Recently I had a conversation with some close friends about life, church, and following Jesus. My friend challenged me with an unexpected question – “Do I think there’s value for outreach and entertainment driven Evangelical churches that we’ve experienced and now struggle to engage?”
It caught me off guard.
I hadn’t really processed that question well, and I’ll be honest, my gut response was “No, there isn’t a healthy place for them in the kingdom.” Understanding that there’s some personal cynism involved, I generally think they do more long term damage than good. She really pushed back on it, reminding me that if it weren’t for this style of church, and even more specifically, an invitation from my wife and me to join us, they wouldn’t have attended, wouldn’t have grown, and wouldn’t be Jesus followers today.
I didn’t have a good response. She’s right.
There are a lot more people in Cincinnati (and around the country) that know Jesus because of a few really successful large churches of this style. They are effectively reaching a group that is looking for faith and spirituality and are attracted to this model of church.
As I began to wrestle with her question, I kept coming back to a bigger challenge that I think is one of the roots of my concerns with church as I’ve known it.
Many of the modern Evangelical Churches have been birthed by leaders from a generation of “cool”. The 80’s and 90’s were generations of fads and the creation of cool – Members Only jackets, Lacoste polos, Air Jordans, Reebok Pumps, neon everywhere, emo black, flannels and grunge, etc… – whatever your choice, your identity and value were quickly connected to the trends of cool that you engaged. The same kids that grew up in those eras took their affinity to “cool” with them as they grew into church leaders of today’s Evangelical Church. Big speakers, bright lights, projection & LED screens – the pursuit of cool is literally on full display. It’s working, too. It’s attracting a generation who values cool and value branded identity that’s easily identifiable and sharable – especially in the affluent suburbs of America.
One of the challenges of the church over the past hundred years, as it’s shifted, is that what reaches a current generation of adults rarely also reaches the next generation well too.
Baby Boomers were attracted to the seeker movement and the development of contemporary Christian worship of the 90’s with great success. Gen X brought technology, modernization, and cool that made church relevant to it’s generation. While their shifts haven’t been fully developed yet, Millenials and Gen Y are already looking at both Boomer & Gen X churches they grew up in with an overwhelming sense it’s not for them. I’m struck with how much we’ve over-processed the church experience, programming, and worship style to reach a specific generation instead of simply figuring out how to do (and be) church well. I understand that the rapid shift in technology is bringing change at a more rapid pace than ever before in the history of humanity, and likewise the history of the church. Where, in the middle of all of that change, did the church decide to deviate from the well worn common streams of practice that the church has swum within for the past two millennia? As the church is in a constant cycle of adaptation to reach the next generation, we’re setting ourselves up for generational cycles of spiritual movements that grow and die with each generational style of worship and attraction.
It’s a sad blow to the beauty that comes from intergenerational worship, healthy discipleship, and a lineage of faith and faithfulness being passed from parent to child, to grandchild, and so forth.
I’ve heard many church leaders speak regularly of the need to bend toward the next generation in their models and methods because the next generation is the future of the church. I understand the sentiment, but man, I wish the execution would change. What typically happens is the creation of a more “edgy” service – more technology, more lights, louder music, etc… All the things that middle-aged leaders assume the next generation wants because that would have been their desire in the churches they experienced as teens. What’s really happening is simply creating some new wrappings on the same style of church – just assumed to be a little more youthfully executed. Same model, same execution, just louder and brighter.
What it tells the next generation is “we’ll bend toward you a little bit but you still need to fit into our boxes.
Rarely does a church that says they want to actively reach the next generation actually talk to the next generation to find out how they process faith, how they experience worship, what they value, how they relate to community, etc… and it’s there that the generational divide begins. The next generation matures to adulthood with a largely unexpressed concept of faith because they don’t see it reflected in the churches they experienced in their youth. Once they’re adults, they no longer “have” to attend with their families, and many of them walk away. They walk away not because they don’t believe, but because they don’t see a place for people like them in the church they know. Eventually, new expressions of church are birthed and a remnant of the generation finds one another and new movements are started. That’s been the generational cycle of many faith movements over the past 50 years in America.
What if churches that wanted to reach the next generation actually shifted to caring for the next generation, not replicating themselves in slight adaptation? What if they learned from the next generation? What if they discipled the next generation well to love and follow Jesus, not just help them design an attractive worship service? What if the church were more concerned with the development of its people than the execution of their gatherings?
Maybe some cycles of generational faith struggles could be broken if we could reframe church to be a diverse spiritual body instead of a weekly homogenous attraction.
I want my kids to love Jesus. I want them to find their own unique expression of faith individually and generationally. Even more, I want them to experience the life-giving, diverse, and healthy participation of a multi-generational church community committed to following Jesus in the well-worn paths of the church before us.
So back to the original question, “Is there a place for a church like that still?”
In the cyclical culture of generationally attractional churches, yes. It’s necessary.
Is it ideal? Not at all. The church can, and must, do better.