contortions Millennials must go through to take part in many of our Mainline churches are just too great. It’s as though we are telling them, “We can accept your doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture and the historical Jesus, we can accept that you’re gay or transgender, we love and encourage your concern for social justice. But you must leave your Coachella, your Iron Man, your Lady Gaga, at the door; leave behind your tattoos and piercings, your hip-hop and folk rock, your unconventional ways of forming relationships online. Because God can only be rightly praised with organ, hymns, and sermons, and we only accept members that show up at 11am on the dot every Sunday morning.”

It seems everybody wants young people in their churches, but nobody wants the changes young people might bring to their churches. It would be a tragedy if Mainline Protestantism died not because of substance, but because of style.

Put more personally, it would be a tragedy if my generation missed out on the wisdom, spiritual strength, and sense of purpose I have received from my involvement in Mainline congregations because we are unwilling to reexamine how we worship, gather, and communicate.

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  • Grotoff

    As a secular humanist, part of me wishes that churches would continue to ostracize Millennials. Neuroscience has revealed that reason often follows emotion, rather than the other way around. Millennials can feel that homophobia is wrong, etc., and that is allowing more and more of them to see the entire facade for what it is. Make believe.

    Yet, if I must live in a society dominated by those who value the invisible man in the sky, I would rather it be those who actually value honesty and justice. I wish the mainline churches success in attracting those who call themselves “spiritual” and in dowsing the dangerous flames of fanaticism.

    • DrLindsay

      I think it takes an act of faith to be a humanist of any kind these days — religious or secular. So keep the faith!

      • Grotoff

        I’m not sure what you mean about “these days” being worse for humanism than any other point in the past. There have always been evil people, but the humanists are winning these days. LGBT people are achieving equal treatment, wars are fewer and farther between, crime is down around the world, etc. If you have not, I would suggest reading Steven Pinker’s semi-revival of Whig history “The Better Angels of Our Nature”.

        • DrLindsay

          In some ways, humanism seems to be winning out. In other ways, I think about de-humanizing trends like “trans-humanism” and “anti-humanism.” I just finished a PhD in the humanities (art and religion) and it amazes me how misanthropic people are in the “humanities” in Universities, which are supposed to be the centers of humanist thought.

          • Grotoff

            Trans-humanism is far from dehumanizing. The simple passage of time will alter our gene pool, through genetic drift if nothing else, but trans-humanism suggests that we take control of that process. That we humans are no longer bound by the processes that shaped us, but have agency in our future development, is a fundamentally humanist impulse.

            Anti-humanism, I am clearly against. Those who presume to lead the charge against “scientism” are only leading people in circles. Science is the method by which we learn truth. That is amply demonstrated by the fact that we can have this conversation on these machines. The anti-humanists are threatened by the success of science and determined to tar and feather it with the ancient vices of humanity. It’s a petty and disappointing project.

  • Al Cruise

    ” For some reason a particularly vicious strain of neo-calvinism has caught on among some Millennials in Seattle.” That is the new movement, you are going to see an explosion of it like never seen before, just watch the next few years. Why? History repeats itself.

  • jdens

    I’m the commenter who “hate[d] all your [previous] suggestions”, and I hope the emoticon did make a difference, because my comment was stated with feeling, but not with venom.

    My reactions to this post are decidedly more complex and measured (as is your post I think!). For one thing, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that churches should be specifically “reaching out” to get millenials into the church. Somehow it smells of desperation, trying to win the attentions and approval of the ‘cool’ crowd.

    Also, it seems to me to be a trend (certainly in mainline churches) for attendance to fall off during the college years until the family years. That gap doesn’t mean they’ve been lost; it means they don’t perceive church as a priority in that stage of their lives. I was, I felt, one of the exceptions to that, and I do remember thinking that the church could do more–not in terms of style–but in terms of participation to include those of us in that stage. It can be difficult to be taken seriously as part of the community when unmarried and childless.

    I have a couple more things to say, but will post separately, as this is already quite long.

    • DrLindsay

      I didn’t sense any venom in your post. And I expected some people to *hate* what I was saying. Being more inclusive of young adult needs besides just providing Sunday School for young kids would be a great start.

  • jdens

    This post brings up questions for me: Should we even be trying to recruit millenials, or anyone else for that matter? Am I a millenial (I’m in my early thirties)? What is the purpose of church, and what do we have to offer? Who is the church for?

    Fundamentally, I don’t want to worry about numbers in seats (and I know no one really wants to, so maybe I’m just naive–but I don’t define our success with stats). I want to worry about helping those most in need. I want to provide a safe and sacred space for those who need it–rest for their souls, encouragement to live their lives boldly and kindly. I want to learn from those who are being the church but aren’t necessarily going to church. I want the church to be an active and visible part of the community (in positive ways, obv). I want us to practise hospitality, rather than recruitment. I want us to engage with our traditions and liturgies with creativity and with input from our church community, and that will certainly mean bringing our own cultural experiences to bear–but I don’t think it means we try to turn our services into something as much like all the cool, popular events that draw young crowds as we can.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation and bringing up points worth thinking about.

    • DrLindsay

      I think many of us would like the church to be what you’re suggesting. (I like hospitality rather than recruitment.) Of course, you have to have some resources and some people for an organization to function.

  • MainlineP

    I can’t speak for all mainline churches, but I know too many denominations have, for too long, regarded evangelism (reaching out for converts or selling themselves to sound more crass) as a negative thing. The attitude is and has been, we’re here, in those big old (and now too often half-empty) Protestant churches on the main drag or town square, so you come to us when you’re ready. We’ll never reach out to you. Too unseemly. Too fundamentalist. Too much like a Pentecostal tent show. We don’t do that, because our older members would blanch at the mere thought. No wonder no one of any age is joining except a handful of divorced or very liberal Christians or Catholics put off by the increasing conflation of faith and conservative politics in their former church. But they are a trickle, and insufficient to pay the utility bills or the salary of a decent minister.

    • DrLindsay

      I think that’s what I’m saying. Several posters have accused me of wanting to turn Christianity into a product. Well, it already is a product, and nobody’s buying our “brand.” So what are we going to do about it?

  • weiwentg

    I agree with this entirely. I am Episcopalian. When I visit the National Cathedral in Washington, I am struck by how the cathedral fuses traditional architecture with modern, whimsical touches, like the Darth Vader grotesque, or the moon rock in the stained glass window commemorating the Apollo missions, or the human rights porch. It is ancient and yet timeless and yet modern.

    Unfortunately, then the organ starts to play, and there are too many echoes, and it’s a bit hard to hear the sermon and it’s hard to hear what everyone around you is singing. You go to other churches and the organ is blaring over the congregation, the hymns are all a bit dated and kind of slow. You suggest that maybe we consider using drums or a guitar occasionally and you get horrified stares.

    Our church needs places where people can experiment with liturgy. I went to a student ministry, Canterbury House, that did this, and I attended a service by The Crossing. Very different approaches, one high church and one low church. But both very recognizably Episcopalian. We need more places like that. We aren’t getting any. We aren’t getting any willingness to change some elements of the liturgy’s style – I am not talking about smashing the organ, just not using it all the time. Well, that doesn’t do it for me. I no longer attend church, and as long as these problems are not addressed I will not attend church. It would be a shame for the Episcopal Church, or for any other mainline denomination, to die just because the music sucks. But the music does suck.

    • DrLindsay

      Love the Nat’l Cathedral as a place to visit, but yeah, it loses something in intimacy. The Episcopal church actually has a lot of opportunities for experimentation, because the spoken liturgy is so set, you can change a lot of stuff around it and still have an Episcopal service. I love the idea of a U2charist (which I have yet to experience) and the Techno Cosmic Eucharist (kind of a rave-eucharist) Matthew Fox used to put on in the Bay Area. I think we need this level of experimentation times 10.

  • Heather Stevens

    I read your article and I love it! I am 20 years old and am quite passionate about this subject, so reading this was great. I know this is a bit unorthodox, but I am working on a year (or more) long project right now about this very subject; can I talk to you about it over email? I would love to get your ideas. My email is heather_stevens1@taylor.edu. I hope to hear from you!


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