Somewhere out there right now, there's a church having a very hard conversation. It is talking about change. It's a conversation they probably wouldn't have had on their own, but they've been forced into it. Membership is shrinking, giving is down, and the facility is getting older and needs repair. So they know they need to change. And the change they are talking about pains them. That's because maybe the change they are talking about involves ditching their traditional worship for contemporary. Or maybe they're talking about hiring a pastor or youth minister whose reputation is more "cutting edge" than ministerial. Or maybe they're looking at installing a coffee shop in the narthex.
They are pained just talking about this change. Worse yet, they'll be even more pained when the change they feel they have to make does not bring the people and sustained energy they think it will. Because it won't.
There's a powerful blog post making the social media rounds these days about why millennials are leaving the church (a millennial, in case you don't know, is someone born in the last twenty years of the 20th century - so, roughly your current teenagers through thirties). I read it and loved it. So did a lot of people. It's popped up multiple times in my Facebook feed. Within a few minutes of sharing it on my timeline it had nearly three dozen likes. And interestingly, it wasn't just the millennials who liked it. It was people in their 40s, 50s, even 60s and 70s. It was church members of mine, other Presbyterians, and people from all different denominations. And - not surprisingly - it was people who don't attend church. It was men and women, straight and gay; all races, all backgrounds. A fairly eclectic swath of American humanity.
Why did this article resonate with so many different folks? I believe it's because of quotes like this:
The assumption among Christian leaders... is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall… What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
Yes. Can I get an Amen.
We know the church needs to change, but we're getting the change all wrong. And it messes things up for both the church and those who aren't here yet. It messes it up for the church because, when we focus simply on style, we unintentionally sabotage some of the best of what we have to offer. And it messes it up for those who aren't here yet because we aren't making the kind of change they need us to make. So, once again, the church "just doesn't get it." And they're right - we don't.
Take worship and music, since this gets a lot of attention in church change conversations. For years, we in the church have operated under the assumption of a false dichotomy: older people want the pipe organ; younger people want a band and a screen. Older people want hymns, younger people want praise rock songs. It's an issue of style, we are led to believe.
Maybe it's just me (I suspect not), but I haven't found this to be the case. The older folks I know are often happy to sing new songs, provided they're "singable," uphold the theological and biblical underpinnings of their particular church tradition, and have a message they can connect with. On the other end, when I lead music for youth conferences, I always get fantastic response from the classic, old-school hymns. At the Montreat Middle School Conference I was part of last month, we sang this one tune that took on a life of its own - and I've led youth conference music enough times to know that, when this happens, you roll with it and sing it some more. Which we did. It wound up being the very last song at the closing worship and provided one of the more spiritually moving experiences of the week.
You know what song it was? Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing. Not exactly a recent entry into the sacred music genre. Did I mention the part about 600 11-13 year-olds belting it out with conviction and passion?
There is good news for the church, and it is this: we don't have to sell out to get people to come. In fact, that's exactly what society-at-large is begging us not to do. We don't have to compromise aspects of our core identity in a cheap attempt to fill the pews on Sunday morning.
The bad news: we do need to talk about substantive change. And changing substance in the church is a lot harder than changing style. Anyone can install a screen at the front of the sanctuary or fashion a little coffee shop in the narthex. Changes in substance, though, involve deep, meaningful, honest conversations among pastors, church workers, church leaders, and the entire congregation about its sense of identity and mission; and then "daring greatly" and thinking outside of the box to bring about the kind of change that pushes the church toward being better representatives of Christ in the world - toward greater authenticity.
If you've ever read my blog, listened to my sermons or just heard me talk, you've probably noticed I use the word "authenticity" and "authentic" a lot. There's a reason for that. Young people today can pick out a fake in a heartbeat - someone who is simply going through the motions or trying to be someone or something they're not. And they hate that. They hate that because, in a plastic, counterfeit, forged, processed, imitation world, people are longing for something real. And as the millennial article highlights, they're telling the church loud and clear:
We want an end to the culture wars. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
I read this and can't help but think: this is precisely what the church is NOT known for these days. Society hears ad nauseum about the Westboro Baptists of the world protesting another funeral, or congregations throwing their full weight behind radical political ideology, or churches that mistaken a strong sense of personal conviction with arrogant theological certitude where they are always on the winning side, or churches that stubbornly do things the way they've always done them because, well, just because. The now-famous 2007 Barna Study on American Christianity emphatically confirmed this reality, revealing that the unchurched are highly likely (90%) to view someone who identifies themselves as a Christian as someone who is anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, and too old-fashioned. And that's before he or she has even said a word.
It is almost as if we're living in some crazy parallel universe where this is the accepted norm. Where else does a successful organization define itself by who and what it is not? Where else does a group grow by clinging to inflexibility and rigidity? We're fooling ourselves if we think people see this and go, "Yeah, I wanna be part of that." They don't want to be part of that kind of church, because even they know it's not being faithful. Even they know it's not what Jesus wants us to be.
The church does not have to sell out to change. We can present a more authentic kind of Christianity by doing the things Jesus did: loving all people; being comfortably present with others in the uncertain gray of life; aligning ourselves not with a Republican or Democratic agenda but with the kingdom of God agenda; telling and showing people who we are rather than who we are not. Those substantive changes - and not the stylistic ones - will be what pulls the church back from the precipice toward greater relevance and presence in the world. And I believe the people will come - because in my conversations with these folks, they really want the church to be the church. They're rooting for us to get it right so they can come on board and be part of something we should've been all along.
That's what I'd tell that church out there that's contemplating painful changes - not whether it needs to change, but what kind of change is needed. It sounds terribly cliche; but the change we need to make is to be more like Jesus. After all, if there ever was an example of substance trumping style, it was that guy.