In this era of pulling out all the stops to step up or just retain membership in a church congregation, the first thing to do is to understand your demographics. How do we best retain x demographic, whether it’s women, men, college-age, the elderly, generation X, generation Y aka millennials, baby-boomers, take your pick. Rather than appeal to the whole (catholic), churches attune their message, their church programs, their activities to certain demographics. There’s no way you’re going to get all of them. In the world of business, people want products which are cheap, come fast and are of good quality. You can’t have all three so smart businesspeople say you can only have two.
Drawing in the millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000), I would argue, has been the bullseye when it comes to church growth or church sustainability. Those on the older end, some of them at least, are starting to get married and sometimes have children, while those on the younger end are college age, often a critical time when the likelihood of abandoning the religion (if any) they grew up with and maybe trying something different. The standard thinking by many churches to retain or gain this group has been to make church watered down, polite and, most importantly, “relevant” to their lives as if the exact thing that millennials do in the world should be replicated in the service of God. Hence, many churches have gone to a church “Style” that appeals most to this group: quasi-rock music “praise music” devoid of any theological meaning and concentrating on what the individual “feels” about God; sermons that speak seldom, if ever, about sin and focus more on cheap therapy for one’s self-esteem; abandonment of repentance or change since God loves you as you are; rejection of doctrine and favoring of believing whatever one wishes; services that are short to allow people to get back to the “real” world, etc.
The results of implementing this line of thinking have been disastrous, to say the least. Now, 1 in 5 Americans considers himself to be a “none” in terms of a specific confession of faith. There is a rise of “spiritual, but not religious” demographic. And baby-boomers, wishing to be their kids’ friends rather than parents, have abnegated their responsibility of raising their kids in the faith, because that would be mean. Churches are losing, but continue to practice the proverbial doing the same crazy thing over and over and expecting different results.
Is there an alternative? Possibly. Though this is not backed up by any statistical evidence and is a summary of anecdotes, perhaps the answer to seek out and retain millennials is not rooted in any “relevant” approach at all, but a return to the liturgy. I encourage you to read this article here. It gives the account of three people, all of whom grew up in an evangelical or liberal Protestant background and found a home in the Anglican (not Episcopal), Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches. Again, we need to stress that though this is occurring, there are no firm statistics to corroborate.
I would argue that the Liturgy has been and always will be catholic (encompassing the whole) and is not just for one group or another, but for all. The liturgy is the great uniter precisely because it does not cater to the whims and feelings of one group versus another. The problem is that many of the evangelical churches and liberal Protestant churches are lead overwhelmingly by those who are still stuck in the mindset that you have to appeal to people’s feelings above all. Once those leaders are gone, maybe there will be an upswing in the number of churches which seek to reclaim their now lost liturgical roots.
Despite the lack of statistics, the point of the article cannot simply be ignored. There is a desire, a need for the liturgical worship that has been cast aside starting since the 1960s. In an era where every whim and want can be instantly gratified thanks to the internet, fast food, smart phones, globalization, there needs to be a place where mystery and the unknown prevail. And that should be in the churches. The churches which worship according to the ancient liturgies do not give people immediately what they want, do not heal every wound at once, do not cater to their demands. There must be periods of waiting, of expectation and then, at last, partaking. And that takes time, though the Liturgy itself is timeless. People DO long for mystery, do long for the unexpected, do long for uncertainty in the spiritual life. Victory then, in the spiritual life, is so much sweeter.
Churches will probably continue to do as they did, but they should be honest about why they are losing people. Adding new programs according to the old model may work for the time being. But, it’s like using a drug. At first, you have a contact high and then you want more and more until using it fails to achieve that feeling like when it was first tried. Churches which always seek to give the congregations the newest fads, the newest trends to keep them in their buildings, will hold onto them for a little while. But, like a drug, it wears off and people still don’t have what they really need and desire. Time for a change by embracing the changeless–the Divine Liturgy.
NB: I use the term liturgy to refer to any particular church’s traditional mode of worship. For Orthodox, this is the Divine LIturgy of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great; for Catholics, the Tridentine Rite; for Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer; for Lutherans, the common service.
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