Hemant Mehta from Friendly Atheist had a discussion on CNN with an evangelical blogger named Rachel Evens about why people are leaving the church.
What I found interesting about the evangelical’s statements is that I actually started out agreeing with her. She begins by saying that people are leaving the church by failing to stay relevant. She acknowledges that the church is loosing relevance to many people and it’s attempts to become more “hip” are generally not working. The church is failing to attract members by modernizing their services with worship bands and laid back dress codes etc. This is true enough.
The part where she looses the plot is that she seems to think the reason the church is loosing relevance is that people want a more “traditional faith.” She doesn’t explain exactly what she means by this but all I can assume is that she means they want church’s are have more traditional liturgy, theology, or perhaps both. In this I think she engages in exactly the same flaw in thinking that caused the church to start trying to become more “hip.” to begin with. That is, she puts style before substance.
This isn’t a new thing, back when I was a believer back in the 90’s was when this tread really took of the ground. Christian music was just taking off and it was full of musicians who seemed to be copying the sounds of popular “secular” bands. The market was being flooded with Christian T-shirts that parodied popular logos. We though we were being funny and creative even though we were doing neither of those things. These trends still continues today.
The issue was that Christianity was already loosing relevance before this trend started. The thing is that evangelicals define their morality and their ideals about how the world works on the Bible, and that book isn’t changing, so they are caught between two opposing forces. Trying to stay relevant on the one hand and trying to stay true to their religious beliefs on the other.
They found only one way to balance these things, which was to change the style. There was a surge of churches that sprung up who used a worship band instead of a piano or organ. They had relaxed dress codes, and even the preachers would wear t-shirts and jeans. Maybe the youth minister even had an earing. These churches thought of themselves as “hip,” and thought surely the youth of today will take them seriously now. Unfortunately it hasn’t really happened that way. However, it’s not because the youth want a more traditional experience as Evens claims, but because the church is fundamentally the same traditional organization it’s always been just with some new windows dressing. It didn’t work for the same reason that you can’t repair a house with a rotten foundation by slapping on a new coat of paint. The church thought a couple of guitars and some blue jeans would convince us they had modernized while allowing them to continue doing business as usual. It didn’t work.