Years ago a friend of mine went into a bar. He was a young hotshot stockbroker coming from work in an expensive tie and tailored shirt. He was trying to buy a drink for an attractive young lady when an even more confident guy walked up on the other side of the girl, reached in front of her, grabbed my friend’s tie, looked him in the eye and said, “Buddy, your tie is ugly and I’m going to take your girl.” He asked the girl for her drink order and left with her. All my flummoxed friend could muster was a tepid, “O, yeah…” He told me later, “The next day I had a whole list of things I wished I’d said. This is my “next day” regarding my “Cool Church” post…
1. The post sub-title “killing Christianity.” Obviously I did not mean that literally. Christianity won’t be “killed” by weak ecclesiology, segregating students, reductionist theology, moralistic teaching and the new cultural shifts which are rendering “relevant” irrelevant in many places already. But there will be an enormous demographic hole in the church if young adults continue to fail to connect at the rates that they are.
2. Citing statistics: I didn’t. The “Cool Church” post was a summary of a talk I did for an Urban Youth Worker’s Institute Reload Day in 2010. In that address I cited sources of those and many other statistics. They ended up on the cutting room floor in the blog. (I can provide those to anyone who would like them.) I was a brand new blogger and a friend said, “you get 500 words and they tune out.” I was at 1500. If I would have known the traffic the post would generate, I’d have kept those 100 words.
3. The original talk: The most interesting thing with the UYWI address was the audience reaction. I was the morning keynote. In 30 years of ministry I have never seen a keynote that high-jacked a day the way that one did. Those who were over 30 were visibly angry-scowling even as I critiqued their sacred cows-things that were instrumental in the development of their faith…but were beginning not to work as well any more. The under 30 were as enthusiastic as the older group were angry. They were shouting “AMEN!” “Preach, bro.” “Tell it like it is.” (It is really much so much fun to speak to an Urban audience!) After the keynote I was mobbed by the young who assembled at the front and said, “Thank you for giving voice to what we feel!” Afterwards, the over 30 (the seminar leaders) used their teaching time the rest of the morning, not to present on their topic but to disagree with my keynote. Why this reaction? I think it has something to do with the noise of our culture and young adults wanting to be part of something larger than themselves…including have the church help provide space for silence in the noise. There is a reason that I suspect may be at work here, at least in part, I blogged about it once :https://thegospelside.com/2012/10/11/why-the-big-box-church-works-for-the-over-35-but-not-the-under-25/
So the pushback of the elders, some of whom were literally the architects of “relevant,” was profound. But not nearly so much as the thanks from the young people. Point: Since the culture is ever changing, today’s relevant is tomorrow’s irrelevant. The old ways (of the last 20 years) will simply not work as well in this new cultural context of discontinuous change that we are experiencing. This generation literally has the information of an entire planet at the tips of their fingers.
4. Hater: I should say that I am not against churches being big and I want churches to grow. Not every large church segregates and panders to fill seats. But a lot do. The operative principle of relevance as a model is attraction. This is a matter of movement: Is the direction of engagement “come” or “lets us go”? At its core, “attractional” is the idea that the sanctuary is the locus of evangelism. “Missional” is the idea that the locus for evangelism is the world. Leading from that, in a missional church, the individual believer is the instrument of evangelism in the world vs primarily functioning as an inviter for the real evangelist-the senior pastor. If the time and energy are focused around the facility and the personality of the pastor, then it is attractional and must play the game of being “relevant.” Attendance numbers do not determine the ministry model being embraced. In our context there are a number of really great churches that are large (over 5000 in Sunday Attendance) and NOT relevant by model. Three because they teach the Bible strenuously, the fourth because they serve others. Both of those are good things.
5. We become what we count: What I am opposed to is relevant as a model of church and the idea that big equals effective. That is certainly an assumption in many big-box churches. I am not saying big equals ineffective. Just that it doesn’t necessarily mean effective…unless our definition of “effective” is “big.” The question is “what will you count?” If our metric is bottoms in pews then we will do anything to be full. The church might want to consider metrics that help us measure “disciple-making disciples” for instance. It would be a slower metric, but with a great long-range payout for the church. And it is a biblical metric.
6. A word for those of us who are older: I would also like to offer an idea for those of us over 30 to look for as we read what millennials are saying (and what is implied) in the plethora of articles out there right now: The opposite of relevant as a movement isn’t “irrelevant.” It is “transcendent.” Relevant means to “be like something else.” Rather than “be like something else,” what I hear millennials asking the church for something is wholly unlike them. Something that has reverence and awe and a sense of the holy. Cultural contextualization isn’t the problem. It might have LeCrae perform at it, but it must be something that also has room for silence and ancient words and actions. Not worship done rote and without excellence, but something that is done artfully with acknowledgement that we are called into something more ancient and rooted than we are in this rootless place of our culture at this time.
7. Not really. I don’t believe that most millennials actually want the church to contort its beliefs and practices to suit their whims. Some will say they do. My children also say they want us to break the rules for them. But they feel more secure when we don’t. We are all like that. It is human nature. The church should be like marriage vows: A marriage that is based on vows we make up is a bit weak. We take the vows that have worked for 2000 years and conform our relationship to something greater than ourselves, that has withstood the test of time. Several recent posts by millennials has said exactly that: First Andrea Dilley, in Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Then Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing simplistic answers and desiring greater social engagement. Then Brett McCracken wrote http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/07/31/how-to-keep-millennials-in-the-church-lets-keep-church-un-cool/ saying, in effect, conforming ourselves to some focus group opinion of what people want is as desperate as it looks.
My friend was left standing at the bar, trying to formulate a response as the girl walked away. He so wanted to be “the guy.” He wasn’t. He stood there insecurely wondering if he should ditch the tie and thinking about what he could have said to keep her. The church will never be “the guy” with whom the millennials go home until we get over with our consuming need to be “relevant.” We don’t need to ditch the tie!
In “Cool Church” I said, “What if instead of giving them what they want, we give them what they need.” The irony is that “relevant” isn’t actually what millennials are saying they want. It is the cool thing we think they think is cool. And that is so very uncool.