Faith United Methodist Church
August 30, 2015
14th Sunday after Pentecost / Silent Auction Sermon
Rev. Kristabeth E. Atwood
Scripture: James 1: 17-27
Prayer of Illumination:
God of all wisdom, source of truth, come to us that we may be filled with your Word. May our lives be testimonies to the hope that is found through you. And may the words that I speak and the thoughts that we form be acceptable in your sight. In Jesus name, Amen.
Sermon: Is Church Cool?
Today I am preaching my “Silent Auction Sermon.” You see, back in May I auctioned off a ‘sermon’ at our Ham Dinner and Silent Auction. The idea was that the winner would get to choose the topic for today’s sermon. Our winner, Lynn Rowe, and I talked and e-mailed about potential topics. One that is dear to her heart is connecting college students with a community of faith. This naturally led to a conversation about young people and the church. Why do we so often see our young people drift away from their faith communities sometime between Confirmation and High School graduation? How can faith communities connect with young people who haven’t been raised in a faith tradition (what some are calling the ‘nones’)?
Lynn had other great ideas that would have made for interesting sermon topics, including Christian acceptance in the midst of cultural diversity. (She’ll just have to win the sermon again next year!) In the end, I decided to go with this one ~ The Millennial Generation and the Church. Is church cool?
Now I may be dating myself by even using the term ‘cool.’ Maybe a better question would be, is church ‘rad’ or ‘da bomb’? The Urban Dictionary reassures me, though, that I’m okay using the word ‘cool.’ As they put it, the word ‘cool’ is “…the best way to say something is neat-o, awesome, or swell. The phrase ‘cool’ is very relaxed, never goes out of style, and people will never laugh at you for using it.” So there you go, my question stands. Is church cool?
What do you think? Yes? No? As far as pastors go, I like to think I’m kind of cool. Maybe a little cool? We have PowerPoint. Does that make us cool? We have a website. Does that make us cool? We have a ukulele. That definitely makes us cool!!
In our epistle lesson today ~ surprisingly ~ James (the brother of Jesus) didn’t seem all that concerned about being cool. In fact, he wrote, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the God of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James doesn’t seem at all concerned about what is in fashion and what is not. Bell bottoms or skinny jeans? iPhones or Droids? 2-D or 3-D? What James concerned himself with is the eternal. He continues, “Religion that God… accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Lots of studies have been done about the Millennial generation and why they are not in church. (Millennials being those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.) Some experts think churches aren’t high tech or entertaining enough. Others think churches need to brand themselves better (make church more cool and create brand loyalty). A few churches have designed their buildings to be like malls, with pastry shops, movie theaters and espresso bars. Some churches live tweet their services and others offer drive through communion.
Yet is that really what Millennials want? The Barna Group, which does research for churches and non-profits, has an entire division called “The Barna Millennials Project” studying the connection (or lack thereof) between Millennials and the church. In a March 2015 article titled “What Millennials Want When They Visit Church” they looked at how some churches are marketing themselves more and more like businesses. Among their findings was that, “…many of the very people churches are trying to reach—Millennials—are hyperaware and deeply suspicious of the intersection of church and consumer culture….many…have a sense that church should be different somehow, above or beyond the dirty business of sell, sell, sell.” Millennials are wise to marketing schemes and know when churches are trying to draw them in through flashy advertising or gimmicks.
Perhaps a bigger concern for churches is authenticity or, as Barna puts it, relational generosity. As Barna describes, “A significant number of young adults have deeper complaints about church. More than one-third say their negative perceptions are a result of moral failures in church leadership (35%). And substantial majorities of Millennials who don’t go to church say they see Christians as judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), anti-homosexual (91%) and insensitive to others (70%).” We say that God is love, but do we live it?
So maybe the question isn’t, is church cool? Maybe the more appropriate question is how we live our faith. Barna has found that only 8% of Millennials don’t attend church because it is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’ It seems that the more pressing question for this age group is whether we live what we preach. We follow a teacher who practiced radical acceptance in his day. Do we practice that same acceptance in our day? We follow a teacher who put people before rules. Do we value people more than our polices and Book of Discipline? These are important questions for all of us to ask, regardless of age or generation.
As James pointed out in his letter, our God does not change like shifting shadows. Cultures change. Churches change. Change isn’t bad. At one time the organ was considered a secular instrument and was not used in Christian worship. Today we have the ukulele! Of course we worship differently than our great-grandparents and our great-grandchildren will worship differently than us. But more important than our style or method of worship is who we worship and how that worship changes us. We worship a living God who calls us to live our faith. If we are not doing that then everything else is shifting shadows.
Sure, there are things we can do to make Millennials more comfortable when coming to church. First, we can be aware of our ‘church-speak.’ Those who have never been to church before might not know what a hymnal is, or where to find it. And they definitely will not know what we mean when we refer to the UMCOR donations collected by the UMW. Second, we can welcome Millennials with no expectations while they get the lay of the land. Barna found that Millennials are reluctant to give their full name, their e-mail address or phone number during their first visit to a church. If we press them for those things we may never see them again. So we can be welcoming and friendly and allow them to engage with our community at their own pace.
And, most importantly, we can build relationships. How many of you have a neighbor with teenage son or daughter? Or maybe a young couple living next door? Or a recent college grad in your office? What do you know about them? Their name? Their interests? Their life’s passion? What do they know about you? Do they know you have a faith community that supports and celebrates with you? These folks aren’t going to know how cool we are unless you tell them!
So is church cool? If, in the words of James, looking after orphans and widows is cool, than yes, we are. We may not have the latest technology. Our PowerPoint sometimes has a mind of it’s own, despite the best efforts of our awesome PPT Team. What we do have is relationships. We worship a God who is love. Let us live that love in all we do with whoever we meet. Let us be honest about our faith and our struggles. And let us not promise more than what we can be or apologize for the gospel, because the God we worship is pretty cool and that is all that really matters. Amen.