These Kids Today
Now that I’ve taken a look at one aspect of our contemporary culture, the question remains: What do we in the churches do with this information? What else do we need to know about how the world of those younger than us is fundamentally different than our own?
Well, we do know that religion is just not as important for younger people as it is for those of us middle aged and older. That, I believe, is our failings catching up with us. By and large, Baby Boomers and those close behind attended church as children in large numbers; this enormous bulge in attendance not only made mainline churches complacent, but inattentive to the realities of the faith. Discipleship, self-denial, risk, deviance – these are the hallmarks of the Christian life. Ours has been a society of mass conformity since before our birth. Ethnic tensions between English and Irish, English and Germans, Protestants and Catholics, and of course whites and blacks, are as old as America. That our churches reflected these tensions and occasional bouts of violence rather than acting against them (with rare exceptions, obviously) is, again, a failing with which we continue to struggle. That many churches are now experiencing internal conflicts over just these matters – are we reflective of our local and larger society, or do we exist outside it in some way? is America truly a Christian nation, especially beloved by God or are we little different than any other country except that we consume far more of the world’s resources than other countries? – shows that the relatively sudden shift from one of accommodation to discipleship is being met, on the one hand, with resistance (“I’ve never heard this before”) and on the other with incredulous disbelief. The result, alas, is shrinking numbers, growing conflict, and less giving to support the ministries of the churches.
Then there’s the slow adaptation of technical apparatus and acceptance of the realities of contemporary communication. Ours is a society that has gone from large, clunky, and slow personal computers when I was in college to hand-held devices with more computing power than some space probes. Most churches politely ask people to turn their cell phones off during worship. There are a few, however, that are adapting to the changes in communication, encouraging people to use Twitter, in particular, to let others know what is happening in worship: What songs are being sung, who might be in need of prayer, what the message for the day is. Personally, I find this a wonderful step forward. It encourages attention to detail; it is a form of communicating the Gospel; it shows others that some churches are not only alive and well, but wanting others to hear their Word, to know they are present for the world.
Which is why I find the arguments over musical styles in worship so puzzling. Not only are these rehashes of debates that have been going on for forty years; they reflect a refusal on the part of churches to pay attention. Despite Jonathan Aigner’s insistence that there is not an evangelistic aspect to worship music, I can assure you there is. A family with young with young children walks in to a church, and the pipe organ (or its electronic equivalent) is blaring “Nearer My God To Thee” or “Old 100th” and the kids, at least, are going to stop listening. Not because they are bad or uneducated or anything else. Rather, they are going to interpret that as a message that this is a church for old folks.
Which isn’t an argument for turning off organs. It is, rather, an argument for understanding what is at stake in the worship music debate. It is a smaller part of a much larger discussion about Christian identity in a society that is changing rapidly. We Christians who understand our message is the most important thing there is – that God loves us, and invites us to be a part of making the world the place God wanted it to be in the first place – would like to be able to get that message across to people in ways they understand. This isn’t accommodation or placing relevance above the Gospel. It is, rather, finding the best tools to get the Good News to people who need to hear it. We don’t use flannel boards in Sunday School, do we? Why do we use 18th and 19th century musical technology and music to sing our praise? Why do we insist this is somehow more holy, more in keeping with true divine worship?
That young people are either staying away or running away from our churches; that the Christian faith is less and less relevant; that our churches are perceived to be places of enforced conformity, prejudice, and museums of antiquated technology, words, phrases, and methods of communication drive away people who already perceive “church” as antiquated, out-of-touch, judgmental, and deaf and blind to the world around them. That these perceptions have deep roots in reality should be obvious to those of us in church. That we continue to argue about these things as if the issue was “relevance” rather than “being good stewards of the Gospel for the world” demonstrates just how off-base so much of our discussion is.
We in the churches need to stop. We need to stop arguing among ourselves over whether organs or praise bands are better. We need to stop judging popular culture as decadent, sinful, unworthy of our attention, to be ignored rather than wrestled with. We need to stop discussing and debating who gets to be a part of the life of the church. At some point, we need to just stop all this nonsense, discussions and arguments that have been going on for much of my 49 years, and get down to figuring out how to use all this stuff around us to get the Word out. These kids today are right when they judge church irrelevant, because we are arguing and debating and finger-pointing ourselves past the point of relevance, becoming a joke, a parody, a punchline. No one can hear the Good News for all the shouting we do, either at people outside the church to stop doing things we think are bad, or at one another for doing things we think are bad. Either way, all folks hear is shouting. No one hears that still small voice.