Millennials Need Time-Tested Traditional Churches
“Spiritual but not religious.” That’s the phrase frequently applied to millennials. They reject organized religion but remain spiritually inclined. They’re interested in the health and well-being of their minds and bodies and spirits, but they shun organized communities of religious identification.
A Pew Research poll from 2015 found that only 41 percent of millennials believe religion is very important in their lives, as opposed to 72 percent of the Greatest Generation and 59 percent of baby boomers. The same poll found that only 27 percent of millennials attend religious services weekly (boomers claim a rate of 38 percent; their parents, 51 percent).
One of the reasons they don’t go to church seems to be a disaffection with one of the most popular worship styles going now—a style much embraced by their parents and, especially, by their grandparents, the baby boomers.
That style is contemporary worship, as in praise bands and rock musicians, generic auditoriums with fixed theater seating or big boxy rooms with stackable church chairs and worship screens. This worship style is frequently found shallow and trendy, caught up in innovation and cultural conformity. The theology attached to it is often found wanting for the same reasons—it lacks spiritual gravitas, it is grounded in what is new and culturally relevant.
Jonathan Aigner, writing at Patheos a few years ago, sees the eventual decline of this trendy worship form, because, for one thing, the generation that spawned it is getting long in the tooth and will soon shuffle off this mortal coil. Yes, baby boomers are getting old, and when they leave, contemporary worship will lose its most gung-ho supporters.
But the encouraging aspect of Aigner’s piece is that they will not be replaced by millennials. Indeed, he claims millennials are “seeking old ways of doing things.” They are demonstrating “an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool,” Aigner claims.
Is it too much to suggest that the old ways of doing “church” are the better ways? That a worship style that has prospered for many centuries has something theologically substantial, something religiously solid, to offer a generation that finds itself floundering among the flotsam and jetsam of religious ephemera and trendiness?
Instead of joining trendy churches that reject Christian traditions and theology, millennials should seriously consider seeking out churches that value tradition and that employ the historic liturgy on Sunday mornings.
First off, most liturgical worship takes place in a room specially built for the activity. Since the time of the Roman basilicas, human beings have been building special houses in which to worship their Creator, sometimes sacrificing inordinate quantities of time, treasure, and blood in the effort.
However, the last fifty years or so have seen a trend toward the desacralization of worship space. More and more churches have been built as auditoriums, with permanent semicircular theater seating, or as the sorts of places in which the youth group can sing a choir number from the platform on Sunday morning and clear away the chairs and play volleyball in the “sanctuary” on Sunday afternoon. They’re all-purpose rooms purposely built as anti-churches. Some congregations can’t even bring themselves to call them sanctuaries; they’re “worship centers.”
This trend seems to be playing less and less well with millennials. A Barna survey from 2014 found that millennials were favorably disposed to traditional sanctuaries. Of four options presented to persons aged 18 to 29, a plurality (44 percent) chose a traditional worship space, as opposed to the semicircular megachurch mode or a more straightforward theater-seating mode. Seventy percent preferred an unambiguous Christian chancel arrangement, largely traditional with an altar and a cross/crucifix on the back wall. Commented the researchers on the chancel setting: “These patterns illustrate most Millennials’ overall preference for a straightforward, overtly Christian style of imagery—as long as it doesn’t look too institutional or corporate. Not only do such settings physically direct one’s attention to the divine, they also provide a rich context of church history as the backdrop for worship.”
From the grandest cathedral to the humblest country church, these spaces were designed to house worship of the triune God. What takes place in these rooms is holy; it’s special. It’s not like everything else we do in life. It’s done at a special time in the week, in a designated place. The instruments that accompany worship are different from what we experience in our weekday lives. The language is formal, prescribed, reverent, and repeated week after week. We cheapen it when we pattern it on what happens the other six days of the week.
The traditionalist argument is that in a week that contains 168 hours, for one of those hours we enter a different place, a holy place, a place where God’s presence is represented by symbolism, where voices are hushed and activities are undertaken—standing up to show respect, singing scripted responses to spoken or sung entreaties—that are foreign to our everyday life. That we enter a place of reverence and holy quiet to hear from the Lord himself through his Word. Where his Word is, there he is. That place is a holy place.
We might even respect this holy place with our attire. We live in a distinctly informal age, where comfort is key and dressing down is frequently considered “dressing up” (see pre-torn jeans). While it may be unrealistic to expect the fashion pendulum to swing all the way back to coats and ties and Sunday dresses at worship services, we can at least hope it travels in its arc away from informality beyond jean shorts and flip-flops.
And we might even address the pastor with formal respect. Although the regnant casualness of our time encourages informality in this area—calling the minister “Pastor Mike,” or simply “Mike”—the pastor is set apart from the crowd by his calling as much as by his function. He is a shepherd of souls as well as a formal officiant. The minister wears robes that hide his individuality and accentuate his office; he is called as an undershepherd for the sheep, under the Shepherd himself. He’s not just “Mike.” His office deserves our formal respect.
In such an environment the music will be different as well. The impetus behind the contemporary Christian music movement is familiarity with cultural musical norms. The whole enterprise is about connecting with popular culture—if we sing songs that ape those of pop music, that feature the rock back beat and the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format, with pop-music instrumentation (guitars, drums, keyboard), we will succeed in reaching the young and bringing them into, or back to, the church. That’s the thought behind it.
But popular culture is shallow by definition. It connects to the transitory, the evanescent, the ephemeral; it is a temporary form always awaiting something newer, bigger, better, brighter. We all know what happens to those who marry the Zeitgeist—divorce proceedings follow swiftly thereon.
Traditional hymns have staying power. They can attribute their survival to their beauty, certainly—the poetry is refined, serious, elegant, espousing a vocabulary suitable to the holy place in which it is sung. But moreover, their strength lies in their theological force. Hymns tell the story of faith, of sin and forgiveness. A typical hymn lays the sinner low in his sin and lifts him up with God’s grace. It conveys the salvation story.
Tradition accrues because it works. We do things the same way our forebears did them because those things were effective for our forebears. If tradition wasn’t effective at what it was meant to accomplish, it would not last long enough to be tradition—it would be just another abandoned fad. The reason the historic liturgy is still around, after more than half a millennium, is that it effectively communicates the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
The pastoral pronouncements from the front of the church, the congregational responses, the confession and absolution, the sung features interspersed throughout the order of service (the Introit, the Gradual, the Venite, the Te Deum Laudamus, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei)—they tell the story of salvation, and all of it comes straight from the pages of the Bible; indeed, many of these rubrics are verbatim transcriptions of scriptural passages.
Many a bad sermon is saved by the historic liturgy. For if the sermon doesn’t convey the message of salvation or speak to listeners’ hearts or affect them in any meaningful way, there’s the liturgy, with its confession of sins and its declaration of absolution, with its forgiveness reified in the Sacrament, which conveys the saving message. In “nonliturgical” churches, if the sermon is a dud, you walk out with your deep spiritual hunger unfed.
We as humans need ceremony. We are comforted by ritual. Every worship service of every ilk is built on form, on repeated acts. From the glitziest arena church to the little brown church in the dale, a worship service is constructed after a pattern that is repeated, sometimes identically, week in and week out. Everybody does liturgy. Why not return to a ritual that’s been around the spiritual block, that’s been tested by generations of fellow believers, that’s been known and authenticated as an effective transmitter of saving faith, that connects you to generations of Christians, to your grandparents and their grandparents and believers back to Martin Luther and maybe even Thomas Aquinas? You’re going to do liturgy anyway. Why not make it the real thing?
My plea to millennials is this: why not become connected to a church that champions the saving gospel in its weekly ritual, that employs a form of worship that has been used by stalwarts of the faith for centuries, that will not change with the theological seasons, and that will not bend with the trends?
Why not become “spiritual and religious”?