Everything old is new again. It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached. Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE). Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere. The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old. Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born. The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.
RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:
“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”
If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state. I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.” If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years. Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing. In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.
That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though. What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:
“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”
The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights. But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.
Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church. To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.
Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*
I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation. That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous. Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.
But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style. I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice. (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.) When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.
As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ. With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God. This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not. Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.
But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story. The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand. Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.
P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.
*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.