Working in campus ministry, the question of the best way to reach out to college students with the gospel is one that is often on my mind. What sort of activities and programs should we offer on campus? What types of questions are people asking? What is the best way to connect with skeptical students? A lot of churches are clearly asking the same questions as they seek to reach out to millenials, who we often read are leaving the church in large numbers.
Recently I read an interview with Rachel Held Evans where she discusses this. I have long appreciated her writing and work, from her blog to her book The Year of Biblical Womanhood. In other words, call me a fan of hers.
The big news surrounding this interview was that Evans has joined the Episcopal church. It seems a lot of my favorite writers and scholars are either members of churches with traditional liturgical worship or have moved that direction in recent years. I have heard and read many times that those leaving the church desire this sort of worship more in line with the traditional church. All the noise and production of contemporary worship style churches are not interesting to twenty-somethings as they were in reaching their parents. To be fair, Evans did not say this. But I have gotten this impression from reading some people.
In my experience, it is not true at all. I took a group of mostly unchurched students to a church last summer when we were on a trip doing a day camp. It was an Episcopal church and the students were bored out of their minds. Not one of them said, “aha, this is what I have been looking for that will bring me back to church!” I think a specific sort of person is drawn to such tradition, people who read and study a lot, intellectuals, people who desire more than a loud worship band. This is a point which Evans’ recent blog post On “Going Episcopal” makes as all the people who share stories of finding a home in the Episcopal church are white and middle class (Evans notes this in the post so it is not like she is ignorant of it). Honestly, I am attracted to this sort of things. But for those who are, it is important not to project this attraction onto others who are also disillusioned with church.
It is important that we realize traditional liturgy is not THE answer.
It is important that we realize contemporary worship services with little to no traditional liturgy is the answer.
I am saying, there is not a “the answer” when it comes to reaching out to millennials, or to anybody for that matter.
Simply moving from hymns to contemporary songs, from piano to guitar will not automatically draw people to church.
Simply doing communion more often will not automatically draw people to church.
Simply having a shorter sermon will not automatically draw people to church.
Simply changing the dress of the pastor from a suit to jeans will not automatically draw people to church.
At the risk of contradicting myself, I think the closest thing to a “the answer” is relationships, and I think this is what Evans gets at when she mentions anointing the sick and confession and such. When individuals in the church show kindness and hospitality to their neighbors, when church communities show love to their community, this is what draws people to church. It is not sexy or glamorous, but such things do lead to real change.
So maybe along with their being no “the answer” we need to modify the question. Simply getting large numbers of people into church is not the goal. You can fill an auditorium in many creative ways, but it is worthless if actual life change does not happen. Perhaps we, most of all, need to be reminded that the goal is making disciples, one person at a night, and not just filling seats.