The Pressure of Cool

A belated thanks to Missa for sharing this essay with me a couple of weeks ago.   Sorry it has taken me so long to comment on it!

In a nutshell (or subtitle, in this case), this essay argues that trends in churches to segregate youth during worship and to cater to the perceived tastes of youth are directly responsible for the vacuum of youth in most congregations.  In seeking to win youth over, we’ve actually given them no reason to continue coming to church once Mom and Dad aren’t making them.
But I wonder if it goes a bit deeper than this, now.  In other words, what if congregations aren’t just responding to the preferences of their youth any longer, they’re actually shaping them in directions that will ultimately lead them away from church?

Here’s my admittedly skewed context on this.
This morning I sat in on the chapel service for primary grade children at the Christian school that leases space from our congregation.  I’ve done this for two years, but this year, there has been a change in school leadership.  I’ve been away at conferences several weeks, and this is the first chapel service I’ve been able to sit in on since the new leadership came into place this summer.  
They begin their chapel with worship and then have a short time of teaching.  The teaching time was pretty much the same.  However the worship was 180-degrees different.  Instead of a choir made up of a cross-section of students from different grades leading the other students in contemporary worship music, now about six students were vying with projected music videos.  Some of the songs were the same as what the kids have been singing the last two years, but now instead of being accompanied by a piano, the music was thumping out a dance rhythm while the screen flashed vaguely hypnotic images of dancing kids or trance-inspired shifting color patterns.  The kids were being encouraged to wave their hands and do other motions to the songs.  A half-dozen parents sat to the side, smiling, bopping along and taking video footage of it all on their iPhones.  
It struck me that at this age, kids should be learning about worship, and these kids were.  They were learning that worship doesn’t differ fundamentally from rockin’ out to a favorite song on the radio or Pandora.  Dance, wave your hands in the air, shake all around, do something.  
I don’t want to sound unduly biased, although I know I am somewhat.  I have no problem with contemporary worship music per se, but I have a problem with much of what is assumed to go along with it.  The emotionalism, the swaying, the jumping around, etc.  This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t exactly what you see when you go to a concert.  People dancing around, waving their hands, swaying to the slow songs, etc.  
My point is that going to a concert (even by a Christian artist) is a fundamentally different experience than worship, yet many attempt to blend the two.  
It struck me that these young kids would grow up thinking that this is what worship was about.  They would be confused one day when they found a secular artist that they liked more than some of the stuff they’re singing in church.  What does that mean to them?  Does it mean they’re no longer ‘fans’ of Christian music?  Have they lost their faith simply because they’ve found a different artist that excites them emotionally?  How do they separate the two?  Should they?
Judging by the parents present, this potential confusion isn’t going to get sorted out at home.  Worship isn’t about feeling good, although at times it can feel very good indeed!  It isn’t inherently an emotional response, an impulse that must come of its own volition.  Worship is an exercise of the will.  It is an intentional response to the existence of a God who has created you, saved you, and is in the process of making you perfect.  We don’t worship because we like to – we worship because it is the rational response from a creature to its creator.  
I know there are plenty of folks that will disagree with me on this one, and who will call me a hard-hearted intellectual with no affinity for the power of emotions.  I can’t argue with that assessment.  Can we continue to the essay response?   Remember the essay?  This is a response to an essay.  Truly it is.
I tend to agree with the author’s assessment.  But I also think that he – as well as most of us ‘in’ the Church – are missing the larger point.
I maintain that the reason that we’re stressed out about youth or the lack thereof in our churches is because, as the author states, “The youth group of today is the church of tomorrow.”  I’m going to spin this somewhat:  we’re worried because based on attendance trends and giving trends, the Church of tomorrow is not going to be able to afford to be the Church of today.  
That’s cold and callous and cruel sounding and very few Christians would consciously say it that way.  But I believe that this is ultimately what we mean when we lament the future of the Church – and that we includes lay people and professional church workers alike.  If things keep going the way they’re going, many, many, many congregations won’t be able to keep their beautiful facilities.  They aren’t going to be able to maintain large staffs.  They won’t be able to maintain full-time pastors.  
And if that’s the case, what do we have left?  What is the Church if not facilities and professional staff?  
Again, I don’t think there are many Christians who would ask the question in quite that fashion, but it’s the question behind the questions.  Statistics can be helpful, but only if they’re measuring the right things.  And most of the statistics I see quoted measure only one thing – how many people are in worship services at congregations.  That can be valuable information, but the value depends on what your primary concerns are.  I maintain that the primary concern behind measuring this sort of thing is essentially whether or not traditional congregational infrastructures are going to survive or not.  
Let me save you the wondering – many, many, many will not.  
That doesn’t mean the end of the Church.  It may not even mean the gradual collapse or decline into irrelevance of the Church.  But it will very definitely mean that the Church may no longer be epitomized by tidy church properties and guided by full-time professional church workers.  
And that’s ok.
It’s very, very different from what we’ve known and loved for years, to be sure.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.  But it is different.  We have no way to adequately conceptualize an alternative vision of what the Church might look like without those signposts in place.  It’s an issue that hasn’t really had to be addressed in 1700 years or so.  
As some of the commenters on the article indicated, I don’t think that bringing youth back to churches and keeping them there is as simple as programmatic changes in worship and other church-related functions.  Unless other areas are radically transformed (the family spiritual life, etc.) it won’t even make a dent.  
So I agree with the author that the Church has allowed itself to be deluded about what
is meaningful to young people.  I think it underestimates the needs and intelligence of young people, assuming that it can and should fulfill an emotional need in them that is inevitably going to be filled by other sources.  I believe the Church needs to focus on fulfilling the one need that no other source can fill – describing our situation of brokenness and insufficiency and the fear and uncertainty that generates in people.  I believe the Church needs to focus on communicating the direness of this situation – that there is no hope for a humanistic solution to it – yet communicating that there is an answer to it – an answer that comes not from our emotional responses or intellectual musings, but from God coming into creation in order to save it.  
Which means I disagree with the implicit conclusion the author offers, which is that if we reversed our approach to worship, it would rectify the lack of youth in congregations.  I think it might help, in some situations.  In other situations it will hurt rather than help.  
But that’s ultimately where we’re left.  Because it wasn’t just eleven guys who changed the world.  All they did was let the world in on the secret that the world was already being transformed.  They were just pointing to the evidence.  As it has always been, God is always the one in action, the one who does not simply respond to stimuli, but is the ultimate source of stimulus itself.   We can and should struggle with the best way to communicate this in our time and culture, but those answers are going to shift to a certain degree depending on one’s time and place.  Not entirely, but some. 
Feeling uncertain about the future?  That’s perfectly natural and proper.  It’s also completely unnatural, because we know the future.  We just don’t know all of it.  That seems to be where God prefers us to be, and I suspect it’s the healthiest place for us to be – if the least comforting.   
That’s really good news.  For everyone.  But we need to tell them.  Whether they come to a worship with bells and incense or laser-light and rock and roll.  The message needs to keep going out.  

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