Choosing style over substance?

Meredith Flynn —  September 4, 2013

pull quote_flynnIn the struggle to keep young people in church – or bring them back – are we simply choosing one trend over another?

COMMENTARY | Meredith Flynn

Blogger Rachel Held Evans sparked numerous online conversations this summer with her posts about young people and church. Evans, 32, is a lightning rod in the evangelical community, having already tackled evolution and gender roles in her books. Her columns this summer on CNN’s Belief blog about why millenials are leaving the church are probably less polarizing, but likely more important too.

The disconnect between young people and the church is a real, documented problem. And the news is bleak: Barna found 59% of young Christians will leave the church permanently or for an extended period of time at some point after they turn 15.

Evans posits that young Christians can see straight through the church’s attempts to keep them. She writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

Young Christians, Evans says, don’t want a change in style; they want a change in substance.

Indeed, candles are cool again. And robes and vespers services and responsive readings. In fact, some churches have gotten so cool that those of us millenials who have grown accustomed to stopping by the coffee station before heading into the service are no longer cool enough. We’ve aged out of our own demographic.

That’s what happens when you emphasize style over substance. Style is divisive. So is substance, but we’re promised it will be if the church is focused on the Gospel.

Evans claims substance trumps style, but she’s still advocating for a change in the latter. The instruments of the ancient church have much deeper roots in church history than online giving and electric guitars, but they’re still accessories we use to “decorate” the corporate worship experience and draw people to participate.

None of those things are inherently right or wrong. But they are part of the overall style of a church, and hopefully not its substance.

I know the authentic, unpretentious church Evans writes about in her blog post. I grew up there, except mine was a Southern Baptist church that didn’t follow the contemporary wave of the early 1980s and 90s, but instead waved real palm branches on Palm Sunday. We dressed to the nines, sang along with a pipe organ, and recited the same prayer of contemplation every week. And in my small youth group, kids still struggled with their faith. Some even left the church.

Style may attract people to a church, but it won’t keep them in. No matter how old the style, or how young the people. The church needs something substantial, and fortunately, we have it.

Blogger and LifeWay editor Trevin Wax wrote that he mostly agrees with Evans’ style vs. substance thesis, but would tweak it this way: “What millennials really want from the church is substance. Not a change in substance, necessarily, just substance will do.”

And that never goes out of style.

Meredith Flynn

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Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.