Every Christian Likes Style

Whether high church, low church, house church, or mega church, we all attend churches in part because of how they look.

Rachel Held Evans recently published an article in The Washington Post entitled, "Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church 'cool.'" This has been her soapbox lately and the subject of her latest book because, like many younger folks including me, it's her story. So I can relate to pain, confusion, and desire to understand the reasons we left and the reasons we came back. Unfortunately, I think her conclusions are reductionist and dismissive of history.

The problem, like most discussions, begins with terminology. Rachel's thesis is that churches are unsuccessfully trying to win back disillusioned young people by being cool. And by cool, she means an emphasis on style or image. Further descriptors of style include slick, sleek, and shallow. Clearly, she doesn't like light shows, fog machines, and other flashy paraphernalia in her worship service. And if these are the things that a church hopes will win people to Christ, then I couldn't agree with her more.

But inside the pejorative shell she's constructed around the term, style, is a benign concept: aesthetic. Any style, image, or manifestation of coolness is a representation of an aesthetic or artistic principle. As much as I agree with her that the style of many mega or otherwise hip churches feels fake and forced, I can't maintain that these things are inherently shallow. They're just a different expression of beauty. Even Rachel has to admit that people enjoy rock concerts for reasons beyond the music. Which means that our reasons for disliking those same elements in church can't be the elements themselves.

We simply like some things in church and dislike others--not for what they are but for how they draw us into the presence of God. For people like me and Rachel, a light show isn't going to do it. But that doesn't mean that style is an insignificant part of church or that we're somehow immune to its influence.

She might disagree, but Rachel's love of sacraments is a love of a style of church. High church. She finds a great deal of meaning in them and a connection to the great cloud of witnesses that have preceded us. For these reasons, she lauds them over the more recent, tech-savvy conventions that lack the same ancient, "bigger than just us" tradition. But who says that people can't find meaning in the new things too?

I don't share Rachel's value of liturgy because I value pragmatism. I hate hymnals and printed Bibles because I see beauty in efficiency. Anything that requires me to divert attention to its operation (and yes, I mean things as elementary as turning pages) is a distraction. To me, standing in line to take the Eucharist is a waste of time and smearing ashes on my forehead is messy. I don't like them and I don't have to because they're not the only source of meaning or the only avenue to worship. They're a style.

Rachel's right that a lot of younger people have a hard time wanting to get back in the pews because of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Those are the reasons most of us left along with a laundry list of dismissed questions and doubts. But that doesn't mean the worship of those churches is somehow more shallow or less meaningful. In fact, many of those churches developed their style in response to high church liturgy feeling rote (a sentiment I share). So unless we want to continue hindering young people with the same judgmental spirit, we need to stop blaming style and personal preference.

We also need to stop worrying about getting them to come back. Rachel's solution is just that: her solution. Mine was different. The sacraments didn't draw me, the submission of my intellect did. We all returned for different reasons and at different times because such was God's will. Unless we imagine that he's somehow absent in our journeys and didn't engineer them specifically to teach us more about him. Maybe we should trust him enough to stop analyzing wandering sheep and let them return on their own. Like my friends did. That way, we can focus on keeping the church from being a place people want to leave in the first place.