Redefining Church

At the dawn of a new year, how can the church in America best position itself to reach the under 30-year-olds among us?

This is the question countless pastors around the country are asking. And it was the topic of a recent article in The New York Times entitled, “Building Congregations Around Art Galleries and Cafes as Spirituality Wanes.” Picking up on a report from the Pew Research Center, the article notes that “the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30.” Interestingly, nearly 80 percent of these “unaffiliated” Americans say they believe in God leaving a large category of people defined as “spiritual but not religious.” (Rather than this be a new phenomenon, it sounds a lot like the situation the Apostle Paul encountered in Acts 17 where the landscape was littered with idols including one with an inscription “To the unknown god.”)

Enter a new wave of opportunistic evangelicals like the folks at Life in Deep Ellum. According to the article, Life in Deep Ellum,

is part of a wave of experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent “church” in an increasingly secular culture, and it comes as the megachurch boom of recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, Jumbotrons and smoke machines, faces strong headwinds. A national decline in church attendance, the struggling economy and the challenges of marketing to millennials have all led to the need for new approaches.

So how is Life in Deep Ellum, and others like them, reinventing church to reach the millennials? They “arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like ‘spiritual communities’ and ‘gatherings,’ with services that do not stick to any script.”

Of course, what is described here is nothing new. It’s just a “hipster” rendition of the more corporate megachurch model of the 1980s and 90s. While the clothing and jargon may be different and the culture less stodgy, these new churches likewise lead with a minimalist theology and determination to say to the world, “Hey, we’re not like those other Christians. We’re not weird. We’re cool just like you.”

At this point I want to ask the all-important question: are these churches being “reinvented” in the best way possible to glorify God and advance the gospel?

Admittedly, I have my doubts.

I, too, want to reach our increasingly secular, post-Christian culture with the gospel. But I don’t believe the best way to do this is to take a ministry trajectory that has the church look more like the world. The world can almost certainly run a better coffee shop, yoga class, or art studio. Let’s major in what we have that the world doesn’t, namely, God.

Let’s be really good at preaching and teaching the doctrines of grace, rightly administering the Lord’s Table, and caring for the spiritually wounded and weak. Let’s excel in the fruit of the Spirit, acts of mercy, and faithfulness in suffering. Let’s recommit ourselves to knowing the Bible so we have a precise word of hope for people rather than assuming they’ll “catch” our Christianity through our “relationship building.” Let’s write new songs for the church that sing of the wonders of God and his gospel. Let’s not settle for mere lip-service in our faith, but recognize that it’s the heart that matters more. Let’s petition God to ensure that our churches are filled with worship in Spirit and in truth. In other words, let’s live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

More than another coffee house or yoga class or art studio, this is what the world needs. The world needs churches filled to all the fullness of God (Cf., Eph. 3:19). Only when we are marked by these other-worldly graces should we have a confident expectation of winning the millennials for Christ — or any other demographic group for that matter.

In 2013 I’m all for redefining the church. Let’s just make sure we get our definition right.

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