Whenever I hear someone say “we have to make church appeal to young people” first I shudder, then I twitch, then I spaz, for the following reasons:
- Young people are generally idiots. A church that appeals to them will be, ipso facto, idiotic.
- There is absolutely nothing (Nothing!) the average middle-aged person can do that can look cool to young people.
When I say young people are idiots, it isn’t their fault, they simply lack experience and modern education is awful. Young people need to be trained into the tradition and culture, and this takes many years.
Our society, with its capitalistic emphasis on the new and improved, destroys old things in order to sell new things. Among the things destroyed and sold are not just computers, cars or phones, but also traditions, art, morals and culture. So young people can’t be faulted for thinking that they invented sex, or justice, or war, or peace, or religion. They imagine history started with them. That is why they are idiots. We want them to be idiots, because it makes them easier to scam.
This is why every few years we read about “a new generation of American Evangelicals” questioning dogmas like Biblical Inerrancy, the Virgin Birth, or some Biblical moral teaching. Both the “new generation” and the journalists reporting about them are ignorant of the fact that every single generation of American Evangelicals dating back to colonial times has had exactly the same questions, that this form of religion has a name – Liberal Christianity – and that Liberal Christianity, not Conservative (or “Classical”, or “Small-o-orthodox”, or “Fundamentalist”, or “Nicean”, or “Biblical” or whatever you want to call it), is the historically dominate form of religion in America.
They are ignorant because even though Liberal Christianity is the dominant form – which is why journalists are always enthusiastically celebrating it every time they rediscover it, even though they have no intention of converting to it – it does not reproduce itself. It is an anti-tradition that that only exists as a parasite on the other form of Christianity.
This is how it works: Conservative Christians have Liberal Christian children, who in turn have agnostic children (why be a Liberal Christian if you are already a Liberal?), who in turn have children who are born again, Hallelujah.
Now, there are in fact middle aged people who do a great job of selling stuff to young people, but they are not average. They are the top professionals in the music, entertainment or clothing industries, and they make millions upon millions of dollars. They rely on and perpetuate the idiocy of youth in order to keep making money. They are not church people. Let’s face it, if you were a top advertising executive you would be thinking about how to manipulate that 17-year-old model into your bed, not how to get her to go to your church.
The poor saps who want to make worship appeal to youth are simply not capable of doing it. Whatever they invent is always corny and a decade or two behind the times.
In the New Testament, Christian worship is described as remembrance: do this in memory of me. It is, in the words of Paul, part of a tradition: Christ gave the forms of worship to his apostles who hand it on to their followers. It is therefore essentially conservative, about remembering the past and recreating it in the present (or in a more mysterious sense, leaving the temporal sphere to participate in the eternal.)
Of course the tradition develops, all traditions do, but it has to be recognizable as a tradition, and it has to be traceable to the source. Renewing the tradition is not achieved by “modernizing” it, but by making the source clear.
There have been a couple of popular blogs commenting on this phenomena, here, and here. The first describes the inevitable decline of contemporary worship music, the second goes so far as to attribute declining church attendance among millennials to the fact that church services are designed for them. That millennials would be more likely to go to church if worship were more timeless and traditional.
I disagree with the second: the reason millennials are not going to church is simply because they accept the criteria and practices of the world which are increasingly at odds with the criteria and practices of Christ. Remember, it is not just cell phones and cars that are destroyed and replaced by our culture, but morals and metaphysics too.
Now, it is likely the case that the various conservative churches need to give a more authentic witness to the spirit of Christ, and to stop being the Republican Party at Prayer. I’m all on board with that. Jesus, after all, has an appeal very much his own independent of his followers.
But if you want to uncover the authentic spirit of Jesus you can’t do wrong by going back to the traditions he started. There are not many details in the New Testament about first century Christian worship, but what is there is rich and evocative. There is also a vast liturgical tradition that exists in continuity with the first century, sadly dilapidated by the ravages of the last few decades, but still essentially intact.
The second blog post, the one I disagreed with, actually ends on this note:
This issue has been framed poorly.
It’s not about old vs. new.
It’s not about old vs. young (especially these days).
It’s not about taste.
It’s not about what kind of music God likes more.
It’s not really about music.
It’s about the very purpose of gathered worship.
It’s about unity, not choice.
It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help.
It’s about theology, not experience.
It’s about participation, not consumption.
It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.
It’s about being a church for the world, not getting butts in the seats.
It’s about ancient and future, not just now