Books have been written, blogs have been posted, statistics are rampant. Apparently, millennials are hightailing it out of local churches. It could be that America and the world is in a state of moral decline, obviously, and us kids just aren’t into following the rules anymore. Of course, we’ll forget about all this when we have our own set of rules when we grow up that the next generation will be breaking. Those whippersnappers will be the rebellious ones then.
So yeah, statistics are proving that younger people aren’t into religion. (Good thing Christianity has rebranded itself as a relationship.) I know people have been writing reason after reason for millennials leaving the church and have offered prescriptions, but I think the solution to the problem goes beyond church leaders dressing down a little and being more authentic. Sure, people are always looking for authenticity, but it seems that maybe the problem of millennials leaving the church is actually the solution in and of itself.
Let me share my story a bit.
I grew up going to church. Ever since high school, I’ve had a leading role somehow in a church. I learned guitar to impress the ladies, but then used it to glorify God by impressing the ladies from the sanctuary stage. I then took my guitar skills to my conservative Christian college in Georgia where I impressed the ladies while glorifying God on the larger stage. Guitarists are about 120% more common in Georgia than in Ohio, so I eventually had to learn to just play guitar to glorify God. (Bummer, right?) So I played guitar and taught at youth groups, church services, camping retreats.
After college, I went back home to Ohio where I became the worship leader at a small church. It was great for a while. But the church was on the more pentecostal side of Christianity, a denomination I always remember being a little uncomfortable with. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the emotional side of worship. I used to work at a summer camp where I was known for being the counselor who would raise his hands, weep, shout, and dance during worship. But being on the other side of it felt … odd.
I don’t know what happened between college and returning home, but I had grown tired of the noise even before becoming the worship leader at that small church. I was tired of the extreme emotionalism. I had seen what it did to teenagers on camping retreats and I had become a little sickened by it. Maybe the loss of emotional control was good for other people, but for me, I was exhausted by its lack of transformational payoff. I could cry in a worship service like no one’s business, but how was I different after it? After all was said and done, I knew it was just the lights, music, and environment that broke me down.
When I started leading worship for that small church, I had already become a cynic of emotional church experiences. I had heard that the reason churches initially started to take up offering directly after the music was because they were more emotional, less in control, and likely to give more. Even though I had become an outsider-looking-in at emotional worship music, as a leader, I still felt expected to create an emotional experience for others. That meant I had to fake spontaneity. I had to look like I was being “led by the Spirit” when I didn’t feel it. I dreaded leading the music on Sundays. Absolutely dreaded it. I loved the people, but oftentimes on my way to church, I considered “accidentally” missing the exit and just driving all morning.
This was a small church I was at. There was hardly any production value in the worship time at all. I liked it better that way, but I would hear through the grapevine that this church wanted to grow (obviously), and get lights and better sound equipment. Yeah, I went to those churches in college. Big churches and small churches alike were all about light shows and loud music. They were great for getting footage of the stage from behind silhouettes of raised hands and presumably fat wallets. So much money is spent on production in churches, and all of it comes out of the pockets of the worship spectators.
I didn’t get how worship leaders at highly produced churches could still feel emotionally invested in a worship service while having to pick it apart at every moment. I guess it’s okay with many people, but it didn’t seem to work for me. Studies have shown the highly produced worship experiences are almost addictive, but we justify it because it’s in the name of Jesus. It brings people into the church. But if the goal is just to get people in the door, does that mean we’re only interested in what they can put in the offering? All the money churches spend on production is to get people into the seats on Sunday so they’ll give so the church can spend more on production. In the name of Jesus.
I’ve found that millennials aren’t just leaving their churches. They’re going to the high church, which of course, isn’t really a problem. But it seems to be that in an effort to be relevant, Spirit-driven, and informal, the low churches have sacrificed authenticity. Maybe millennials are running to the high church because they’re tired of institutions that spend their money trying not to look like institutions. They’re tired of churches that dress up their well-planned rituals as spontaneity. They’re tired of church signs that say “come as you are” but really just mean “you can wear jeans here as long as you leave your baggage at the door.”
Does the high church offer all the Spirit-driven vulnerability and spontaneity that the low church is trying to give? No, not really. But at least their not trying to hide it.
People like me, people who have seen the ins and outs the conservative evangelical world, are looking for something new. I don’t need to convince anyone that I’m right and I know the right way to do church, because I’m not and I don’t. But I do need church leaders to know that people like me exist, and the institutions they’ve put in place don’t work to help us grow toward living more like Christ. They work for plenty of others, and that’s awesome, but we’re looking for something new, and it’s not just pastors that have tattoos and cuss. It’s being a part of a body of people who will see beyond the walls of a building and talk about their faith in a way that transcends themselves. It’s learning to live in a way that recognizes the Spirit of God not just in overproduced worship services, but in every aspect of our lives.