To Get More Young People into Churches, Expect More from Them

The Telegraph recently ran a story reporting on a study that found that 1 in 6 English young people are practicing Christians — a surprising number, at least to me — and that “around 13 per cent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures.” The story went on to say that “the influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.”

This second point is perhaps unexpected, but it makes sense. A couple months ago, I wrote of the impression European cathedrals made on me. Aesthetics matter; the design of these Christian buildings was intended inspire, to put one in connection with the creator of the universe. They are successful, not only in my case, but apparently in the cases of a significant number of young Britons.

Modern Christian churches should start taking notes. The question of how to get young people “in the pews” is a perpetual one. To some extent, I think it is natural that, when they reach the age during which they are finding themselves, they will leave the familiar and explore. If most Americans were raised attending church at least occasionally, it makes sense to expect at least some drifting between the ages of, say, 18-30.

But at the same time, such periods of searching ought to be a prime opportunity to connect with faith. Churches know this, but struggle with how to handle the opportunity. What they can learn is not to embrace grander aesthetics (though they should) but to adopt the aim of the aesthetics: to present God as he is: in all of his greatness and sublimity, in all of his complexity and power, in all of his creativity and love.

Recently, I revisited the music of the Christian band DC Talk, including some of their less well known songs. There is a substantial range of depth in their music, from their pinnacle work — nuanced hits like “What if I Stumble” to “Between You and Me” — and catchy tunes whose purpose seems to be to make Christianity cool. The latter was all too often the mission of contemporary Christian music. The best output, not only of DC Talk, but of all Christian bands, was that which was intended not to provide alternatives to what the cool kids were listening to, but to create art that was truly reflective of the Christian life.

Coffee shops and light shows during worship fall into a similar category as the second-rate, sound-alike Christian music that is quickly forgotten. Don’t even get me started on worship music. Every act undertaken to make Christ “relevant” is one born of the premise that forgets that He is the one and only thing that can fill the longing with which we are all born.

Nowhere is that more important than in what the church teaches. How can anyone be surprised that so many people who were raised Christian leave it behind when they are confronted with the real world? The story of God is filtered, pre-digested, from an early age. Allison Kieselowsky at The Federalist wrote of this tendency a few years ago, correctly arguing that even toddlers can handle more theological depth, complexity and truth than we are willing to throw at them.

Christians for generations have been working to perfect the Sugar Water Approach: Jesus loves you. Don’t make Jesus sad by being bad. As a toddler in a non-denominational church I learned I did bad things which made me a sinner; Jesus died in my place and took the punishment I deserved; and I needed to accept Jesus into my heart to be forgiven for my sins. On the surface, that may seem like an age-appropriate explanation of some basic Christian teachings. It seemed satisfactory until I began to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism with my daughters.

In contrast to what I learned, Dr. Martin Luther recommended this explanation for small children: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”

Luther packed a lot of punch—he filled his catechism with rich teaching in relatively short statements. Do we believe that even the youngest children should hear the richest expression of the faith? Yes. Emphatically, yes.

Christians make similar mistakes with teens and young adults as well, condescending to them with pre-digested teaching wrapped up in packaging designed to look like anything but religion. It should be easy for the lost to come to church, but church should also challenge them. We ought, as Paul did, to be all things to all people, but this does not mean we should become the pedagogical equivalent of a mother bird. To do so is to fail to trust in the message of the Bible; it is to say that we know better than its author — who made us — what people need to hear and how they need to hear it.

I have no interest in composing something that would be at home on Thought Catalog, nor am I a member of the cult of authenticity, but I will say that the young people to whom churches are trying to appeal have a well-tuned radar for fakeness. They are not stupid and don’t believe that Sunday service should remind them of a concert. Something life-changing, purpose-giving, soul-saving is not like seeing a rock band with friends, but to package it that way is to communicate that that is how Christians see their own faith. Whether they know it or not, young people need the Church to expect more from them — not to jump through hurdles, but to take the message seriously as the profound thing it is.

In interpreting the command for Christians to be set apart from the world, some act as though that means that they should be as uncool as possible. Rather than reflect the reality of a higher purpose in their lives, they evince a disgust for the world God made and the people in it, both of whom God redeemed. Others, turned off by legalism, run in the opposite direction, following trends. Both are wrong about how to please seakers and, more importantly, how to please God. Both are in error because they have positioned themselves on the wrong continuum. The choice is not between cool and uncool, but between finding who we are in the world or in Christ.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” If the Church is a doorway to another world, perhaps it should look like one.

In shedding pretensions over presentation and ceasing to worry about their or God’s image with the world, contemporary churches paradoxically can foster the image of being set apart. Cathedrals are neither cool nor uncool; they are intended to draw people into the presence of God. The same should go for the modern Church.

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J. Cal Davenport

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