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.