Got Jesus? Why churches need to stop emulating secular trends

(COMMENTARY) While walking down Henry Street towards my apartment in New York City, I came across a historic Presbyterian church. The architecture was exquisite, complete with a pronounced steeple. After stopping to read the welcome sign, I noticed a Michelle Obama quote perched outside the entrance. It read, “We need to do a better job putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list.”

I laughed, reflecting back on the life of Jesus. He loved others with truth and grace. He came not to be served, but to give his life as ransom. He forgave the guards who crucified him. He lowered himself to speak with children on their level. He was obedient to the point of death. Jesus was the last person on his to do list. This is nothing against the former first lady, but rather points to the irony of our current spiritual environment.

Organized religion is failing because it has become too unorganized. It conformed to the love-yourself, consumeristic, feel-good message of our culture. Pastors have become public figures, communal services turned into podcasts and worship turned into personal affirmation rather than reverence for God. Religion turned into what we wanted, not what we needed.

In 2019, technology is more accessible than ever before. Millennials have never-ending streams of information directly from their phones. For example, 300 hours of video are uploaded every day on YouTube alone. Some 700,000 podcasts exist. We have headphones without wires, making it even more convenient to tune out of our obligations and into our cravings. Enticed, we spend more time consuming online content than we do engaging in human relationships.

This habit makes us depressed. Studies show that 20 percent of American adolescents struggle with a mental health disorder. In 2014, the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention revealed that one in every eight Americans over age 12 uses antidepressants — a 65 percent increase since 1999. Our self-help books are not making us more confident. Our meditation phone applications are not relieving our stresses. Our Instagram followers are not making us feel affirmed. If our secular solutions are not working, then why are churches emulating secular trends?

Christians are called to be in the world, not of it. So why do our churches strive to copy the culture? Our worship services mirror pop concerts, replacing scripture-based hymns with shallow lyrics that lack sound theology. Pastors dedicate more time developing their personal brands and writing books than pastoring their church bodies. Sermons are easily transformed into online mediums, making church a convenient personal experience rather than a communal time with one body of congregants.   

Tim Keller started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York in 1989. Keller found that New Yorkers sought something beyond what evangelical churches broadcasted, something much simpler. They wanted printed bulletins, not monitors. They wanted liturgy, not people-centered worship. They wanted intellectually stimulating sermons, not prosperity gospels. Keller implemented these wants within Redeemer’s services and the congregation grew.

In fact, it kept growing.

Congregants were attracted to the service’s traditional elements, of passing the peace, reading scripture in unison with other congregants, and walking to the front of the church to receive communion. They congregants are not graying. They are mostly working professionals who are 18 to 24 years old. Across three plants, Redeemer Presbyterian Church houses thousands of congregants each week.

The Episcopal Church also continues to grow, which may be a result of it being more inclusive of left-of-center political leanings. It could also be a result of Millennials “preferring the stability of venerable institutions and formal liturgy,” as Wesley Hill described in “After Boomer Religion” published in the Commonweal. The Episcopal Church does not sell trendy merchandise, but unites congregants through the practice of sacred traditions — including baptism and communion.

Faith goes beyond a church service, but these services offer Millennials values that are harder to find in secular society — authenticity by practicing sacred rituals, community by engaging with other congregants, and meaning through worshipping the Lord.  

People were outraged about the Sri Lanka terrorist attacks not only because of the mass number of fatalities, but because these people were worshipping. They were practicing their religion. We value religion because it seeks reverence for something or someone beyond ourselves. It serves others rather than ourselves. It bonds us with other worshippers who share the same values. It fills the void that books, podcasts and social media cannot fill.

Millennials know this void more than anyone else, as they no longer favor fleeting forms of salvation. The rise of mental health disorders highlights how they fail. Millennials will lead a spiritual revival through more organized religion. Because putting ourselves at the top of our to-do lists isn’t working.  

Michelle Reed is a recent graduate of The King’s College in New York City