When the New Church Becomes Old

There is a billboard in our area that says “This is not your traditional church.”

But I can’t help but think: who are they targeting? Who is the “your”?

If the evangelical church wants to reach the hordes of 18–35 year old’s who have left and are currently leaving the church, and are not coming back, they need to think very seriously about that question. But that billboard makes me think they aren’t.

If you were to attend the “This is not your traditional church” church, you would immediately understand what they mean by “traditional.” They mean pews, hymns, and a sermon straight from the King James Version. Their billboard is meant to reach those who think of church as “boring,” “irrelevant,” “stuffy,” and “old.”

But this is the danger of being years behind the cultural curve.

I am 28 and that’s not what “traditional church” means for me. What I grew up with and what I mean by “traditional church” is the entertainment and program-driven model of the 90s. My “traditional church” isn’t hymns and pews but theater-style seating and a 5-piece band trying desperately to imitate U2.

So, when you say to me, “This is not your traditional church,” I expect something different than when you say that to someone who grew up in a “pews & hymns” church. If you are trying to reach a younger generation you have to readjust what you mean by “traditional.” If you are going to say “This is not your traditional church,” 28-year-old me is actually expecting something different than a weekly performance by a near-professional band singing a song that could either be about Jesus or by Rihanna about her lover followed by a 30-minute sermon by a well-spoken pastor speaking into a Britney Spears mic about the 3 ways to get out of debt Jesus’ way. Why? Because that IS my traditional church.

And of course, I am caricaturing to make a point. The point isn’t about musical preference, sermon style, or even church size. God works in and through all styles. And despite my jabs about Rihanna and Britney Spears mics, I don’t think that the “entertainment model” is doing Sunday mornings “wrong.” It’s not about doing church “right” or “wrong,” it’s about doing it as missionaries, re-framing the gospel and gospel community for every generation and culture. In fact, it’s not really about Sunday morning at all. It’s about what Sunday morning represents.

The reason my friends have left the entertainment model isn’t about Sunday. It’s not about musical preference or sermon style. Many of them have left, not because they weren’t entertained enough, but because they found the entire model, the entire organization, shallow, disconnected, and hierarchical (not to mention all the things mentioned in They Like Jesus but not the Church, unChristian, & You Lost Me: judgmental, closed-minded, homophobic, etc).

The stories and refrains are the same: We do not want a performance, we want to participate. We do not want to be told how to live our lives, we want to be listened to about how we have learned to follow Jesus. We do not want to be served by a staff of hierarchically-minded professionals, we want to serve as the staff to the impoverished. We do not want to become a member of an organization, we want to belong to a family.

That can happen within any musical style or sermon topic. But, for whatever reason, it’s not happening in many/most churches, evangelical or otherwise. So many of the “disaffected” have just created their own churches and groups outside of the institutional and denominational framework. And because of my love for the church and my passion for its unity, I pray that this is just a temporary phenomenon. I pray that we, as the Church, can become good missionaries once again. But in the meantime, just don’t be surprised if a whole generation isn’t that excited about your “not your traditional church” church. For many of us, it’s not new. In fact, it’s the very thing we left in the first place.

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7 responses to “When the New Church Becomes Old

  1. Hey Jared,
    Interesting post. Any thoughts on how more old-school “traditional” elements (such as hymns, liturgies, and even more traditional church buildings with pews) much actually attract our generation? Like our postmodern tendencies drive us toward seeing how our faith is connected to history?

    • Definitely. I know my family is now drawn to liturgy even though it was something we never participated in before. But just having those “traditional” elements doesn’t really keep me engaged, it’s more of the structure and leadership of the church.

      Why do you think postmodern tendencies would drive a faith-connection with our history?

      • Hmm, maybe there is no direct correlation between postmodernity and the attraction to older more historical elements in worship. But I’ve been playing around with the idea that in our current state of doubting and deconstructing truth from every side, if there isn’t part of us that cries out for some connection to a historical faith. Almost like an anchor.

        It might also just be a reaction to the more individual, spectator-ish entertainment worship services that were popular with the last generation.

        Have you read LeadershipNext by Eddie Gibbs? An interesting (and I think helpful!) book on the shift in leadership expectations in the last generation.

  2. I think a problem is that the 18-35 yr olds are not even aware of what they are looking for in the church. We know what we don’t like when we see it, but it is hard, for me at least, to quantify that I am looking for x, y, and z. I would like to know what you see, or are you in the same predicament as myself?

  3. I am 11 years past 35, yet desire the same:

    “The stories and refrains are the same: We do not want a performance, we want to participate. We do not want to be told how to live our lives, we want to be listened to about how we have learned to follow Jesus. We do not want to be served by a staff of hierarchically-minded professionals, we want to serve as the staff to the impoverished. We do not want to become a member of an organization, we want to belong to a family.”

    My 13 and 15 yr olds don’t find church attractive. So maybe it isn’t just 18-35….

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