Last week we discussed the challenges facing established churches and seminaries attempting to adjust to the changing landscape of the 21st century and finding that many established practices simply don’t work anymore. A new piece in the New York Times describes the opposite phenomenon: In an attempt to appeal to a millennial generation that is increasingly “spiritual but not religious,” entrepreneurial church leaders are setting up churches in unorthodox locations such as art galleries, theaters and yoga studios. This new movement is picking up steam:
So 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.
One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service.
“For us, it’s all about being interactive,” said Paul Wirth, Relevant’s founder and lead pastor.
Although the number of evangelical churches in the United States declined for many years, the trend reversed in 2006, with more new churches opening each year since, according to the Leadership Network’s most recent surveys. This wave of “church planting” has been highest among nondenominational pastors, free to experiment outside traditional hierarchies.
It should be no surprise that a new generation wants to reshape the American church. Entrepreneurialism and adaptation is in the DNA of American religion. Ever since the Great Awakening of the 18th centuries, new generations of religious leaders have developed new institutions, new forms of outreach and embraced new musical trends to find a versions of the Gospel that appeal to the sensibilities of a rising generation.
The mainline suburban community church was the big new thing after World War Two. In the last generation it was the megachurch. Now we see a new wave of experimentation as pastors and church planters look for the kind of religious community and experience that will reach the millennial generation.
It’s not clear yet what the next wave of American Christianity will look like—though it will probably be less denominational than the last—and both theologically and culturally it will be more diverse. But as the millennials begin to start families, reflect on the meaning of life from an adult perspective and look for community, entrepreneurial religious leaders will be offering a wide range of choices.
The genius of American religion is that without government influence or control, people are free to find their own path, and religious leaders are free to compete for believers in the market place of ideas. When existing religious hierarchies are out of touch or have wandered into cultural or doctrinal dead ends, start up churches and denominations can fill the void.
In America today, Catholic, liberal Protestant, evangelical and African American churches all in their different ways face the challenge of a generation that isn’t necessarily happy with the forms of faith they’ve been offered. As millennials mature in their personal faith and their theological and cultural reflections, we should expect this generation to come forward with new ways of stating and living the Christian message. There will be conflict and wrangling; “New Lights” and “Old Lights” will struggle over doctrine and practice as they have done since Jonathan Edwards’ critics attacked the Great Awakening. But if history is any guide, the new generation will find and express an authentic and compelling interpretation of the ancient faith, and American politics and culture will be shaped in large measure by the answers the millennials find.