The article “What’s So Uncool About Cool Churches?” seems to be making its way around the internet (again, possibly, since it was first published in 2012). It challenges the way churches have handled their Youth for the past 20 years or so, putting the blame for the dearth of young adult churchgoers on a general policy of giving Youth what they want and not what they need.
There is much that is useful here, and probably right: the segregation of Youth from traditional inter-generational models, the replication of outside culture in an attempt to be cool and relevant, the emphasis on programs rather than on individual discipleship, etc.
There are, however, a few things in the article I have objections to. I’ll make direct references to the article however, so you might want to read it first and then check back. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
First, as a millennial myself, though I’m pretty close to that borderland between Gen X and Y (I can remember when almost no one had CDs, let alone computers), I’m getting pretty tired of being called selfish. It’s been my experience that lots of people are selfish, and it has nothing to do with their generation. We can just as easily say Americans are selfish, or Western Culture is selfish, or Humans are selfish. It’s just as true and just as false so let’s stop throwing that one around.
Second, has there ever been a time when Christians weren’t bemoaning the end of the church? Act now! Everything is crumbling around us! I’m not saying that we aren’t in a period of change, and that it doesn’t bring with it special challenges. But change can be progress too. Because I’m a history nerd, I’ve been reading a history of 14th century Europe, called A Distant Mirror. When we think of that pre-Reformation period, we tend to think of life being centered around the near-Universal (Catholic) Church – everyone went to church, everyone worshiped regularly, everyone was a Christian. And so they did and so they were – sort of. The book estimates that based on contemporary standards of devotion, only about 10% of Catholic France, for example, were devout. Another 10% never went to church and the rest oscillated between regular and irregular worship. Not to mention that in this high time of Christendom, when without a doubt Christianity dominated the cultural landscape, you were more likely to be murdered by a fellow Christian than to die of an accident. All I mean is, even when the Church appears healthy, to borrow the article’s metaphor, it often isn’t, and when it doesn’t, sometimes it is. I don’t disagree with the article’s main point – that we should be focusing on people and not on programs, and on discipleship not on numbers – not at all. But I am getting a little sick of our own whining. Maybe the church won’t look like it did 50 years ago – but that doesn’t mean that this is the end. Or even if it were the end of the CHURCH as we know it, it certainly doesn’t mean its the end of the essential message and Way of Christ.
Lastly, again as a History nerd, I have to point out an error at the end of this article. The author calls to us to return to the ways of the early church. Nothing wrong with that in a general sense, though any reading of Paul’s letters shows that even the early church was hardly a golden age. My biggest objection to this is that the reward for a return to sacrament, symbol, and community will be equivalent to Christianity’s takeover of the Roman Empire. What? “It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen.” He must be referring to Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity, and it’s really time for us to stop thinking that that was a good thing. Some good may have come out of it, but Constantine was a politician who manipulated religion to serve his own imperial ends. Famously, he had a vision where (depending on the version) Jesus told him to put the cross on his soldiers’ banners so that he would win in battle. That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. Thus began a centuries long marriage between Christianity and the State, a confusion of Cross with Sword, causing untold suffering and corruption. We’d have been better off, spiritually speaking, without it.
I don’t mean to be unfair to the article. As I’ve said, I think I agree with its main thesis. But we should be cautious about how we talk about the church and about what we want the church to actually be. The author decries a “butts in pews” model, while complaining about the lack of young adult “butts in pews.” He desires a return to a golden age of Christianity, but ignores the negative historical consequences of that period.
We are facing big problems, but we have before. Jesus told us that in the beginning. The remedies the author offers are good ones – but we should know that they aren’t guaranteed to bring more people to church anymore than an active Youth Program. In fact, that isn’t our job at all and never has been. Our job is to love each other as God has loved us. Any ministry, any program, that doesn’t begin and end with that isn’t worth our time as followers of Christ.