Soaring electric guitar solos resonate across the amphitheater arena as attendees make their way through the cramped lobby, where vendors are selling everything from t-shirts and coffee mugs to DVDs and the pastor’s latest book. Somewhere someone is wondering, “Wouldn’t Jesus be flipping over these tables?” But before there’s time to have an actual theological debate, congregants find themselves standing in front of flashing lights, pulsating stage speakers, and three colossal multimedia screens, the latter of which are broadcasting a montage of video clips and announcements featuring an overly hyperactive dude in skinny jeans and a muscle shirt. In-between his cheesy dance moves and horribly scripted dialogue, he encourages everyone to snap a selfie with their neighbor and post it to Instagram using the hashtag #JesusRocks.
There’s not a wooden pew in sight. No, they’ve been replaced by luxuriously padded chairs or even by the sort of seats you would find at an expensive movie theatre in your city. Come to think of it, this might actually be a renovated movie theatre, or at least an imitation of one. Everywhere you look, the church’s sleek and contemporary logo is staring back at you because, as they say, “Brand identity is everything.” A lady on stage grabs a mic and announces that before the service is over, one lucky attendee will win a lifetime’s supply of free Starbucks coffee and an autographed copy of the pastor’s New York Times bestseller. The crowd roars. Just when you think the buildup can’t possibly get more intense, the so-called “worship band” takes the stage and begins performing something so indistinguishable from the Billboard Top 100 that you have to honestly wonder whether you’ve stumbled upon a rock concert, a televised gameshow, a shopping mall, a church, or some weird amalgamation of all four.
The picture that I’ve just painted for you might seem outlandish and utterly farfetched. But, anyone who has attended a few of our nation’s millennial-minded megachurches — or, even worse, a small local church pretending to be a millennial megachurch — is likely familiar with at least a few of these elements.
Of course, my generation has come to see right through much of this inauthenticity. Over 59 percent of millennials have already left the church and it’s not because they hate the idea of organized religion. It’s not because they hate values, morals, or even Jesus. It’s because they can smell a phony a mile away. A church that places more emphasis on entertainment than relationships; more value on the pastor’s public image than the Gospel; or more focus on hype than authenticity will stick out like a sore thumb every time. In other words, a church that is trying to be something other than a church comes off as shallow, disingenuous, and completely bogus. Millennials already see enough nonsensical marketing and consume enough hollow entertainment in other aspects of their lives. As far as they’re concerned, church should look and feel different than the rock concert or sporting event they attended the night before.
Moreover, recent data from the Barna Group, in conjunction with the Cornerstone Knowledge Network, found that some 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church as opposed to a “trendy” or contemporary one, and 77 percent would rather worship in a “sanctuary” than an “auditorium.” Although I was a bit surprised by how high this number was, I found myself in agreement. Attending a church service so large that it has to meet in a basketball stadium or a shopping mall doesn't quite have the same feel of authenticity or intimacy as the congregation of 200 or less meeting in the 1970's-style building that boasts decades of stories and history. To be clear: The Holy Spirit may indeed be present and honored in both locations, as He is obviously not bound by such physical barriers. But, millennials have their preferences like anyone else.
Maybe the answer to millennial church attendance, then, isn’t more fog machines, more lighted columns, more lattes, and more beard oil for the worship leader. Maybe the church doesn’t have to feel “cool” or be “woke” to cultural fashion trends. Maybe the church should just be the church. You know, reach lost people, engage the local community, and build authentic relationships. What a novel idea. Someone should write that down in a book that will last for all Eternity. Oh wait, never mind.
In regards to their approach to millennials, this will mean a few things for the modern church:
1) Keep your message content theologically accurate and rich in content. Remember, we hate that whole empty and hollow thing. We see right through it every time.
2) Stop lying to us about who you are. Be real, even if it means having to shrink your entire program, restructure everything you've done, or break up into small "multicampus" churches.
3) Provide us with a genuine worship service rather than the sort of pop or alt-rock concert faux experience you’ve been told we want. I think I speak for many millennials when I say: You’ve been gravely misinformed.
Maybe if we start with this, we’ll slowly return to some vague semblance of what the church was meant to be. Maybe.