why an unhip church is also not the answer
Not too long ago, a Christian writer took to the Washington Post to defend her thesis that new, flashy churches that go out of their way to attract younger generations with hashtags, memes, and imitating coffee shops are failing to hit their goals because those goals are misguided and simply aren’t in line with what the younger generation actually wants. Her case is a strong one, backed up with opinion polls showing that three quarters younger churchgoers really don’t care for turning places of worship into nightclubs and aren’t attending because they don’t agree with the commoditization of faith, and the homophobic and partisan invective coming from pulpits in many established congregations. Far from the entitled stereotype that most media is obsessed with affixing to them, Millennials want a humble experience with a focus on loving thy neighbor, not a laser rock show after venti soy lattes. And so, urges Evans, churches should drop the act and ban the marketing-speak, and focus on being genuine and accepting, instead of acting like businesses, then the young parishioners they so desire will flock to them all on their own.
But will they really? This is not a new conversation by any means, and warning churches not to emulate the business world go back years, while efforts to woo those who lost their faith or just fed up with the church collected the numbers Evans uses to bolster her case, but overlook the impact of the increasing number of atheists as if they don’t exist, or just need a better pitch for getting their rear ends in pews. Not only are younger generations questioning whether the just and loving God they grow up hearing about will cast their friends into Hell simply for being only slightly different, they’re deciding that this whole organized faith business is more divisive than inclusive. More and more Millennials know someone gay, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, with a kid out of wedlock, or who went through a divorce. They know them as good people with different lives, which couldn’t necessarily turn out the way their pastors tell them it ought to. So when fire and brimstone loudmouths take to the pulpit to enjoy the verbal torture porn about the gory fate of the “heathens, sodomites, whores, and heretics,” they’re denigrating flesh and blood people, not just abstract things to hate and condemn for the older parishioners.
It’s that hate that often leads people to question whether their churches have strayed from their roots, from a religion that was supposed to be about helping the poor and accepting everyone, letting God cast judgment instead of taking these matters into one’s own hands. And the more a theology is questioned on the grounds of theodicy and the apparent lack of God’s interventions, the more those losing their faith tend to turn to our scientific body of knowledge, which has not just good answers, but ones that are testable in the real world. They’ll ask why they should set one’s existence into an idea abused by authoritarians to impose their will on those around them and keep them in line with threats of Hell? Churches have to stereotype atheists as amoral, it’s their only choice when they try to make the threats stick. But the reality is that atheists don’t eat babies and behave like sociopaths any more than any other group, so outside the church walls, yet another tall tale falls and another reason to doubt becomes apparent. All the church studies and surveys mentioned above talk about this exact phenomenon, but insist on ignoring it.
Even more important for Evans than the realization that atheism is not some sort of a hip fad a more liberal church would snap Millenials out of, should be the fact that despite the complaints about the “newly” business-like nature of churches, churches are a business and always have been. Religion is a tax-exempt enterprise that exists for its own perpetuation. Typical churches spend as much as 82% of their donations on salaries, buildings, and administration, leaving as little as 5% on average to do any real charity work. Megachurches designate half of all income as staff salaries and spend much of the rest on the kind of marketing techniques Evans decries in her article, giving some of their pastors $200,000+ paychecks while covering their expenses, a nearly tenfold increase of a typical pastors’ gross earnings. Unable to mandate tax collection, churches are focused on making sure they have as many members as possible tithing as much as possible to pay for their infrastructure and all the people they hire. Sure, they do “spread the word,” but they’re not doing it for free as a general rule, so of course they need new blood.
Here’s the deal. We’re living in a world where nebulous, millennia old traditions are not cutting it anymore, where people communicate with each other so easily and travel so often that many of these evil, heretical foreigners we were supposed to be afraid of and who would corrupt us into wickedness, can talk to us in real time on a daily basis, and they’ve turned out to be mostly nice and hardworking people, with a set of ethics very similar to ours. The ones that haven’t, are for the most part, vicious religious zealots, showing us the dark side of religion with vivid examples of senseless, mindless brutality for the sake of terrifying the world and getting their own way. If we can be good without going to church, without bowing before something that either does not exist, or most definitely has nothing in common with our ancestors’ fantasies, why would we just choose to do the same old, same old instead of leaving ancient ideas where they belong? The exit of the Millennials from organized religion isn’t a consequence of churches going corporate, it’s a sign that these institutions’ grip is nowhere as strong as it once used to be.