I recently read an opinion article on the Washington Post website by author and blogger Rachel Held Evans titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool'”. It is a fascinating look at what people may and may not be looking for in a church and has caused me to pause and give a little thought. I have sat in Council meetings, staff meetings, Worship and Music committee meetings as we considered worship attendance and how we might best appeal to people and build our numbers. I have thought about how we can reach the multiple generations that attend worship at St. Peter’s but, as many do, have worried how to best reach younger generations. Do we need things to be flashy? Do we need things to be different? Do we need things to seem “cool”?
Can we ever reach younger generations the way that we have reached generations of people in the past? Is the message of Jesus Christ still relevant in this day and age? Can we truly share the life, love, and joy of Jesus Christ with ALL others or is the message in need of some updating? This piece by Held-Evans speaks to these questions and has left me with a lot of questions and things to consider – for myself and for the church.
As we consider how to continue moving into the future as the people of God it is important to consider not only how we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ but also what we are proclaiming and who we are trying to reach. As Bishop Burkat has said multiple times, this is the first time in the history of the church that we have six generations together at once. Reaching all of those generations, sharing the life, love, and joy of Jesus Christ with all those generations is our challenge. Instead of making assumptions regarding what people want (i.e. – old people want traditional, middle aged want stuff for kids and teens, young people want flashy and new) maybe it is time for us to truly and deeply examine what people REALLY want and also hold true to that which is our foundation.
Held-Evans quotes in her piece, “Amy Peterson put it this way: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. 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.” And later she notes that, “When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.” Evans then continues in her piece, “If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird. You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. 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.”
Rachel Held Evans piece is worth our time and consideration – who are we as the church and what matters most in our proclamation? This is something that each generation, for centuries, has had to consider and that we must also face. How do we best share the life, love, and joy of Jesus Christ together and with others? I have no answers but it is a question for us all to consider.