Brett McCracken is a managing editor for Biola magazine. He also writes a blog called “The Search” (http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/)in which he reflects on things cultural and things Christian from a twentysomething perspective.
Last summer Brett McCracken had an essay published in The Wall Street Journal called “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity” in which he suggests that the phenomenon known as the Emerging Church is losing ground. The young people it was designed to attract into the Christian fold are abandoning the movement that was designed to provide a place of worship and spiritual nurture that they could call home.
Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.
Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn’t megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.
Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it—to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”—remains.
McCracken believes that, in an attempt to make Christianity “cool” the “emerging church” abandoned the true purpose of church focusing instead on growing the church by developing trendy marketing gimmicks aimed at attracting tech savvy twentysomethings. He sees the “emerging church” as a movement that is preoccupied with being culturally relevant and locating itself on the “technological cutting edge,” determined to make Christianity appealing by shocking its audience into paying attention.
According to McCracken none of these techniques has any lasting power.
McCracken suggests that the twentysomething crowd is not interested in church gimmicks, but in reality.
If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.
I wonder what “real” looks like in church. And, I wonder if “real” is in fact what twentysomethings actually want when they come to church.
“Real” church is real because in “real” church you don’t have to “fake it til you make it.” “Real” church is real for the very reason that it is the one place on earth where you are absolutely free to be as you are.
In “real” church we are united by the common awareness of our human frailty. We all know that we fall short of the exalted vision of humanity for which we were created. Therefore, there is no room in “real” church for anyone to ever look down on or judge on anyone.
The problem with “real” is that “real” is not going to be tidy. It may not always feel comfortable; it may include people who do not entirely fit with my worldview. “Real” sees a complex, often confusing world and so at times “real” may appear to be lacking in bold, clear conviction. It might look weak, even a tiny bit confused.
“Real” includes complicated conversations, negotiation, compromise, and openness to ideas that might be challenging, even threatening to those who have been raised to believe they alone hold the truth.
If we are going to have “real” church, we are going to need to acknowledge that in the human community, we are connected to people who see the world in ways that challenge some of our most cherished presuppositions. We are going to need to admit that we may not always have all the answers to every question neatly tied up in a nice presentable package. We will need to be willing to see truth in unexpected places.
“Real” involves pain. It means recognizing that we often let one another down, but we carry on together in spite of our failures. “Real” means being willing to accept that peoples’ lives are incredibly complex and are filled with pressures and tensions about which we may know absolutely nothing.
“Real” church means believing that people are doing the best they can given the circumstances of their lives. It means accepting them with love and openness just as they are. “Real” church does not impose burdens upon already burdened people who are struggling to get by in the daily pressures of their sometimes difficult lives.
The writer of the “Letter to the Ephesians” was encouraging us to “real” church when he wrote
lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
The motto of “real” church is, “You don’t have to measure up here.”
In “real” church, we look at everyone as a child of God… no exceptions… no exclusions. In “real” church, there are no outcasts, and no hierarchies of goodness. “Real” church operates on a level playing field; each person is an equally important player in the game, all valued no matter what their contribution, or apparent lack of contribution.
No one except the Spirit of God is in charge in “real” church. And “real” church is willing to live with the unpredictability of the Spirit of God. “Real” church knows that God’s Spirit cannot be controlled by any program; God’s Spirit cannot be boxed in or used to fulfill human agendas. “Real” church actually trusts that God’s Spirit is at work in everyone’s life. So “real” church seeks only to support every person in being responsive to the Spirit’s prompting as they understand the Spirit’s leading.
“Real” church is sensitive to the fact that, for some people, just showing up occasionally is a major accomplishment. In “real” church we will never use guilt, manipulation, judgment, or shame to motivate. We will never be demeaning, condescending, or superior in an attempt to get people to measure up to a standard of behaviour we have determined is desirable.
“Real” church knows that the only actions that are worth anything in God’s kingdom are actions that are freely offered as an expression of love. Love is the beginning, middle and end of “real” church.
“Real” church is not concerned about numbers. It lives within its means, always drawn forward by gratitude that overflows from the awareness of the generosity that exists at the core of all existence.
Real church is known by the aroma of
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22,23)
There is no program that will get us to “real” church. We will only get there when we have each come to grips with our own failures and frailty. The only people who can do “real” church are people who have faced honestly their own shortcomings and extended towards themselves the grace of gentleness and forgiveness.
Lives that are filled with personal judgment and recrimination will never be able to give the gift of grace to anyone. As long as we reject parts of our own lives, we will always be a source of discomfort and unease for others.
“Real” church begins with an open expansiveness towards ourselves that reaches out to embrace others with warm acceptance and openness. The people who are able to do “real” church are those who have found within themselves that place of warm gentle acceptance that is the presence of God at the centre of their being.