Our church is fortunate to have attracted a good number of thirty-somethings with little kids. We have a large children’s ministry and a modest youth ministry, which will only expand significantly once all of these kids grow-up. We are a traditional-style Presbyterian church — organ, vaulted ceiling, hymns, written prayers, doctrinal sermons, and a small dose of well-chosen praise songs.
What is missing? The twenty-somethings. This is the demographic from which I departed just last year. We have a handful of guys and gals in their late twenties, and virtually none in their early to mid twenties, except for the occasional college kid visiting family.
So, not surprisingly, we have some members who advocate — or strongly hint in the direction of — changing our worship and adopting various strategies and programs to attract the twenty-somethings (and those who remain in perpetual adolescence well into their thirties and forties). In our city of Charlotte, the big, super-cool church is Elevation. Every city and town has one (or several) — popular names include “Abundant Life Fellowship” or “Freedom House” and so on. Apparently, they really want you to know, in the name of their church, how awesome an experience you will receive upon visiting. (We have, by the way, the super-uncool name of “Westminster Presbyterian Church.”)
I have innumerable problems with adopting an obvious consumer-driven, market-based modus operandi. It is not surprising that these churches do well. I do not discount that the Holy Spirit is present and active. But, you do not need the Holy Spirit to gather young, healthy, attractive folk to a stimulating rock concert / exalted therapy session. Many will indeed discover Christ in these settings, but some will also eventually discover the severe limitations of this “stimulating” worship experience week after week. The very reason that our church has done so well with the thirty-something and forty-something demographic is precisely because we are not Freedom House or Abundant Life or whatever. To put it bluntly, we attract the mature Christian, many of whom have been through their rock-n-roll worship phase and now want something of substance. It is hard to say that without sounding like an asshole. But it’s true.
I was prompted to write this post after reading these reflections from Andrea Dilley at Faith and Leadership (sponsored by Duke Divinity School): “Change Wisely, Dude.” Andrea traces her own path out of the traditional church of her youth, into the hip and modern worship of her twenties, only to find herself longing for the depth and substance of a more traditional liturgy (Anglican in her case). Here is an excerpt:
For some, the instinct [to attract young people] is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender. But as someone who left the mainstream church and eventually returned, I’d like to offer a word of advice to those who are so inclined: Don’t. Or at least proceed with caution. Change carefully; change wisely, with thoughtfulness and deliberation. What young people say we want in our 20s is not necessarily what we want 10 years later.
Consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.
Some of us want to walk into a cathedral space that reminds us of the small place we inhabit in the great arc of salvation history. We want to meet the Unmoved Mover in an unmoved sanctuary.
So as you change — or as change is imposed upon you — keep your historic identity and your ecclesial soul. Fight the urge for perpetual reinvention, and don’t watch the roll book for young adults.
Do read the whole thing.
Image: St. Michael’s Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photograph is mine.