The ongoing American exodus from church pews is not news. It’s been happening for years. Religious leaders know this. They’ve scrambled time and time again to find ways to keep butts in their seats. One of the more amusing tactics has been the surge in “cool” Christianity — communities cultivated to cater to a short attention span and lofty ideals with worship bands, granola pastors, and fancy AV displays.
In his 2010 book, author Brett McCracken dubbed the trend “Hipster Christianity,” ultimately chiding Christian leadership for their ill-advised tactics.
Writing for the Washington Post yesterday, McCracken stated:
Five years later, has the cool-church movement done anything to reverse trends of declining church attendance, particularly among young people?
Most evidence suggests the answer is no. Recent Pew Research data showed across-the-board declines in Americans who identify as Christian and dramatic increases in those who are “unaffiliated” with religion, particularly among younger adults.
Research also indicates that millennials do prefer “real” churches over “cool” ones. Contrary to the belief that churches must downplay their churchiness and meet in breweries or warehouses in order to appeal to millennials, a 2014 Barna study showed that millennials actually prefer church spaces that are straightforward and overtly Christian. The same study reported that when millennials described their “ideal church,” they preferred “classic” (67 percent) over “trendy” (33 percent).
So maybe the answer isn’t thick, black-framed glasses and tambourines. After all, the only thing modernized by these efforts is the presentation; the messages disseminated are still archaic and largely out of step with modern values. A dressed up messenger doesn’t change the problem with the message.
So what happens when the message becomes modernized? Some denominations have made strides by adopting worldviews that better align with younger generations. The United Church of Christ, for instance, has long been a progressive beacon within the faith. Episcopalians shifted their policies to allow for female and non-hetero pastors. Multiple denominations now allow for same-sex marriage. Even the ever-traditional Catholic Church has begun to shift, with Pope Francis chastising the Religious Right for their fixation on issues like gay marriage and abortion (though still affirming the beliefs behind the actions), calling for action on issues like climate change and poverty instead.
These shifts may be welcome ones, but odds are they won’t be sufficient, especially in the context of Catholicism. Absent a complete overhaul of longstanding dogma, no amount of “cool” concessions are going to make a difference. As Kaya Oakes of Salon reported today:
A new survey from Catholics for Choice on the opinions of Catholic millennials as regards doctrinal issues might make the church’s traditionalists want to brace themselves. But its findings are also somewhat unsurprising to anyone who spends time around younger Catholics, whose political and social leanings mirror the open-minded stances of their increasingly non-religious peers.
Birth control and abortion, arguably the Catholic church’s most contentious issues, are not always perceived in a negative light by young Catholics. Among those polled, more than half say abortion should be legal in “almost all” or “most” cases, and 31 percent say it should be legal in “just a few” cases. Only 17 percent say it should be illegal. 78 percent say birth control should be included in insurance coverage, no matter where a woman works.
In spite of the widely mocked Catholic Vote video of young people “coming out” as believing that marriage is between a man and a woman, marriage equality is embraced by Catholic millennials. 69% “strongly” or “somewhat” support legal same-sex marriage.
In the wake of the firing of multiple Catholic school teachers who are openly gay or lesbian or married to a same-sex partner, and the ensuing grappling over Catholic teacher contracts that explicitly prevent teachers from being open about their sexuality, younger Catholics have chosen the side of the teachers. 71% say Catholic schools should not be able to fire teachers for being LGBTQ. On gender in the church, Catholic millennials follow similar thinking, with 75% supporting women having an equal role in the church.
Really, though, even in a world where churches everywhere supported reproductive rights, gender equality, non-hetero and non-cis agency, environmental activism, and aggressive poverty alleviation tactics, they’d still be in trouble. Why? Because there are still large portions of the existing religious communities that cling to beliefs from the opposite side of the coin. There are still people like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham who command large audiences. Their loud, extreme voices already shout out the reforms that have been made to date and color public perception of Christianity. It’s part of the reason the progress that has been made hasn’t impacted the attrition rate all that much.
But put all that aside for a moment, because conversations about modernization ignore what’s really happening here. No amount of trying to be cool can make up for the fact that, generation by generation, advances in science continue to go against traditional religious dogma. It’s hard to believe in a bedtime story when facts disputing the narrative keep piling up in front of you. And with the Internet connecting people from all walks of life, the previously insular nature of religious communities has been obliterated. There’s no hiding from reality anymore. Religion is playing with a losing hand.
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