When Church is Cool

I have a friend who is part of the praise band at our local Presbyterian church; he plays the electric guitar.  I’ve gone to church a couple of times recently to hear him play.  The services featured five or six songs, a blend of traditional hymns (some of which are in our LDS hymnal), a piece or two by the choir, and some contemporary soft Christian rock.  It was nice to hear some talented musicians.  The variety was fresh and new to my Mormon ears.  I enjoyed standing with the congregation, arms raised, swaying to the music and singing along with the band.  The services were cheerful and upbeat and well, uplifting.  As I left, I couldn’t help wondering if our church could be a bit more, dare I say it … cool.

Then last week an article in The Wall Street Journal caught my eye, “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity” by Brett McCracken.  Mr. McCracken is a 27-year-old evangelical who is editor of Biola magazine.  He has written a book called Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide.   I love the book title but I’ve got a hunch that he isn’t talking about my ward, in peril for its wannabe hipness.  The article cites a 2007 Lifeway Research study that showed 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.  Statistics like that have created a growing awareness that something needs to be done to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.  The addition of some contemporary music might help.  I thought about our LDS members in that age demographic and realized that perhaps the LDS answer to keeping this age group engaged is called a mission?  I know it doesn’t involve a praise band because there’s a young adult ward that meets in my building and last time I checked, they were sitting in the pews singing the same dirge-like, organ-accompanied hymns that are sung in my family ward.  To be fair, we do occasionally shake thing up by standing while singing the same dirge-like, organ-accompanied hymns.

So maybe we don’t require a praise band to keep our young adults involved?  I don’t know the statistics of LDS church attendance in that age bracket but I do wonder.  And what about the rest of us?  I’ve now entered my forties and I find myself frequently bored at church.   Judging by the numbers of people heading for their cars after sacrament meeting or standing in the halls talking, I believe that I’m not alone.

Brett McCracken’s book explores various ways that churches attempt to be cool.

For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsored screening of the R-rated “No Country for Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 hair cut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

McCracken cites churches that engage technology with tweets and texting. The thirty-something bishop of my ward does like to text the youth and my teenage son thinks he’s cool, although more because he’s sincerely a nice guy, not because he texts.  Apparently there’s a church in Florida that has an online, anonymous confessional called IveScrewedUp.com, and a web series called MyNakedPastor.com, which featured a 24/7 webcam trained on their cool pastor.

The LDS church doesn’t seem compelled to make these kinds of cultural adaptations and maybe that’s a good thing.  Church doesn’t need to be glitzy, nor does it need to reflect every trend of popular culture. Most of us probably don’t feel the need to see our bishop in a pair of skinny jeans, and would agree that church should provide a respite from some of the materialistic and image-obsessed culture outside.  It does however, need to be relevant in people’s lives.  It needs to keep people awake and be uplifting so they want to keep coming back.  It would be good if it could feel a little more joyful.  The gospel is good news right?  I’ll give up on the idea of a 24/7 webcam on the bishop, as entertaining as that might be.  For now, I’ll just focus my attention on the music.  A few new contemporary songs now and again might be nice and I’ll admit to a case of guitar envy.  I’d like to praise God in a more upbeat way on occasion.   I suppose we could start our services each week with an enthusiastic rendition of “There is Sunshine in My Soul.”   It might get monotonous but it would set the proper tone.

McCracken writes “If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular.  It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what He says rings true.” Amen to that Mr. McCracken.  Still, there is a big part of me that longs for a bit of variety in our worship services.  In fact, I’d like to hear a new song, stand up and sway in church and sing along, then turn and shake hands with the people around me like the Presbyterians do.  Yeah, I’d settle for that.

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17 Responses

  1. Guest Post says:

    I’d say that the church’s new “and I’m a Mormon” PR campaign along with social media melding on their website is an attempt to leverage some “cool.” Personally I’d rather see the church adopt a skinny-jeans policy, but YMMV.

  2. Janell the Great says:

    Membership retention does not dwindle because the church lacks a cool-factor, and I think that applies just as much to “single” adults as it does to “not single” adults. I believe a good deal of the retention problems are because the congregation frequently lacks warmth. People feel there’s no one to rely upon, or that others are being falsely friendly to gain a conversion, or like they’re not included, or that they don’t belong. High turnover and seasonal fluctuation deprive singles wards of ever feeling stable or family-like. Even in my current, “traditional” ward it seems that the core ward members are reluctant to be inclusive of individuals or families who are living in an apartment, for apartment dwellers frequently leave in three to twelve months and thus aren’t worth the time or effort. A feeling of inclusion, belonging, and love would be far more effective in increasing retention than an upbeat, band-accompanied song.

    Now, inversely, would membership be more fervent if the church were trendier or more mainstream? I think the HQ is now testing out that theory with their “Mormon’s are nifty people,” ads. It’s not skinny jeans to replace the suits and a guitar to replace the organ, but it is an acknowledgement that pairs of boys in suits and pairs of girls in dowdy dresses might be an offsetting first impression to individuals of other faiths.

  3. Corktree says:

    I think Janell is right about the warmth factor, but I also think some of the practices of other congregations would help in that area for wards that are struggling to be cohesive and inclusive. I remember the feeling of attending an early morning UCC service every week with my husband who was a deacon there at the time while we were dating, and many of the social elements of the small group made me feel very welcome. These people weren’t and wouldn’t be my friends outside of Sunday morning, but they somehow made me feel included and loved when I was there, with no expectations.

    There was still always something missing from the services doctrines, but I’ll never forget how much more welcome I felt there, and the example of Christ that I saw regularly.

    Also… I do really wish our musical worship was a bit more joyous and physical sometimes. What I wouldn’t give to sing a true “Hallelujah!”.

  4. EM says:

    Ditto to Janell’s coments. I love living in a small branch where we experience a much closer bond than I’ve ever felt in a huge ward. What would be really cool though is 2 hour block instead of the 3 hours – sitting that long is painful. I think we can learn just as much in 2, than in 3. As for the hymns – arrrrgh! What we need are lively choristers and organists that play hymns just a smidge faster than normal – and a little beat wouldn’t hurt so much.

    • Rebecca says:

      I love the idea of the 2 hour block! I know it would make my kids dance for joy! Seriously, my older brother says he has no desire to sit anywhere for 3 hours. He doesn’t sit still that long ever, even as an adult. It is a big factor in his inactivity. Sitting in church was viewed as torture for him when we were kids. There have to be quite a few people who find the 3 hour schedule daunting, particularly when they weren’t raised with that expectation.

  5. Mike S says:

    From OP: “…I don’t know the statistics of LDS church attendance in that age bracket but I do wonder…”

    Along the Wasatch Front in Utah, using a VERY liberal definition of “activity” that tries to account for mobility, etc., the activity rate among Young Adults (ie. 18-30) is around 18%.

    I think there is a natural tendency to “find oneself” at that age, once you don’t have to go to Church because your parents “make you”. I also don’t know that it is feeling “welcome” or not. Most wards I have been in are very welcoming to young adults. There are also a number of single wards in the Wasatch Front area where they are welcome.

    My 2 cents re: the issue:

    1) People that age are extremely busy. They are juggling school, starting out in a new job, dating/social scene, starting new families, etc. The Church emphasizes a “both feet in” activity level, and anything less than that is seen as not committed.

    2) On a practical day-to-day engaged with society level, the Church emphasizes weird things. They talk about tattoos and earrings and what type of bathing suit you wear and whether your knees or shoulders show and etc. And face it, garments are a tremendous imposition, particularly on women. The top could be changed into a camisole top without affecting the markings, etc. There are a number of other things I won’t go into. A 70-year-old doesn’t care about any of these things. A 22-year-old certainly does. Whether someone wants a tattoo or not, having a church tell you that getting one is ignoring a prophet is grating.

    3) This generation is much more internet-savvy. In an older generation, finding out some of the more “troubling” things about the Church with regards to polygamy, women’s issues, blacks, history, etc. actually required going out and seeking an “anti-Mormon” book or some other literature. Now, a simple Google search for Mormon will have half a dozen sites giving these things on the first page. But the Church sticks their head in the sand and wants to pretend they didn’t happen. This creates cognitive dissonance.

    4) Previous generations accepted things “authorities” told them. This generation (likely because of the internet) is much more skeptical. They don’t believe something just because an authority tells them something. They have to accept and own the principle themselves. This is at odds with the authoritarian and hierarchal nature of the Church, where someone is expected to do something just because someone told them to.

  6. Caroline says:

    Amen, Rebecca.

    I was watching Mama Mia with my mom the other day. In the movie they were having a fabulous party with costumes, singing, and dancing. I remarked, “Wow, those people sure have a lot of fun.” My mom’s response: “I think a lot of people – most other people – have a lot more fun than we do. We’re not a people that really know how to have a good time.” I’m pretty sure she was referring to us as Mormons.

    I think that lack of fun and joy is lacking in our services. What I would give for an energetic chorister who would stand up there with joy, explain the song a bit and what parts to emphasize, wave her arms joyfully, and shout out advice as we sang. For those of you who have gone to Sunstone, that’s what Ardell Watts (I think that’s his name) does, and I just can’t help grinning as I watch him. He’s so full of joy and love for the hymns. He brings them alive. And the piano accompaniment, rather than organ, sure helps too.

    Of course, I’d also be more than happy to add some more contemporary songs and instruments into the mix. I’ve been so moved by the music at our local UCC.

    I’d also really love it if the quality of our sermons was higher. That would infuse energy and interest into the meeting as well.

  7. brandt says:

    @Caroline:

    It was Ardean Watts. I was listening to a slew of Sunstone presentations when I came across one that had an opening hymn with it. Listening to him talk about the hymn, the words to focus on, how to sing it, then hearing him sing and lead the hymn was awesome. I was out mowing my lawn listening to it, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier mowing a lawn!

  8. Olive says:

    Not everyone goes to church to be ‘happy’ and ‘joyful’ though…some people go to receive balm for their aching souls and hearts. Super “happy happy joy joy” songs and lessons wouldn’t appeal to them. They aren’t rejoicing, they are grieving. They want deep, serious doctrine, not light-hearted stories. So I guess it just depends where you are in life.

    • Rebecca says:

      Olive,

      You have an excellent point. We need to be a mix I suppose. There is a place for the more meditative and serious. There is a place for communing with our God and finding peace. We do have to be careful though or everyone is nodding off. A balancing act to be sure. Music really sets the tone for me and I think it has a huge power to touch people. I’d like to see more music in general.

  9. Jenne says:

    Did anyone else rejoice in the soundtracks to Single’s Ward and The RM? My favorite types and styles of music to some of my favorite hymns. Some hymns even became favorites from blasting those soundtracks while riding around in my convertible bug in college. Hey, geek can be cool…

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that the punk hymns need to be played in sacrament, but at a YSA activity or YMYW, yes for sure. In sacrament, we don’t need to branch out that far, but some good gospel? That would be good. If your ward does a talent show, transposing How Firm a Foundation to rock music could be considered a talent. I would love to see more of this happen in the church and do not agree with the members who find it irreverent.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Hello everyone and thank you for the insightful comments. The first commenter mentioned the “and I’m a Mormon” PR campaign. I hadn’t really thought so much about how that relates but that’s a good point. My take on that is it’s less about saying “We’re cool” and more about saying “We’re not weird.” That reminded me of an article I read recently by Armand Mauss over at Patheos. The title is “Mormonism in the New Century”. Getting a bit afield from this discussion but It brings up issues about the church’s attempts to assimilate (we’re just regular people), followed by attempts to retrench (we are different and need to maintain our unique identity). He thinks we’re in the assimilation part of the cycle now and those PR campaigns would probably support that view.

    A couple of you mentioned that our services need to feel more welcoming or warm. Personally, I find that LDS people are generally a pretty warm bunch. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but there are a lot of friendly, socially adept people in my So Cal ward. I tend to really like a lot of the people. I know we have issues with making people who are outside the LDS box feel at home. That does trouble me and would be the subject of a whole other post.

    Mike, thanks for the statistics and articulate post. I knew someone would come up with some numbers! Points all well taken. About your fourth point, I think it was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who said tongue in cheek that her skepticism is what keeps her in the church!

    There seems to be a huge thrust toward increased missionary work lately. It seems like looking at our services and making them a bit more upbeat could be a place to start. When I wrote the post, I was thinking more about myself than converts to be honest. My husband tells me that the band-led music is new to me and that I might grow bored of it too. Maybe, but I’d be willing to take the risk! What do we have to loose really? It seems that there is a balance between trying to “follow the world” in LDS speak and being modern and relevant. Having a pattern of worship that seems stuck in a time warp doesn’t seem like the best step. We don’t want to go with the world, but we also don’t need to look like the Amish in a few years. Not that there’s anything wrong with being Amish!

  11. Rebecca J says:

    “I think a lot of people – most other people – have a lot more fun than we do. We’re not a people that really know how to have a good time.”

    My experience and observation has been exactly the opposite. I won’t argue with anyone else’s experience, of course, but the Mormons I have known throughout my life have known plenty about having a good time (sans alcohol, which is pretty impressive). We just don’t know how to enjoy ourselves while worshiping.

    • Jana says:

      I think most Mormons seem far more reserved and serious than other folks. We tend to think constantly about the eternal implications of everything we do, rather than just enjoying our lives or ‘letting go’ (buddhist-style).

  12. EmilyCC says:

    Wonderful post, Rebecca! I particularly like this part:

    I think this is the crux of the problem. It seems to me that so many of the lessons in RS and PH are boiled down to their essence and yet, we don’t teach our teachers how to expand from the basics to make these gospel principles relevant to our audience. So, we all get the same lesson every week, regardless of the make-up of our wards.

    I’d imagine the problem is only compounded for young adults since there probably aren’t any from that age group helping to write the manuals.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    Hmm, I must not have coded that correctly, it dropped Rebecca’s quote that I like so much:

    “It does however, need to be relevant in people’s lives. It needs to keep people awake and be uplifting so they want to keep coming back. “

  14. Noah says:

    I’m going to start out by confessing that I really, really hate going to Church. That, and I don’t go anyway because I’m afraid of hellfire and damnation–from my wife and mum. I go because the LDS Church promotes and facilitates a Christlike life of service and sharing. Aside from service and sharing, I think “belonging” is another key word mentioned somewhere above. Another unique feature of Mormonism is the participatory aspect–that the ward really is the sum of the efforts of its members. Perhaps we need to look past our consumerist outlook and realize that Church serves a purpose that extends beyond being “cool” or “entertaining”. The utility of the Mormon Church should not be gauged by its “cool factor” but by its value in healing broken hearts and transforming us into Christians in the truest, fullest sense of the word.

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