Rachel Held Evans, religious blogger, writer and my new favorite millennial, recently lit up the church nerd social media world and broader media spectrum with her Washington Post opinion piece, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ ”
As a millennial’s older red-headed step-sibling, you remember us, Generation X (I think there has been like 1 article about us in the last 25 years… OK, that might be a slight exaggeration), I get slightly weary of all the media attention and extended commentary devoted to the ‘millennials,’ the ‘nones,’ the ‘hipsters’ and all the other names for this younger generation and species of human beings that have pretty much birthed an entire new anthropological cottage industry and academic discipline. Again, not to sound bitter, but between the self-centered boomer generation and the preoccupied millennials, I’ve been pretty much able to fly under the radar… no one is analyzing me or trying to figure out why I do what I do or why I am the way I am (besides members of my immediate family).
So in spite of this little rant, I could not help but be intrigued by the conclusions of Rachel Held Evans, who makes the case that in spite of our recent church bonfire of the vanities – plus any music written before 2000 A.D., organs, choirs, pulpits, gothic architecture, prayers of confession, fonts and tables, etc. – we are now hearing that we can be innovative and have a future without having to grow a soul patch or put the pipe organ on eBay. Indeed, according to Evans, millennials don’t want us to try to make church cool or treat them like religious consumers. Rather, millennials are a lot like the rest of us, after all, and are in search of a “loving, authentic, and inclusive community.”
But others have seen Evans’ article as a license and permission for struggling mainline churches to keep doing what we’ve been doing… and now expect different results. I do wonder if I/we Presbyterians will ever be able to out-market or out-device or out-hip churches that have entire marketing departments or eight kinds of worship styles and multi-screens… or even if we should try. If anything, we Presbyterians have to realize we are the definition of uncool – or to put a more positive spin out it: retro. What bothers and worries me about Evans’ explanation of millennials is the quest for authenticity. First, who can be authentic? Second, who gets to define “authentic”?
I would love to try to convince you, or better yet myself, that I am an authentic human being and an authentic Christian. But I feel that is exactly what I am not; it is what I need to confess. If I am completely honest, it is something I never will be this side of Christ’s kingdom. On top of that, I am not sure I want to put measurements of authenticity into the hands of any one population of people whether they be my grandparents, my government, millennials, my enemies, Baby Boomers or even my own family. It seems that our only measurement for authenticity comes from the crucified and risen Lord. Whether we are low church, high church or somewhere in between, we are all inauthentic and will only find our authenticity in Jesus and through him and the measurement of his life, his death, his resurrection. All else is inauthentic.
In the most recent edition Delta Airlines magazine, there was an article about the re-emergence of traditional French cooking among New York City’s most prominent chefs and restaurants. According to author Andrew Zimmern, in recent years New York chefs have moved away from complicated food. While not ignoring innovation or closing their minds to diversification, they also have come to realize and appreciate the ‘classics’ and have rejuvenated a simple approach to cooking. Perhaps that is our best approach as Presbyterian Christians too… while we can’t help but be uncool, we continue to do the classics well and confidently – even as we remain open to innovation and diversification, hoping that in spite of our fruitless quest for authenticity, God’s authenticity and glory will shine through.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.