Wannabe Cool Christianity?


Brett McCracken not only has a new book and website out-- Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (it's a reasonably hip and cool site, btw!)-- but also was a featured Op-Ed writer in this past Friday's Wall Street Journal.

The site is worth looking at. The article is worth reading. 

But the perspective, at least in the article, represents a serious misreading of the situation of younger adults in our churches on the one hand, but also perhaps a fairly accurate depiction of how many congregations and denominations are making exactly the same misreading.

The misreading in Brett's article is of a 2007 study by Lifeway Research that explores the reasons that 70% of Protestants 18-22 years old surveyed in the study indicated they had essentially "dropped out" of attending a congregation for a year or more during that age range. The deal is the finding is very specific-- 70% dropped out (quit attending regularly) for a year or more during that age range. Further work showed that roughly 65% of these began attending again at least sporadically after their "off period," and over half of those began attending regularly (weekly or more).

Brett McCracken's  article, though, says this:

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Well, as you can see (if you go read it!), Lifeway's research does not show an "increasing exodus." It just shows a high incidence of folks in this age range "taking a break"-- and then it goes further to document the reasons that happens. Nor does it find-- as the ending of the second sentence suggests-- that just because they stop at some point for a period of a year or so during that age range that they never re-start after that. Most do! And most who do become regular participants again.

True confession here. I stopped attending a congregation with any regularity  when I started college. I was active in a campus ministry group, and I stayed in touch with the church I was a member of via mail (they'd send me their bulletin's and newsletters in the mail-- I had email via CompuServe back then, but nobody in the church office did, and they were making their bulletins manually-- this was 1982). So I was at best a "mental member."

Why did this happen to me? I was a lifelong Southern Baptist at that point, and there were no Southern Baptist congregations in Gambier, Ohio. The nearest Baptist congregation was about 7 miles away, and I didn't have a car, and it wasn't Southern Baptist, either. We had Episcopal, United Methodist, and Roman Catholic services available-- but no Baptist. (I was actually the only Southern Baptist student on campus while I was there!). So I didn't attend a congregation at all for probably the first six or seven months I was there.

That didn't mean I wasn't involved in a Christian community, however. I became fairly quickly active in a student-run campus ministry that met weekly on Monday nights for fellowship, study, prayer and fun activities and that developed small groups (family groups they were called) that also met weekly for more intensive study and prayer. (Call it "society meeting" and "class meeting" if you like!). These were challenging, broadening, and deepening of my spiritual life and commitments in every way. But if the question was "do I attend a congregation regularly" the answer would be no. In fact, I didn't attend at all. 

Now, a combination of peers who attended the Episcopal church on campus (Kenyon is an Episcopal college) but not the Kenyon Christian Fellowship, and some who attended both, pretty well convinced me that I was missing the boat by not also attending worship regularly, so beginning after the middle of the spring semester that year, I began attending Harcourt Parish on campus, too. And yes, I became a regular there. I was even one of the members of the choir and one of the leaders of the youth group there my senior year. A Baptist-Episcopalian--- or a proto United Methodist!

Back to Brett's article. Yes, he misread the statistics. Or at least he didn't dig into the study he cited far enough to get a fuller picture-- one that actually seems to correlate pretty well with the study cited in the previous post on this blog.

But I think he may well have captured the sort of panic with which congregations and judicatories are taking this kind of misreading pretty accurately.

It does seem to be the case, based on the Pew Forum Report on Religion among the Millenials that about 2/3 of younger adults (ages 18-29) do NOT attend worship regularly (weekly or more). That's fairly close to 70%. This same generation is far more likely to be religiously unaffiliated entirely than any previous one tested (25% versus  16% overall, and 14% ages 30-39). But as we saw in the previous blog, that high rate of non-participation is far more driven by the fact of disaffiliation by their parents, and so actual relative non-affiliation by this generation, than by people in this age group actively leaving the church. Some have left permanently to be sure. But most of those who have left did so only for period of time and later returned to some level of participation in a congregation.

But-- that nuanced perspective is simply not being communicated out there. A far more catastrophic perspective is-- young adults are "fleeing our churches in droves!" And it's that catastrophic perspective that has driven much of the rhetoric at the leadership levels of many US denominations, that has fired up our "anxiety responses," and that has contributed to what might, to the less anxious observer, appear to be "panic moves" to "lure back" these folks. 

Here, Brett McCracken is spot on. And he's a witness for those who haven't left, and the 2/3 of those who have left for a time and later returned. Most of these folks really didn't leave per se. They just stopped attending for a while. And most didn't stop attending by and large because the church felt "irrelevant" or anything like that. For the most part, the facts were that their lives changed (going to college, starting jobs, moving to a different location, getting married-- the kinds of changes typical for this age group) and it took some time for them to re-adjust and re-incorporate a congregation into the mix in such radically different circumstances. 

What that also means is that those who did leave didn't expect the congregations they left to try to "lure" them back. Brett McCracken sums it up this way: 

"As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real."

Okay-- so does that mean we ought to start marketing "real church" as opposed to "cool church?" 

I'm afraid that's already underway.

McCracken's point is marketing isn't the way to go. Actual relationships and enduring communities are. And above all, folks committed to living out the way of Jesus with you-- regardless of your age-- that's what matters most of all.

Well-- if you want to be a disciple of Jesus at least!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: "Cool" Used by permission under a GNU Free Documentation License.