You hear about it all the time. Churches around the country have been struggling for years to attract Millennials into their pews.
And churches are well aware of this issue. If St. Andrew’s received a dollar for every “Millennial focus group” that has taken place in church committees, we wouldn’t need to pass the offering plate around any longer. But why have none of the 300,000 churches in America been able to crack the Millennial code? Maybe it’s because the concept of “cool church” is a failed endeavor from the start.
The perception of church in popular culture is that it’s stuck in a bygone era. The morals and ethics taught in the Bible may have been useful for our grandparents, but “we’re progressive!” and we’ve moved into a post-truth world where right and wrong is entirely subjective.
Those perceptions are not helped when a church rolls out old-fashioned PowerPoint slides, VCR players, organs, or paperback books that smell like a stuffy room – it just further accentuates the stereotype that the church is out of touch with modern society. To combat those images, churches have responded by upgrading their services with lasers, fog machines, skinny jeans, and calling themselves trendy one-word titles named after various geological features.
And to some extent, those tactics have been effective. I see photos every week on Instagram from people my age worshipping in a converted warehouse to a Hillsong soundtrack. But even with these encouraging signs, it’s a drop in the bucket. Millennials simply aren’t seeking church – whether it's cool or not.
Addressing the core root of the problem matters more than responding to the symptoms, however.
In everything we wrestle with, we can look to Jesus for an example. And you don’t need me to tell you he wasn’t very concerned with being cool. (Of course, when you’re responsible for creating Mount Everest, the Milky Way Galaxy, and giraffes, you're already rolling deep in cool points.)
As a prime example, take the story of Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. The book of John explains that as Jesus and his disciples traveled northward through Samaria, they came to a city called Sychar. It was there that he stopped for a drink of water near a well because he was weary. (We should also marvel that Jesus humbled himself to the point where he would get “weary.” If I came down from heaven to live as a man, I’d come down as an elite athlete that looks a little like George Clooney. This is why he’s God, and I’m not…)
At the well, he casually asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. Seems pretty chill. What’s the big deal?
In that time period, Jews DID NOT associate with Samaritans. They were a mixed-race people that emerged after the Northern Kingdom’s captivity with Assyria. When the Jews returned from Babylon, they rebuffed any assistance from the Samaritans in rebuilding the temple and were rivals ever since. And on top of her Samaritan heritage, she was also a woman. Some Jewish leaders twisted the law in Deuteronomy (as was their style) to allow a husband to divorce his wife if she even so much as spoke with another man in public.
If you were trying to attract a following, speaking with a Samaritan woman at a public well would not have been included in the church planting guide. But in that one conversation, Jesus shattered racial and gender barriers to offer this woman eternal life. He was never once concerned with the appearance of his actions. He came to save. And to save everyone.
You see, the problem with bringing people into the congregational fold with lights and a laser show is that you have to keep them with lights and a laser show. In that environment, the decision to attend church is strictly based on a feeling. And there comes a time when that initial euphoria fades. It happens with every relationship. In these moments, the foundation of the church is more important than ever, and when the focus of the service is on theatrics and design, you’ve drifted onto very shaky ground.
Churches don’t need to chase Millennials like they are some mystical breed of human. Like our grandparents before us, we are still human beings (except maybe we watch TV on our iPads, while listening to a podcast and checking work e-mails at the same time). But just because we grew up with advanced technology, doesn’t mean we need a service that mirrors the world we occupy. All churches need to do is to stand firm on the same ideals that have attracted people to church for the last 2,000 years: the Gospel.
Quite simply, Millennials aren’t coming to church because it’s fun to sin, and we’re being told by the culture that attending doesn’t matter anymore. So why would I want to skip avocado toast and bottomless mimosas at Sunday brunch to seek out a cure for a sin problem I don’t believe I have?
This will probably irk a few of you, but 1 John makes the point pretty clear: if we continue to sin, we are children of the devil. We (and I include myself in this description) are not good people. Despite my best efforts, I lie, take things that don’t belong me, lust after others, and put priorities in my life ahead of God. I’ve broken all of God’s commandments and know, without a shadow of a doubt, that my actions award me an eternity in hell when God opens the books on my life.
But I believe I won’t ever make it there. According to the scriptures, because I repented of my sins and put my trust in the Savior, the resurrecting power of Jesus’ blood has been accredited to my account. My sins have been forgiven. Completely. Forever. For the rest of my days, I can live in the blessed assurance of that promise.
This is why I come to church. It’s not to be entertained for an hour on Sunday. It's a place to have fellowship with other broken souls who have repented to worship a Savior who loved a bunch of wretches like us.
And no amount of pop-up artisan coffee shops in the foyer can change that.
Churches shouldn’t be concerned with being cool. Be concerned with preaching the saving truth of the Gospel, and let God take care of the rest.