Recently, a friend posted a link to a Pew Research Center report titled “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious” and asked “How do we reach people where they are at, without driving them away?” Not long before that, I heard a commercial for a church in Chapel Hill NC advertising an event to pack 20,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now. These two seemingly disconnected things are, in my opinion, inextricably joined: one is the problem we’re faced with and the other is a ham-fisted, utterly clueless attempt to confront that problem: i.e. the church’s growing irrelevance in modern society.
To put a finer point on things, the church has a massive credibility problem right now, especially among millenials. Why? Because we have a history of being assholes, that’s why. From the Crusades to the modern-day church’s marginalization of people who are LGBTQ, the bill of particulars against us is long, varied and, all too often, bloody and violent. It also showcases our hypocrisy. Our faith is based on a man who told his followers to love their neighbor, love their enemy; hell, love everyone. That’s about as inclusive as it gets, but what has the church done? Turned it into an exclusive club with a long list of requirements that must be met to qualify for membership. Is it any wonder that millenials, with their yearning for authenticity, are rejecting us in droves?
So, how do we reach people where they’re at without driving them away? Well, we could follow the example of certain mainline churches and immerse ourselves in the liturgical aspects of worship. But, unless there’s a sea change in our attitude, that’s just window dressing and it will wear as thin as the rock concert atmosphere of an evangelical mega church. The church should be more concerned with what happens in the community its a part of than what goes on inside its walls.
To fully answer this question, I have to tell you a short story, first. Every Thursday night, a coffeehouse near me has a trivia contest and many of my friends from church attend regularly; including my pastor, Michael Usey. The one time I’ve made it out there, we trying to come up with a name for our team and Michael said “How about The Non-Shitty Christians?” We all laughed and answered “Hell yeah”. Our scores in the contest were dismal, but the name was a hit, drawing laughs every time the emcee said it. My friends, that name is my recommendation for how we reach people without driving them away. We need to become “non-shitty Christians”.
So, how does one be a “non-shitty Christian”? For one, you can stop obsessing over lady bits and sin and start doing the things Jesus told us to do (loving our neighbors, caring for the poor, not hording shit, etc.). If you do, it’s entirely possible that people will notice and say “Hey, I like what these folks are doing”. If you’re lucky, they might even come join you. For another, you can open your doors to everyone. And, when I say “everyone”, I mean “everyone”: Lesbians, gay men, bisexual folks, people in polyamorous relationships, people of color, even (maybe especially) trans men and women. And, when I say “open your doors”, I mean “open them all the way”, none of this half-measure bullshit we get from some denominations that supposedly welcome folks who are LGBTQ but won’t ordain, marry or even allow them to join the church.
Now, there is a bit of a Catch 22 here: you can’t advertise the things you’re doing because that will kill any credibility/authenticity you might gain from it. This where that church commercial I mentioned earlier comes in. Working to ensure hungry folks get a decent meal is always good and it is one of main the things Christians are called to do. But, taking out a radio ad touting what you’re doing? That goes against scripture and it makes it appear that you have ulterior motives. Strangely, millenials (and other people) are big on that whole “do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do” deal. Following Jesus’ commandments in order to fill the membership roles (and, by extension, the collection plate) or go to heaven doesn’t really fly with them.
The bottom line is that we should stop trying to “attract millenials”, “reach the unchurched” or whatever face we decide to put on our worry over the miniscule reduction of the church’s primacy in the world and start being the damned church. Give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. Visit the prisoner and care for the sick. Clothe the naked. Open our doors and welcome everyone. Maybe if we start living the way Jesus meant for us to, we could actualy be relevant in a good way…, for once.