Since my junior year in high school, I have written a few research papers on what I had perceived to be the inevitable demise of organized religion. In my last paper, I concluded with many others that in order for the church to survive in the 21st century, change was necessary.
Many religious leaders see my generation as the “missing link” or the “solution” to the rapid decline in congregational attendance and participation in churches today. So to pull us in and encourage us to join their congregations, they’ve turned up the volume. They’ve brought in the big screens and projectors. Many have purchased strobe lights and fog machines. They’ve brought in Starbucks, donut shops, movie theaters and bowling alleys. Some churches have weekly raffles to give away gift cards, iPods, and gaming-consoles. They give out t-shirts, car decals, and frisbees that have the churches logo printed across the front. Many pastor-search committees have sought out young, “hipster-like” ministers (who preferably have at least one ear pierced and a very visible tattoo) to lead worship in casual and trendy clothing.
Church attendance is at an all-time low. Many churches are being forced to close their doors. So BJ, let’s turn up the volume here at First Christian. Trustees, call Krispy Kreme or Starbucks and see if they would be willing to set up a shop in the fellowship hall. Building and Grounds, bring in the big screens, fancy projectors, fog machines, and strobe lights and let’s bring this sanctuary into the 21st century. Let’s draw up plans to build a movie theatre and bowling alley in the basement. And finally, let’s get rid of our senior pastor who is visibly graying, wears that overly-formal robe, and who has no visible tattoos or piercings. Problem solved.
As many of you know, I will be moving to Wilmington in August to start the next chapter of my life at UNCW. Since I received my acceptance letter back in February, I have visited Wilmington a few times to get more familiar with the area.
Last Tuesday, I packed the cooler, loaded up the beach chairs, and picked up one of my good friends to spend the day touring the city. After driving around UNCW’s campus and the historic downtown area, we headed for the beach.
While we were sitting on the beach, my friend recognized one of her good friends from high school walking towards us. She stood up and ran towards her friend to greet her with a hug. They walked back over to me, and I introduced myself. Her friend’s name was Kayleigh.
Kayleigh lives in Wilmington and attends UNCW as a sophomore. When she discovered that I would be moving down in August, she asked me where I would be living, what I intended on majoring in, and if I had any other friends at UNCW. After I answered all of her questions, I asked her to tell me her story. Little did I know that our conversation was getting ready to take a turn.
Soon after telling me that she was living with her sister, she began to talk about her family. This lead Kayleigh to jump straight into her religious views. She explained that her views often clashed with her parent’s beliefs.
I learned that she grew up in a Christian home and that her parents were strong in their conservative religious beliefs. However, Kayleigh quickly admitted that she was not too sure of her beliefs. In fact, she told me that she completely avoids talking about religion when she is with her parents to steer clear from any condemnation or rejection.
I then asked her if she had ever visited any churches in Wilmington. She said she visited one church back in November. She described this church as “theatrical”with a very large stage, flashing lights, loud (up-beat) music, and big screens. She said she visited this church two times, her first, and her last. I was intrigued. I wanted to know what made her experience so awful. So I asked.
Kayleigh said that this church was “too religious.” She said that it seemed as though everyone leading the worship service was above her. It was almost as if they had something that she didn’t. I immediately knew which church she was talking about.
Back in March, when I was visiting a friend in Wilmington, I attended the same church. On Tuesday nights, they have a special worship service for college students. Being a college student and hearing that so many other UNCW students were attending, I decided to go.
The building was massive. It looked more like a shopping mall than a place of worship. As I walked in, I looked around and realized that even the inside was built like a shopping mall. To my right there was a coffee and donut shop, and a church gift shop to my left. I followed the rest of the students who were entering the sanctuary, or worship arena.
The music was loud. So loud that I could feel the beat of the drums in my chest. Lights were flashing. The stage was huge, as was the worship band. There were three massive screens above the stage that displayed live video of the worship band. I felt like I was at a concert.
The pastor’s message focused on the story of Jonah. He stressed the fact that Jonah did not listen to God’s calling and betrayed God. The pastor then asked the congregation to respond to this story. He challenged us college students to stand up if we had ever ignored God’s calling or if we felt as though we had betrayed God at some point in our life.
Now at this time, I was expecting the pastor to step down from the stage to stand with us, reminding us that everyone has ignored God’s calling at some point, and that we all have betrayed God, even the religious leaders. Instead, this pastor chose to stay where he was high above everyone else on the stage.
Out of the nearly 700 students in the room, only 50 students or so stood up in response to his challenge. Again, instead of coming down off the stage and asking everyone to stand with him, the pastor remained there high above everyone in the room. High up on a pedestal. He then asked those who were still seated to stand and walk towards the students that were now standing and lay their hands on them. Most of the students began to look around in shock. A few stood and obeyed his request. He then began to pray for those students who stood in shame.
Kayleigh experienced something very similar when she visited this church. When describing her visit, she was enraged. She exclaimed that these kind of churches must feel that our generation does not care about the content or overall message the churches reveal through worship. Kayleigh said that the flashing lights, loud music, free food, and gifts may attract students our age to visit, but they aren’t going to encourage us to stay. She went on to say that our generation is smarter than people think. Smart enough to realize what is happening and smart enough to stay away from it.
If churches want to encourage people of my generation to join them, they should stop spending energy and resources on extravagant technology, and focus more on practicing and preaching a better theology.
But this is not a new problem, nor is it a contemporary service problem. It is a problem that is also in more traditional churches like ours. Ancient Israel even had the same problem. The Book of Amos took place during a time when the people of Israel hit a spiritual low. Their values were lost in greed and wealth. At the expense of the poor, the wealthy and elite were becoming more and more powerful.
They thought that in order to please God and attract more people to worship, they had to do all of these technical things like presenting expensive offerings, play elaborate music with expensive instruments, and offer up the right and acceptable sacrifices. But they were missing the main point. In fact, all of these technical things infuriated God who spoke through Amos saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Instead of spending their resources on technical and material things, God asked them to do one thing.
Amos spoke on behalf of God: “…let justice roll down like waters…”In this, Amos is simply telling us to treat others equally and fairly. He then goes on by saying let “…righteousness [flow] like an ever-flowing stream.”In other words, love one another with a love that never pauses, never hesitates, never ends; a love that never gives up. It’s that simple.
We so often get caught up in the technicalities when reading scripture. Because we read into things way too much, we make scripture more complicated than it was intended to be and end up missing the main point. When Amos talks about righteousness, he’s talking about always doing the right thing on behalf of others with love. When he speaks of justice, he’s telling us to love all people equally.
Micah lists three things that God requires of us: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Do not stay where you are, but walk, be on the move. You are no better than anyone else, so step down from your pedestal and go out into the world and humbly walk with God, embracing all people with the love of God, especially the poor, outcast and marginalized.
Jesus summed up all of the laws into two: love God with all of your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Two laws, one message: love.
Many problems face organized religion in the 21st century. I have spent a few years researching these problems in an attempt to discover possible solutions. But perhaps the solution was written for us in 750 BC. And maybe my generation is the “missing link.”Although the book of Amos was written nearly 3,000 years ago, it’s possible that the millennials who grew up in an age of technology, a generation that is so advanced in education and information, will be the generation that embraces the simplicity of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
BJ, I do not believe we need to turn up the volume. Building and grounds, I don’t believe we need to bring in the big screens and fancy projectors. And no, thank God, strobe lights, fog machines, movie theaters, and bowling alleys are not necessary. Trustees, let’s hold off on the Starbucks and donut shop. We do not need to raffle off gift cards, iPods, or gaming consoles. There’s no need to order hundreds of t-shirts, car decals, and frisbees that have the churches logo printed across the front in order to bring people to Christ. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll even hold off on a having a pastor-search committee meeting and keep the old man. Hopefully, he still has a few more good years left in him.
If we the church, if we here at First Christian simply work together to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…” If we will reach out to those around us in our community and in our world by meeting them where they are and help them in their times of need in the name of Christ; without pausing, hesitating, or giving up…If we step down off of our pedestal and admit that we are all sinners in need of grace and forgiveness…and if we truly welcome and love all people as Christ welcomes and loves all of us; then the church will not only survive, but the church may finally begin to look like Jesus, not only drawing people from my generation in, but drawing all people to Christ.