A recent GQ exposé went behind the scenes at one of the fastest growing megachurches in America, Hillsong NYC. Shiny. Modern. Relatable. Cool. These were a handful of the adjectives used by author Taffy Brodesser-Akner to describe the experience.
I was witnessing the logical conclusion of an evolutionary convergence between coolness and Christianity that began at the dawn of the millennium, when progressive-minded Christians, terrified of a faithless future, desperately rended their garments and replaced them with skinny jeans and flannel shirts and piercings in the cartilage of their ears, in a very ostentatious effort to be more modern and more relatable.
And while many pastors may enviously look on and marvel at the Hillsong model, it begs the question, “Is this the church millennials want?”
While the cool church will always draw crowds, there is also a grassroots movement taking place in Christianity which swings in the opposite direction. It’s been called The New Charismatics by some, and, among other traits, it’s marked by a group of individuals who shy away from the grand in favor of the simple. Zach Hoag describes it well, “We’re not impressed by big and powerful, and we’re kind of obsessed with small and ordinary.”
Stop trying to make church cool
This preference for simplicity is expanded upon by millennial Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a spectacular commentary in the Washington Post a few months back, titled, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church cool.”
Her point is that increased participation isn’t tied to flash or bang, but rather to authenticity and substance. For example:
You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.
Echoing her sentiment is blogger Amy Peterson, also mentioned in Evans’ article, “At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
In order for churches to truly connect with millennials, and those in the New Charismatics movement, they’ll need to put down the cool, and set aside their formulas in favor of relationship.
Let me explain.
Do you preach formulas or relationship?
About a year ago I was delivering a presentation to a group of pastors on the topic of millennials and the church. I made this statement, “Sometimes millennials want to hear the phrase, ‘I Don’t Know,’ from pastors.” The room exploded in outrage, “The word of God is complete and definite. There are no, ‘I don’t knows,’ in Scripture. If we say that, we’ll lose our credibility.”
But, you see, there is no guaranteed formula for success in life. Which means there will be mistakes, unknowns, and times a pastor will give poor advice. This applies to attracting millennials to your church, the same as it applies to growing a business, raising kids, and fostering loving marriages.
Why don’t formulas work?In each of these crucial life scenarios there inevitably are circumstances beyond our control and intricacies unique to our own situation. Why was life designed in such a manner and why does it have to be this way?
I ask myself these questions as I search for the purpose of my own life. If only it was made clear, then I would do it. I would follow the steps, if only God would show me the exact path and destination.
There was a popular song a few years back by A Great Big World, featuring Christina Aguilera, with this line in the chorus, “Say something I’m giving up on you. I’ll be the one if you want me to. Anywhere I would have followed you. Say something I’m giving up on you.”
I interpret this song to be the cry of a millennial generation asking for proof that God is real and worth trusting.
Drew Dyck, editor for Christianity Today and author of Generation Ex-Christian, backs up this conclusion with interviews he conducted during the research for his book:
However, indisputable proof that God is real is something the church can’t give simply because it’s something no one has. Sure, imitation versions of a formula were handed out, but when these were offered as guarantees and then fell through, the millennials’ trust in God was lessened even more.
In the interviews, I asked the ex-Christians whether they ever still prayed. It was an absurd question, really, considering how bitterly most of them had rejected God. But most still did pray. They were angry, conflicted prayers, but beautiful in their honesty and desperation: ‘God, where are you? Can you hear me? Do you exist? Do you even care about me? I miss you.’ I believe that there’s a deep-seated longing for God, even for those who deny his existence. I’ve learned to start hearing skepticism as the language of spiritual longing.
To make matters worse, the church, in an attempt to breathe order into this uncertainty, doubled down on an outdated communication style: from the top-down.
This communication method actually highlights one of the greatest differences between millennials and older generations.
Communication versus conversation
Those between the ages of 40 and 70 grew up in a culture where the leader is expected to have the vision, the answers, the formulas for success, and it’s their job to communicate this out to the rest of us. It’s our job then, to listen, receive and implement the instruction.
When put in this environment, however, millennials struggle to understand how one person has all the answers, or how anything can be so absolute, and so they ask a question which can be seen as disrespectful, “Why?”
In a world order dominated by listen, receive, and implement, along comes a generation who dares to ask, “Why?”
This question is not meant to be disrespectful, rather it is a human way to express longing for a daily, living relationship with their Creator.
Wise leaders know how to use the why question as a springboard
While there are many potential responses to the why question, there’s one that leads to an ideal result: conversation. Wise leaders know how to use the Why question as a springboard to ongoing conversation leading to deeper relationship. These same leaders, from time to time, when appropriate, respond to the why question with this statement, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”
In practical terms it may sound a little something like this:
- Let’s go after this ridiculously simple and complicated life together.
- Let’s live in the scary yet beautiful place of daily reliance on an unseen God, together.
- Let’s sit and wait for hope to come, together.
- Let’s never stop attempting to redeem broken situations, together.
But why is there no formula?
Let’s come back to our original question for a moment. Why is there no formula? It’s for this one simple reason – you can’t store up manna.
I was in between jobs a few years back. My wife and I had our five kids and a mortgage, with savings to last us approximately four weeks. I quit my previous job with no backup plan.
Those were trying days as I interviewed for job after job, knowing our savings account was a ticking time bomb. In a cruel turn of events, I made it to the final round of several interviews, only to lose out to the other candidate at the last minute.
It was in this season, when I desperately needed God to say something, that He spoke to me. I said, “God, tell me what to do. What’s the direction? What’s the path to the future?”
His answer, “Worship is the direction.”
And then He asked me this, “Do you have enough for today? Because you can’t store up manna.”
Manna is the daily provision. It was good for the day it was given, and not a moment more. Any attempt to save the daily bread would result in mold. Why? Because all along, right from the very beginning, God desired daily reliance and relationship from us. He didn’t want us to store up enough supplies so that we didn’t need to trust his provision for a few weeks. He didn’t want us to discover a proven formula that could be repeated with absolute certainty, no faith required.
This daily reliance, this constant conversation with a living God who cares so deeply about each one of us, this is the world God invites us to be a part of. And millennials don’t always know how to articulate it, but this is the world they crave as well. Authenticity. Transparency. Social justice. All of these buzzwords are simply a human way to express a spiritual longing.
How can your church put down its formulas in favor of relationship? How can you foster an environment and a culture where, ‘worship as the direction,’ is celebrated more than cliche life advice? An environment where storing up manna is frowned upon and a group of people can collectively say to their community, “Do you have enough for today? If not, what can we do to help?”
This is authenticity, transparency, and social justice in action, yet in the context it’s always been intended for – daily reliance on, and relationship with, a living God.
This is the church millennials crave, and I’m not sure I’d call it cool.