NEW VERSUS NORMAL
In the fourteen years that I helped put together church services for Family Christian Center, we did some crazy out-there stuff. Trying to describe to new friends what my role was like is almost comical. People listen to me talk about the animals and their excretions, the Thriller zombies, and shooting arrows into screens and their first reaction is usually to laugh. Some of the risks we have taken paid off with highly effective services, and some have made for great stories later. HA! Brooke, our fourteen-year-old, travels with us now after growing up at Family Christian Center. For her, all these things that sound extreme to others are just normal life. In her world, it’s just how you do church. If you don’t have a city bus on stage, miniature horses, or human torches, she’s a little bored. At least blow something up! It sounds over the top, but she is growing up to a new normal in church life.
Everyone who grows up in church or gets saved in church has an idea of what they believe church should be like. Usually it is very connected to the first spiritual experience we had in church. The atmosphere where we first felt a God connection often defines our preferences for the rest of our lives. We get resistant to anyone who tries to change what we enjoyed so much. Sometimes it’s the number of songs being sung, or the length or content of the preaching that we get hung up on. Interestingly enough, however, what seems traditional to you today was radically new to someone else in the previous generation!
The form of church services themselves has changed dramatically throughout history. In the Old Testament, God spent entire books of the Bible explaining in great detail exactly how he wanted his people to worship him. He gave them specific instructions about everything, from the ceremonies to the size of the room and the decorations, with no room for personal freedom or creativity at all in the expression of it. As the years went along, it become more and more apparent that it just wasn’t working. Throughout the books of prophecy, God expressed his dissatisfaction with the way people were worshipping. They did the rituals well enough, but their heart wasn’t in it. God wanted more.
THE IRRELEVANT DEBATE
When Jesus came, something incredible happened to the way humanity interacts with divinity. There is a fascinating conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman that changed the way we do church forever. It reversed everything that humans understood about the way God wanted to be worshipped. Jesus began this conversation with some small talk and then abruptly switched gears by reading this woman’s mail and telling her he knew about her checkered past. After she got over her surprise, she took advantage of the moment to ask what for her was a very pressing question.
“19 The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’” (John 4:19-24)
This is an over-simplified explanation of a complicated history, but I think it will help you understand the premise for her question. Bear with me for a moment. Moses made the Tabernacle per God’s request when the Jews wandered the desert for forty years. It was a portable church venue essentially—a tent. Whenever they stopped for a few days, the Tabernacle was set up, and when it was time to leave, it all packed up and came with. Once they settled in what is now Israel, the Tabernacle was permanently set up on Mount Gerazim because there was no longer any need to move it around. The Jews would go up this mountain to worship God. When David came to power generations later, he built himself an impressive palace in Jerusalem. He felt guilty that he had such a nice place and God still lived in this old tent. He decided to built a temple, which his son, Solomon, wound up building. After they finished the temple, they moved the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the presence of God, from the tent on Mount Gerazim to the new temple. Some of the Jews were very offended by this move. After all, their ancestors had been worshipping on that mountain for generations! They believed that the change was wrong. These Jews continued to worship on Mount Gerazim, even after the ark was no longer there. They became known as the Samaritans, and this difference of religious opinion divided them for hundreds of years from the Jews who worshipped in the Temple. What this Samaritan woman was asking was this: Since you, Jesus, seem to be in God’s inner circle, please resolve this debate once and for all and tell us what God wants!
Jesus’s response was incredibly radical. He told the Samaritan woman that she was asking the wrong question. God couldn’t care less where they worshipped. What really mattered to God was the authenticity of the heart behind the worship. Jesus was saying that for the first time in the history of humanity, the form did not matter anymore. This was a complete change! The focus of worship was no longer on ritual and tradition, but based on emotional and spiritual connection first before any spiritual expression. Jesus was saying that the way you worship, the mechanics of it, is irrelevant. God had been given form and procedure for thousands of years, but what he really wanted was something that was heartfelt, not just a duty. God wanted people who would worship him from their spirit, or from the very essence of their identity, and they would worship truthfully, authentically. He changed the paradigm of the way worship would happen forever! In essence, as long as our services are leading people toward connection with an genuine God moment, pretty much anything goes. There is no formula, no set anything!
That day, something fundamentally changed about the way we connect to God. It went from thousands of years of sameness to several thousand years of never the same. Since that conversation, church worship has been consistently changing so that it always reflects a fresh creative expression of our hearts toward him. Every generation since then has done church a little bit differently. Today, the expressions of Christian worship all across the world are incredibly diverse. Islam is the opposite. No matter where a Muslim is in the world, they worship the same way. They face Mecca, get down on their knees and pray five times a day—same prayers, same locations, the same way. Jews are still caught up in form. I read an article recently about how the Jews have been sneaking up onto the Temple mount to pray recently. The third holiest Muslim site, a giant mosque, occupies that space currently. They are willing to risk their lives trying to honor their worship tradition.
CHANGE IN CHURCH
It’s human to love our traditions. Christians can easily get so caught up in what is familiar that it can become a lid to our creativity. Instead of a foundation to grow on, it becomes a lid. Even in the most creative environments, we easily get comfortable in what we have always known, connected to the ritual of doing things the way we have always done them. It is possible to be so captivated by our history that we miss the freedom that we have to create fresh moments that help our people truly connect in worship. To Jesus, the benchmark for quality services is that people have authentic God-connection moments. We have no guarantees that what worked ten years ago is still going to work today. Every new generation will worship God a little bit differently.
As a young pianist, my teacher emphasized to me that good practice establishes strong neural pathways. The more I play a song correctly, the easier it is to do it the same way the next time. The upside of this is that it gets easier to play it well. The downside is that change becomes more and more difficult if I am playing something wrong. My family listened to me play a song over and over and over and they would get incredibly sick of hearing that song. If people are listening to the same song over and over, they get burnt out on it after a few months.
Churches that want to provide quality experiences for their people spend enormous amounts of time, energy and resources getting it right. Our teams practice carefully to give the best experience we know how to do. Some of us have gotten really good at it! Unfortunately, if we do church the same way every week, the same two things happen. The first is that we will find it harder and harder to change the way we get together corporately, and the second is that people begin to disconnect from their experience because it feels stale and overplayed. If we allow this to happen, we will miss the new generation. Bands that have been successful over many years learned how to reinvent themselves again and again. Most artists aren’t able to do this and have a few years in the sun, then fade back into obscurity. If we don’t intentionally reinvent the way we do church, particularly for well-established, older churches, we will wind up in the same boat.
Dying churches are full of older people and shrinking every year as they die. It’s essential that we build change into our church cultures. It’s very easy to slip into the habit of making decisions based on what we know will work, what we know our teams can pull off to minimize risk. The bigger and older we get, the harder church leaders find change to be because of fear of losing what has been built over many years of hard work. We find comfort in our routines, and what was once radical has become traditional.
So what needs to change? Some things shouldn’t change at all. Keep certain things central. The apostles devoted themselves to doctrine. We have to make sure we are getting it right. It really bothers me that there are some GenX leaders are moving away from the idea of the Bible being inspired. We don’t adapt the truths of the gospel around popular opinion. Right and wrong, sin and salvation, the cross and resurrection, the Holy Spirit and his power, the truth of the Bible—these things are foundational. The Sundays we build are only as strong as we build these foundations.
THE MILLENIALS ARE COMING
We have to watch this generation carefully to learn how they connect. I’ve done some research and some personal observation to arrive at some thoughts about the value systems of Millenials, but these are certainly up for debate. Purely to prime the pump of your thinking and to get the conversation going, here are my thoughts about what is valuable to Millenials, or GenY.
Connection to the past: Millenials tend to get excited about old buildings being revived, old instruments revived, or old clothing revived. Hipster culture has reconnected to folk music roots. Churches are taking old cathedrals and renovating and reviving them. Vintage instruments are wildly popular. Reviving old furniture or homes is huge—there are multiple reality shows about this. Millenials have a value for legacy and history as a point of personal identity. Perhaps this is because of the homogenization of the cultures of the world.
Value for environmental responsibility: We can’t ignore this as a church. Millenials value this responsibility as significantly as they value fiscal responsibility or family responsibility. This translates in to recycle bins in church, or community gardens and local markets in church parking lots, or composting in church kitchens.
Life is less compartmentalized: Most people take their work with them wherever they go. They take work to church, and they take home to work, building communities together that do life together on a broad spectrum. We don’t go on vacation with the neighbors anymore; we go on vacation with work friends, with the community we connect with that has shared values and interests—and there is a little community for every interest under the sun. The Millenials are mowing the parks of Detroit. This should be a government responsibility, but they don’t have a problem crossing over this line. As the church, we have to figure out how to make church less a Sunday event and more integrated into people’s daily habits.
Intimacy and community: In a digital age where we are connected to hundreds shallowly online, Millenials crave the intimacy of face-to-face personal relationship. Their relationships have been reduced to a like button. They desire genuine connection instead of anonymity. They love being part of a team where everyone is comfortable with each other, not a stiff hierarchy where people are in competition all the time
Millenials aren’t interested in stereotypes: They do cultural mash-ups all the time in music, in fashion, in art, and in relationships. We can’t be afraid to cross all kinds of cultural barriers and be inclusive.
Honesty: Millenials hate pretension or fakiness. No one has everything a hundred percent together, and authenticity matters, They don’t like being impressed or schmoozed, and can smell an agenda a mile away. If we want them to come to our church, we can’t pretend we like them. We have to actually like them! They don’t like feeling pressured into community, It has to happen organically, because people have something in common and genuinely like each other and want to share their lives. Shared interest connect groups have been pretty successful for this reason.
High value for personal freedom: They want the flexibility to do life uniquely their way. Whether it’s in creative expression or in a work environment, micromanagement is the life sucker. Google is the gold standard for work environments. If we want to lead young high performers serving in our church, we have to give them some space. They want to get the job done well their own way.
Cause-driven work: Millenials want to know that what they are doing is a piece of a larger, important work for humanity. They want to know why their work matters, beyond just bringing home a paycheck. Hair salons are more commonly hosting free makeovers for underprivileged high school proms. Restaurant owners contribute to community gardens where people can collectively grow fresh produce to give away to anyone who needs it. Journalists tell stories that expose injustices to inspire change. The “social entrepreneur” is a new industry according to Forbes magazine, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
Smaller venues: Apparently the American shopping mall is in decline. Outdoor village-like environments that feel like shopping at boutiques in the city are on the rise. Millenials find connecting and doing life difficult in giant environments. Huge venues for one-off events will never go away, but more intimate environments appeal. They don’t like being crammed into a crowd or standing in a long line or sitting right next to (touching) a stranger. Milllenials are building smaller venue multi-campus churches with a great community feel, many services and many options.
Financial responsibility: This generation has grown up in the great recession. They have seen the credit crunch and are far more wary of debt. They saw their baby boomer parents be under water in their home loans, owing more than their property was worth. They are less willing to take on multi-million dollar building loans or pay a higher cost per square foot for a larger auditorium. Openness about financial decisions is of much higher value. This doesn’t mean they want to control the way their church is spending money, just that they don’t like secretiveness.
Increased value for quality hand craftsmanship: Millenials appreciate things that are not just mass-produced. Pinterest and Etsy have boomed. For a season, churches felt very corporate, and looked like business buildings. I think that the churches of tomorrow will reflect this value for craftsmanship. I’ve seen it in things like hand-carved beautiful wooden pulpits and guitar stands, or handcrafted lighting fixtures in church lobbies.
If these qualities are part of this generation, then we have to think through our systems and presentations from this perspective. I’m not suggesting that we all need to grow beards and wear vintage Doc Martins. We just have to think about our methods through these value systems, and reexamine our processes. If Millenials don’t enjoy feeling pressured into an assimilation system, then maybe we should look at how we word our communication to new guests, or how frequently we are communicating to them. Is it too heavy? Does it feel like we genuinely want relationship with them, or is it overly formal and generic?
RETHINKING TO CONNECT BETTER
We need to rethink things. If we don’t purposefully change by taking risks in areas we don’t understand well, we will stagnate. It’s not about being cool and trendy. We have to learn how to make the gospel come to life for every new generation. Statistics have been telling us for quite some time that the vast majority of Christians made their decision to follow Christ as a young person. This means that the most important God experiences in church are happening in the lives of young people. They are important because they are the first of a lifetime of moments. As the church, we must prioritize and design these moments and design around young people.
What’s tricky is that currently the baby boomers are for the most part leading the church. To reach young people requires the older generation to let go of their preferences and their ideas about what is cool, and yield style and method to younger preferences. Boomers, don’t get resentful about this. I am GenX, looking between Boomers and Millenials. It won’t be many years before the kids in children’s ministry will be telling me what is cool. Give those Millenials thirty years, and it will be their turn to yield their preferences! It is the way Jesus set up the church—each subsequent generation must change.
Just as significantly, we need the older generations. Boomers have the leadership experience, the skills, and the emotional maturity that churches desperately need. Just because we are changing does not eliminate the place that older generations have in the church. Every part is valuable. Don’t feel excluded or discarded because of the changes that need to happen. Making space for the preferences of a younger generation does not eliminate our ability to participate in or to lead the process. It just means that we reinvent our contribution.
We love our traditions and routines because they feel comfortable and familiar, like an old warm fuzzy blanket in front of a fire on a cold night. They aren’t bad! It’s just that no one else wants to curl up under your ratty old blanket with you! It is your blanket, unique to you. Traditions are the same way. We can’t expect someone else to love them. It’s incumbent on the older generations to be willing to change and give way to the styles and methods of the younger generation. My husband John says when he was younger, his mentors were twenty years older, but now they are twenty years younger. As leaders, church isn’t for us. It’s our opportunity to present Jesus to others.
Don’t be resentful, because give them twenty years and they will be in the same boat. We can choose to love what’s fresh because it keeps us young. More than that, it keeps our heart’s connection to Jesus fresh and active. Let’s have a yes in our heart to whatever new thing our pastor wants to try. Let’s keep measuring what we are doing, watching carefully for when systems are getting stale. Sometimes more than a patch of a new leader is required, and we need an overhaul because that process just isn’t working any more. We have no guarantee that because something is working now it will always work.
Above all, let’s ask God to give us his heart toward people. The Bible says that Jesus looked at people and felt compassion. He can keep us focused on reaching others rather than our own preferences. If we get our head up long enough to watch people, culture, and trends, we will get genuinely interested. People know when it’s real! Let’s build teams that have inclusive spirits, reaching for new people and new ideas.