When I was 22, I took my first job leading worship for a church. It was 2007, and the church for which I worked had spent the past five or six years operating in a model they had adopted from a mega-church in Chicago. The basic premise was that we, as a church, needed to be “seeker-friendly.” This term really confused me. As far as I could tell, there apparently existed in America a group of people known as “seekers,” who had no real religious affiliation, but were entertaining the possibility of giving this whole church thing a shot, and it was our responsibility to make a good impression on them when they inevitably decided to give our church a shot.
We held staff meetings about how we could better appeal to seekers. They needed to know that the church was not only relevant, it was cool! You didn’t have to be churchy to come here. So we simplified the sermons, we left out the pricklier parts of scripture, we put a couple of Matrix clips in the middle of the message, and stuck a U2 song or two in the opening music set. All the seekers were going to be pumped! The whole thing seemed so ridiculous to me, even at the time. I honestly only have the best things to say about that particular church. It was a wonderful place full of wonderful people, but it became apparent to me that the entire “seeker-friendly” model only had the appearance of a brilliant, gospel-centered evangelical movement.
That façade simply masked a less virtuous motivation: we were scared of becoming irrelevant. We were scared of seeing the church dry up and blow away, so we identified a group of people who needed the gospel, gave them a cool name, and went to work at convincing them that church was the place for them. But it wasn’t the gospel. It was the church’s self-preservation instinct kicking in.
The seeker-friendly model seems to have run its course, but there’s a new source of anxiety in American churches. It’s a group we call “millennials,” and as a campus minister, I can’t seem to hear the end of it. When I go to speak in churches on behalf of the campus ministry for which I now work, it’s only a matter of time before some well-meaning baby boomer raises their hand and asks me for my opinion on why millennials are leaving the church, or asks me what I think the main issues are for millennials.
Our consciousness has been flooded with statistics on how the church is losing this generation, and we want to know why. What can we do differently? Our self-preservation instinct kicks in. Of course, we’ve traded in the Matrix clips and U2 songs for Twitter feeds and church sanctioned iPhone apps. Aren’t the kids into that kind of stuff? But when these changes aren’t enough to keep the younger generation in our churches, we get scared.
The Sinking Ship
I recently read a fantastic article about millennial anxiety that quoted the great theologian (and student pastor!) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Apparently, the church was trying this same kind of stuff in his day. “It is the task of youth, not to reshape the church,” Bonhoeffer said, “but to listen to the Word of God.” See! Bonhoeffer gets it. If our evangelical efforts are motivated by a fear that our ship is sinking, we’re underestimating the power of the gospel.
The gospel is still good news. It was good news in Jesus’ day, in Bonhoeffer’s day and in our day. It’s good to news to seekers and millennials, and it will be good news to the next group of people that the church is afraid of losing. The church is a living, vibrant, inter-generational body, not a sinking ship.