Theology & Spirituality

Three Things that Need to Change About Church

My husband and I went through a phase where we spent too much time watching Kitchen Nightmares, the reality show where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey tries to turn around failing restaurants. In one episode, Gordon asks the owner of a sad and shrinking diner, “What do you think is the biggest problem with your restaurant?” “No customers” the owner replies. When he pressed her about why the restaurant didn’t have more customers she said “Because they aren’t here. They just need to come.”

I’ve written previously about the lack of “customers” in churches in America—the so-called “Nones” who report having no religious affiliation. I and many Christians think this is a troubling trend. I have no fears about the church “going away” or “becoming irrelevant,” because the church is a teleological certainty. I do worry, however about what a culture unmoored from traditional religion will wreck, and about the future of those people who have no community to which to turn in times of crisis. Within the church, much is made of the fact that the people who are still religiously affiliated are more faithful than ever. People have quit coming to church out of obligation, but the people who come voluntarily are in it for the long haul. This, to be sure, is a good thing; I want vibrant churches full of true believers.

But this is no excuse for abdicating our responsibility to evangelism and mission. Study after study has shown that Americans are more addicted, more lonely, and more depressed than ever. The birth rate is lower and the divorce rate higher than in years past. The human being, it turns out, was not meant to be “unaffiliated.” We have a responsibility to make disciples of Jesus Christ as citizens of His Kingdom, and we must provide comfort to the suffering. To do both of these, we need to reach out to this lonely generation.

This leads to the next question: how exactly are churches supposed to reach this elusive group? In my time as a member and a minister in a mainline protestant denomination, I’ve heard and seen several tactics discussed and deployed. The decline in average Sunday attendance is not a new problem. I remember grownups discussing it extensively in the 90s when I was still a child playing in the pews. All of them have been pushed with the implication that the Church must modernize her inherited tradition if she is going to “attract” the skeptical and weary grandchildren of the Baby Boomers.

The driving impulse behind much of this culture shift within the Church seems to be “meeting people where they are.” Millennials and Gen-Z report caring about social justice, so ministers show up to protests and rallies. They prioritize health, fitness, and quasi-eastern spirituality, so we host “Yoga in the Cathedral” and call Whole30 a Lenten discipline. They’re engaged on social media, we rush to open church social media platforms. COVID restrictions on worship led to a flurry of excitement over new “online” churches. And, perhaps worst of all, we meet them in the middle of their characteristic doubt and skepticism, with web banners that say “You don’t have to change who you are” and “A safe place to explore your faith” and where Jesus Christ is hardly mentioned, for fear of triggering an avalanche of baggage.

While “meeting them where they are” may seem like an innovative strategy, all of these are Christendom tactics in new clothes. Each of these assumes that if the church could just increase her visibility and show the Nones how relevant she is—including that we’ve done away with stuffy worship and outdated doctrine–then they will come running. “We care about the things you care about” we cry “Come care about them with us!” Like the sad restaurant owner, we assume that the problem is no customers. If they just knew how good the food was here, they’d be here already.

And, while I don’t love the tactics, I do think there is a nugget of truth in the impulse: we are going to need to meet the Nones where they are, by recognizing that “where they are” is a post-Christian world. As Christendom continues to shrink, all ministry is going to have to be missional ministry. And so, in the spirit of being part of the solution instead of just complaining about the problem, I’d like to offer three thing that church ministering in a post-Christian world should consider doing differently.

Boldness in Doctrine
My time in both post-Christian California and a progressive mainline seminary taught me that “doctrine” and “dogmatics” are considered dirty words among those who want to be skeptic friendly. Doctrine is seen as divisive, as a top-down approach to determining who is in and who is out. If we spend too much time pushing doctrine, it is argued, we will exclude those who have questions and doubts.

But is that true? Are young Americans so intellectual uncurious that they will reject all firmly held beliefs just because they are firmly held? Wishy-washy Christianity seems much more likely to be off-putting to a generation whose entire ethos centers on rejecting the phoniness in advertising, politics, and media.

I don’t think the Nones are put off by conviction in and of itself. I think they are put off by the assumption that the things we are convicted about preclude the things they are convicted about. And this may, at times, be true. The Christian tradition is not without boundaries. Our tradition places restrictions on things that the rest of culture treats as unimportant: who you have sex with, what you spend your money on, and how you spend your time. But changing Christian mores or pretending these restrictions don’t exist is not the answer. The challenge is to compassionately, pastorally, and confidently hold this line in the face of a culture that tells us we’re crazy. We have to show people that the freedom offered in Christ is infinitely better than the freedom to make arbitrary choices offered by the dominant culture.

Prioritize Catechesis
I believe that it is a mistake to assume that the Nones have tested Christianity and found it wanting. I doubt that many of my friends who have no religious affiliation could tell you concisely what it is they don’t believe. The time has come for ministers to stop assuming that people–even the ones already in the pews–have a good understanding of what the Gospel is and what the Christian faith teaches. At the height of Christendom, much of the Christian story could be absorbed by osmosis; scriptural motifs and Christian doctrines were in pop-culture and everyday encounters. But our culture has moved on, and it is up to us to carry the torch. Our preachers and pastors must be prepared to be teachers and apologists for the Christian faith.

This isn’t a call to exhort people or to transmit facts about faith into their brains but to do our homework—to learn what we believe and to learn to teach it bravely, gently, and well. We can’t help the unaffiliated see how their story is swept up into the story of the Gospel unless we are rock solid on what that story is. We should be prepared to have well-informed answers to questions about what our faith teaches, why we believe what we believe, and why we worship as we do. This brings me to my final point.

Recover Ritual
There may be good arguments against the use of vestments, incense, chanting, kneeling, and making the sign of the cross, but the fact that these gestures seem alienating or foreign is not one of them. Recently my husband showed me the Yelp page of a yoga studio in the town we used to live. What was most striking about this studio was how ritualistic it appeared. This was no run-of-the-mill fitness studio. There were brightly colored silk cushions, prayer beads, and incense burners. There were mandalas, sound bowls, and tapestry hung on the wall. And, in the Yelp photos at least, the place was packed. These young men and women—many of whom were likely not regular churchgoers—weren’t put off by the fact that the studio seemed different, or even unapproachable.

I am not advocating for using more ritual worship just because it might attract the unchurched, and I am certainly not advocating for incorporating quasi-eastern spirituality in the Christian churches. But I am suggesting that we don’t need to be afraid of ritual. We need to be prepared to explain why we do what we do. That ritual is more than “just a symbol,” and that there is something else going on.

Many of our rituals predate Christendom, which means they are ripe for recovery in a post-Christian context. This was, in essence, the entire gamble of the Liturgical Renewal movement. We face different challenges than our pre-Christendom ancestors: an ancient pagan is not the same as a modern secularist. And yet, there may still be something there. If church looks like anywhere else you could be on a Sunday morning, why would you be there?

Ritual, symbol, and mystery tap into the deep parts of the human heart—even those hearts that are atrophied by too much social media and 24-hour news cycles. What if instead of making church more user-friendly, we invited the unchurched to take a gamble on the unknown, by inviting them into a space that looks, sounds, and smells different than any other place they have ever been. Ritual and mystery might not be the otherizing and isolating forces we assume. They might just be the key that could begin to unlock the Nones closed hearts; the beginning of a crack through which the light of Christ can begin to shine. . What if ritual and mystery weren’t the isolating and otherizing forces we sometimes assume but are the gateway to an open heart?

Barbara White

Barbara White

Barbara is an Episcopal priest serving as Associate Rector for Worship and Formation at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to entering ministry, Barbara worked in public policy and corporate communications. Her interests include Christian metaphysics, the King James Bible, eschatology, and third-wave coffee. Barbara and her husband Joshua live in Louisville with two impious felines.

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