How to Lose a Generation: Against Tony Morgan’s Worship Quick-Fixes

How to Lose a Generation: Against Tony Morgan’s Worship Quick-Fixes February 29, 2020

As a general rule, I try to be a pretty charitable reader. Most of the time, I can manage to put a positive spin on an argument I disagree with—because most of the time, there’s a kernel of truth to be extracted. (This principle generally keeps me from getting too outraged by the Internet.) Every once in a while, though, I happen on a piece that’s wrong on so many different levels that the presumption of “there’s a good insight in here” no longer applies.

Full disclosure: the first time I read “church consultant” Tony Morgan’s recent article, “#OkBoomer: 10 Signs Your Weekend Services Aren’t Designed for the Next Generation,” I thought it was a straight-up parody. But based on the surrounding website, I actually think it’s sincere (I’ll revisit this post with a correction if the author shows up to explain that, no, it was actually satirical). Morgan’s article, in essence, is a plea to make contemporary church worship even more contemporary, in an attempt to attract millennials and Gen-Z types who’ve drifted away from institutional religion. It won’t surprise anyone who’s read things I’ve written over the last few years that I think he takes a wrong turn from the start, but let that slide: what’s really mind-boggling about the article is the sheer audacity of Morgan’s central assertion: “You can’t reach the next generation of young adults without being a church for young adults. In other words, everything you do must be designed with the next generation in mind.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take Morgan’s “10 Signs” point by point. I gather, demographically speaking, that I’m Morgan’s “target market” (I hate using that term in the church context, but if the SEO profile fits…)—and I’ve attended a pretty wide range of churches over the years, so I guess I’m as qualified as anyone to weigh in on whether this is what “young people” actually want.

1. You tell people to open up their Bibles and turn to a certain chapter and verse. The next generation carries their Bibles with them all the time…on their phone app. “Turn on your Bibles” would be more appropriate.

Who is actually put off by this? The Bible I carry with me to church every Sunday is a leatherbound King James Version that my grandparents bought me for my confirmation. Every time I pick it up, I’m instantly reminded of the faith they passed down to my mother, who in turn (along with my father) conveyed that to me. And in turn, I’m reminded of my own obligation to communicate the faith to the next generation. That’s very meaningful to me, and it’s certainly not the kind of experience I can get from the YouVersion app.

And, at least statistically, it’s not at all clear to me that young people actually prefer to experience holy things through the filter of technology (for anyone wanting a fuller treatment of the subject, I highly recommend David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter).

2. You are concerned about the volume of the music, the amount of haze or the movement of lights during the music. Yes, you will absolutely find a young adult that prefers softer music, no haze and no moving lights, but they probably have learned those preferences from their churchy parents. Churches that are reaching the next generation in large numbers are concerned not only for the specific music that they use but the worship experience that they are creating.

This is a fine example of what Martin Luther called “enthusiasm”—seeking God inside oneself by way of a powerful emotional reaction. Speaking for both myself and a number of folks I know (all of whom have attended our share of altar calls), I’d bet $500 that most young people are well aware of the emotional manipulation inherent in a “worship experience” that relies on loud music, “haze” and “moving lights” to create a certain mood. That’s not attractive. What is attractive is genuine conviction—and a willingness to live and speak in ways that don’t pander to popular consensus.

And let’s be frank: there’s no way any church can top the sensory experience of your average nightclub or rock concert. Trying to compete with that experience is a fool’s errand, and not the church’s mission anyway.

3. You pass the offering plate. …unless you have a way for people to Venmo that offering plate. You’re highly unlikely to find the next generation carrying cash or their checkbook. 

I tend to think that the offering plate—particularly when coupled with envelopes that mask the amounts of money in the plate—is a remarkably equalizing thing. When the plate fills with a layer of white envelopes, the CEO’s large check and the widow’s mite are placed on the same symbolic level: both are giving to the work of the Kingdom of God. And the very act of passing the plate and contributing is a physical representation of church members’ investment in the church—which in turn cultivates a sense of unity and common purpose.

That strikes me as reason enough to retain the traditional plate. But I don’t really have any objection to offering online options also.

4. You ask new guests to complete a connection card. That’s antiquated. Young adults use messaging apps to communicate.

How will you acquire the contact information required for messaging without a connection card? (This was where I started to wonder if the whole piece was satirical.) And who is seriously scared away by being asked to fill out a short form?

5. Your message illustrations draw on movie, celebrity or other cultural references from the last decade or earlier. Yes, you need to study God’s word, but you also need to study today’s culture if you want to teach truth and help the next generation apply it to their lives. No more Lord of the Rings clips please.

Okay, Morgan can have this one.

6. You still have a CD ministry for people who don’t know how to stream messages on their phones or computers. Don’t laugh. I saw one during a church visit within the last couple of months.

Treating a CD ministry as an example of churches being hilariously “out of touch” reflects a blinkered view of congregants’ needs. Most significantly, CDs allow homebound members, many of whom don’t have much technological savvy, to remain involved in the life of the church. (They’re also much easier to listen to in the car, particularly for those adults without unlimited data plans for streaming.) Frankly, this argument reflects quite badly on Morgan—it’s a terrible idea to stop blessing older parishioners just because “young adults” don’t use the same resources. (One might as well say that churches should give up hospice ministry because it’s “too depressing.”)

7. You give people bulletins or other handouts as they’re entering your service. First of all, the next generation views that as environmentally insensitive. (And so do I, for that matter.) Beyond that, the next generation expects anything of importance to be communicated online—everywhere they might possibly go to look for it. If it’s important, it should be on your website, on all of your social media accounts, and on your app. If it’s important, it’s findable in under 30 seconds.

Heaven help the biblical theologians who’ve conducted careful exegesis over a lifetime—clearly they missed the “30-second investigation principle.” (That said, there’s a grain of truth to this one—lots of churches have websites that make it difficult to find basic information like service times.)

But anyway, just recycle your bulletins—or use hymnals. Problem solved.

8. You still promote new membership classes during your services. The next generation is not a member of anything. It’s a foreign concept to them. They’ll subscribe to Netflix, but membership in an institution? Not a chance.

What, exactly, was Our Lord saying when he said “make disciples of all nations?” Was he just not really tuned into the millennial sensibility? The whole paradigm being employed here—deriving principles for worship from observations of contemporary life’s worst tendencies—is faulty. Why should any church simply pander to the rootlessness of the modern age? (And here, again, I have to wonder what the data actually says. Young people might be skittish about membership at any particular moment, but I’d venture that they still want it, in the same way that most unattached young people still expect to have families someday).

And from a Lutheran standpoint, I’d point out that Baptism—in particular infant baptism—marks one as a member of God’s kingdom from the first. That gift of unchosen belonging in the Christian community may be frightening to the individual who prizes autonomous choice above all (one can’t reverse the sacramental work of Baptism), but beautiful to the individual who lives in the light of God’s promise.

9. You aren’t creating Instagrammable moments. In other words, you need to create environments and moments that are so captivating that young adults want to let their friends and followers know about it.

This was the point where I stopped and scrolled through the rest of Morgan’s website in the hope of finding a “satire” disclaimer. It’s impossible to list all the problems with this, but here are a few.

Instagram is about the self, and worship is about God. The most important and other-centered moments of life don’t need to be reduced to bite-sized chunks for mass consumption: you might Instagram your brunch, but if you’re Instagramming the Eucharist, something’s gone wrong. Are you sitting in church for your brand, or for the Creator?

What’s more, as anyone who’s pulled out their cell phone at a concert knows, one experiences an environment differently through a camera lens. The lens throws up barriers to full participation, introducing a panoply of peripheral considerations—is the lighting right? Am I out of focus? How does my shirt look?—where a common purpose should prevail. (And I actually think most people who go to church, young or old, are looking for an authentic, participatory experience that isn’t just another Instagrammable slice of life.)

This is a terrible principle for reaching young people. Put down the phones, folks.

10. Your technology is outdated. I’ve been in way too many church auditoriums where the audio and video quality was poor. Most young adults have better technology in their living rooms or in the palm of their hands than many churches have in their auditoriums.

Without realizing it, Morgan hits on an important point. Of course young people have better technology than the church. That’s perfectly fine, because the church doesn’t need to keep up with Silicon Valley. The Church preaches the Word and administers the Sacraments, and that’s more than enough reason for parishioners to remain involved.

(Also, seriously: who actually goes to church expecting high-definition PowerPoint slides? Has such a person ever existed?)

Anyway, I’ve probably said enough at this point. One final observation: although contemporary worship isn’t really my thing, I realize how important and meaningful it is to a lot of people—and none of what I’ve written here should be read to imply otherwise. What should be rejected is the growth-at-all-costs mentality reflected in Morgan’s “10 Signs,” an approach that acknowledges virtually nothing of value in historic practice. But as a large number of disaffected former evangelical millennials would surely attest, worship practices that intentionally expect nothing and cater to self-centeredness ultimately just end up mutating into mediocre imitations of mass culture. They certainly do not forge the kind of convictions that last for a lifetime.

My friend Gracy Olmstead has already said it better than I can (a thing that happens rather often): “The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. . . . Protestant churches that want to preserve their youth membership may have to develop a greater openness toward the treasures of the past. One thing seems certain: this ‘sacramental yearning’ will not go away.”

Whatever desires might be stirred up by Instagram, they can’t match that one.

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