It appears pretty clear that – in the Western world at least – once you get past childhood, the younger you are the less likely you are to attend church. The Church cannot rejuvenate itself without reversing that trend. This subject is the focus of the Atlantic’s interview with Rachel Held Evans about her new book.
She warns that conservative congregations are failing to connect because they try to appeal on the basis of style rather than substance:
“I caution against the idea that the way to get young people into church is to be hip and cool and have a pastor who wears skinny jeans.”
For example, speaking about the trendy Mars Hill mega-church that collapsed amid scandal last year, she says
“the exterior was hip and edgy, but they made the old mistake of authoritarian leadership”
And of course music or fashion choices are going to do little to redress the damage done to a church’s image by regressive sexual politics.
Evans suggests, unsurprisingly, that the reasons for the inability of liberal churches to connect with millennials are different. She herself struggled to find a church because:
She was looking for a certain kind of message, which may resonate with others in a generation that came of age after 9/11, lived through two wars, and not-so-happily endured years of recession: a recognition that life is dark.
“A lot of liberal, progressive people are afraid of the word sin,” she said in an interview. To some, the idea of a flawed human nature which leads to transgressions against God might be the same category as exorcisms—part of the “bizarre truth of Christian identity,” as Evans puts it.
But even for regular church-goers, she said, sin may not be something many readily embrace. “Why do we mumble through rote confessions and then conjure plastic Barbie and Ken smiles as we turn to one another to pass the peace?” she writes. “What makes us exchange the regular pleasantries—’I’m fine! How are you?’—while mingling beneath a cross upon which hangs a beaten, nearly naked man, suffering publicly on our behalf?”
Some of this is cultural, she said—the idea, particularly in the ever-hospitable, perfectly polished South, that you should “bring your best self to church.” But “even in faith communities that aren’t Southern, there can still be that pressure to perform, and be Instagram-y, and not be honest and talk about your sin,” she said.
That’s why upbeat music and stylish services don’t do it for Evans: Hers is a Christianity that is fully aware of darkness. “So much of what Christianity produces as far as books and literature and even music in our worship—it’s all very rosy, when that’s not really life, and that’s not really church,” she said. “We carry the weight of many, many centuries of injustice, and that matters, and we can’t just ignore that.”
I agree that sin is not a concept that liberal Christians should not be alarmed by. We can assert its truth while rejecting the notion it can be used to divide the world into righteous people like us and nasty sinners. Indeed perhaps Christianity’s most egalitarian assertion is that we are all without exception sinners.
I don’t know whether restoring this insight to its proper place at the heart of worship will bring millennials back into church or not. However, I am confident that doing so has a better chance than any number of cringe making attempts to mirror our choices of music, coffee and clothes.