On April 30, Rachel Held Evans wrote another piece in which she says that the key to attracting millennials back to church is not about trying to make church cool. Indeed, she contends that the effort to make church hipper has the potential to do more harm than good with young adults. Evans cites research indicating that 67 percent of millennials prefer a "classic" church over a "trendy" church.
All of that may be true, but I think it may miss the main point. In a response to a similar column by Evans two years ago, David Hayward said that the millennials he knows just don't care about church--it does not appear in the scope of their needs. I think he's on to something.
I used to be a fan of The West Wing, a TV show which gave viewers a behind the scenes look at the presidency of fictional president Jeb Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. In an episode during Bartlet's reelection campaign, one of Bartlet's consultants urged him to support a constitutional amendment against flag burning. The consultant was convinced that such a stance would garner Bartlett a lot of votes because polling indicated that an overwhelming percentage of Americans supported an amendment against flag burning.
Later in the episode, however, another consultant revealed that, in addition to measuring support for a flag burning amendment, she had also measured the passion of respondents concerning the issue. It turned out that most Americans surveyed would claim support for an amendment against flag burning but few really cared one way or the other about the issue.
I suspect the same may be true with the research that Evans cites. Most millennials may say to a pollster that they prefer a "classic" church to a "trendy" church. But my sense is that most of that majority doesn't care much about any church of any persuasion. If such a large majority of millennials are so enamored with classic/traditional churches, then why aren't they packing the pews of such churches (because, in most cases, they aren't)?
Of course, we must not paint with too broad a brush. Many millennials care deeply about the church. Many millennials returned to church specifically because they found a trendy church that they like. Many millennials don't have to return to church because they never left.
While millennials aren't a monolithic lot, there's lots of research suggesting they are are leaving the church in large numbers. Church "style" considerations are not inconsequential in responding to this concern. But maybe a higher priority involves more conversations with millennials about the fundamental nature of the church.
Have we forgotten how radical and exciting the body of Christ is in its essence? That's a good subject for another blog entry or maybe two. Meanwhile, should we expect millennials (or anyone else) to care about the style of the meetings of a body that they don't really care about in the first place?