The smell of popcorn wafted through the air as we sat on gray folding chairs. On stage, front and center, was a late-thirties woman I’d never seen before belting out the lyrics to Meghan Trainor’s Dear Future Husband. Lest you fear I have changed even more than previously thought and now enjoy this kind of music – rest assured, I do not.
And definitely not in church.
The woman performed this little ditty as the opening song of “worship.” She was introduced on stage by her husband, a pastor on staff, and let me tell you – when I say she performed the song, I mean she PERFORMED the song! Sweat was breaking as she sang the changed lyrics of: if you wanna get that special loving (I had to look that up) to: something less offensive and more Christian-y that I don’t remember because I’m pretty sure my brain was on overload, itself trying to remain Christian-y.
I was sitting in a church, thinking conflicting thoughts about church. Sadly, this has been an ongoing Sunday thing now for almost a year.
Not much. Not much at all unfortunately.
Where are we? Why does this not feel like church? What is the problem?
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
Everything. Everything unfortunately.
Leaving my home church of 13+ years on not so amicable terms wasn’t easy. I look back now on those years with both fondness and disdain. While I learned so much in terms of black and white, Scriptural, narrative knowledge, I also learned so much about what it means to feel judged, ostracized and part of utter church-going hypocrisy. The problem, as I knew then but refused to admit out of sheer loyalty and camaraderie, was what I think most people – especially millennials – are faced with today: fitting in. Unless you look like, act like, conform to, and uphold the church’s standards (read: man-made rules), you don’t belong.
The Meghan Trainor concert was hands down, the second worst experience in our current church shopping adventure. As I like to tell people, it’s literally worse than dating. And I once had a guy utter the following words to me, “What do you mean you’re not interested? EVERYONE is interested in me.” – so you know it’s bad.
Nothing quite solidified that for me more than what I consider our first worst church shopping experience.
We went for probably the tenth time to the church Ryan had been attending for the last fourteen or so years. Leadership has recently changed, including the Lead Pastor position. So while it was new altogether for me, it was also new to Ryan in the sense that the vibe was in a state of transitional overhaul. Not surprisingly, infighting was occurring, long-time members were leaving, and an answer to the common identity search question of “Who are we as a church?” was desperately being sought.
But there we sat. Three rows back from the stage like champs. Lord knows we’ve both been through enough life transitions and identity crises in our time, so easy-peasy. Plus, to be honest, this wasn’t my church anyway, so I really didn’t care all that much.
Until I did.
A woman in her late forties, maybe early fifties, came and sat in the row right in front of us during the time of greeting. As she turned around, her Crystal Gayle hair cascaded over her chair and down the front of my legs. Ok, maybe not exactly, but you get the point – it was long and obstructive.
After the niceties were exchanged, she immediately asked where we were from and if we were new to the church.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” she announced sort of like she was asking, but really not at all.
“I just moved here from Fort Wayne,” I said proudly.
Ryan added, “I’ve lived in Grand Rapids for almost eighteen years and have been attending here for the last fourteen.”
And literally, that was the end of any eye contact whatsoever from Crystal to me.
In fact, had that scene gone down if Ryan and I were out somewhere, I would have felt compelled to nicely remind her that he was with me.
But we were in church. The place where people go to worship Jesus. You know, the God-man who showed love and acceptance to everyone – including WHAT?! – a Samaritan woman who was without a husband?! Say it isn’t so, people! What was Jesus thinking???? Lord have mercy.
Oh wait, he did.
I love church. And yes (shocking as it is to those of you who knew me circa 1987-1991), I love Jesus. And what I really, really want is for other people to love both of those things, too.
Only as we all know intimately well, many people do not.
Because “church” kind of sucks out loud lately.
Dear future husband
Here’s a few things
You’ll need to know if you wanna be
My one and only all my life
That song reverberated through the cool, hip, coffee-lined floor as everyone tried to look like they thought they were supposed to look. I half expected Bics to go up in the air. Wait, millennials – iPhones. Something other than real, unawkward praise.
Yet this, in the view of many churches today, is what millennials want. And apparently single women looking for husbands.
No wonder people are leaving in droves and are adamant they will never return.
You know what I think most people of any age really want in a church? Authenticity. Sincerity. Kindness. Inclusion. Decency. Love, acceptance, and friendship. A real and present sense of both belonging and being understood.
They want real life. They want the same thing inside the church as they do outside the church.
Let me say that again: they want the same behavior inside the church as outside the church. I mean, if millennials wanted hypocrites, they would move back in with their parents.
Why are people leaving the church? Because the things people really want are so seldom found inside of any.
Instead, coffee bars, popcorn machines, or in one extra fun church we tried – a 110 year-old lady who literally mowed us over because we were standing in her spot in the common area – are found instead.
(As we contemplated leaving after no one spoke to us sans daggers through our backs, Ryan looked over at me and whispered: “I think if we leave now, that coffee-bar blocking old lady will be the one who pulls the lever and drops us through the trap door to hell.”)
I will leave you with this, because clearly I could go on: recent research from Barna Group found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.”
Me too. We went shopping at a Lutheran (ELCA) church Sunday. Only no one was selling anything.
The only things on display inside were a few of the classics: normal conversation about normal topics on a normal Sunday morning between all kinds of people living normal everyday lives.
postscript. I know this sounds like I’m busting on church – I’m not. I just miss it. The church we went to Sunday brought back a deep longing for tradition, roots, and most importantly, real relationship. No fanfare, no popcorn, no “meeting people where they are.” Jesus knows where everyone is. He’s not directionally challenged. The church’s job, in my opinion, is to bring people to a resounding awareness and belief of that truth. That’s it. No man-made preferences, likes, dislikes, rules, regulations, and certainly, no judgment for hating Meghan Trainor songs.
Millennials exhibit an increasing aversion to exclusive, closed-minded religious communities (clubs) camouflaging as the hip new places in town replete with light shows and cool bands. They (or most of us) don’t want to be entertained at church. We don’t want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. We don’t want to “sign up.” We are bombarded with that every single day. When people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following him, people are out. And make no mistake, THIS is what spawns disillusionment, not “tradition.”
postscript-postscript. You can find the Samaritan woman story in John 4:1-42.