August 21, 2006
Scum of the Church: How the drive for “excellence” is driving young adults from the church
Recently, Brian McLaren challenged us to ask new questions about the absence of young adults in most churches. Mike Sares, pastor of Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, continues the topic by discussing the divergent values he has encountered between older and younger generations of Christians.
You may recall Sares told the story last year of the poet who dropped the f-bomb during their Christmas Eve service - with his permission. That triggered one of the most vigorous conversations Out of Ur has ever hosted. While likely less controversial, I trust Sares will challenge your thinking once again.
Every generation is quick to point out the hypocrisy of the one that preceded it. The generation born just after WWII began rejecting the values of their parents during the '60s. Now it's their kids' turn.
Today's young adults see a generation of baby-boomer Christians that has striven for "excellence" in every part of church life. Boomers proclaimed in the 1980s that image is everything, and their churches have reflected that cultural trend. The nurseries have got to be sparkling clean, the church buildings are marvelously functional as opposed to artistic, the music is as close to FM radio quality as possible (even if they must hire a band), the Sunday services are seamless with perfect transitions (just like television), the preaching is entertaining and informative (but not so deep as to offend visitors), and the plants on stage are beautiful (but artificial).
As a result, according to Dieter Zander, the next generation has concluded that "everything is image," and therefore nothing can be trusted. Church is too slick, too good, too polished to be real. And the twenty-something hunger for raw authenticity just doesn't fit in.
Reece and Keith were twenty-one and still idealistic enough to think that church should be a place that accepts people just the way they are. But that idealism was challenged when the last church they attended asked them to "Please remove your lip rings and nose rings, and cover up your tattoos so you are not a distraction to the other worshippers." Thankfully Reese and Keith's commitment to Christ outweighed the misguided reverence of their older siblings in the Lord. They were able to find another place they could worship, learn, give, encourage, and be held accountable.
But what about the rest? What about the ones who never recover from the stares, whispers, or misapplied Bible verses that condemn the way so many young adults dress and live? What about the ones who never see Christianity as relevant past grade school? What about the thousands of young adults who have never stepped foot into a church, and judge Christianity solely by what they see in the movies, on television, or in other media? How do we welcome them back into our churches?
It's been my experience that twenty-somethings simply want permission to struggle. Most fear that they are not good enough for God's family. Each week they are told about the standards they are expected to keep, and each week they are led to believe that the rest of the church is somehow keeping up. This "silence about the struggle" quietly drives young adults away from churches all over the country. One of the highest compliments the pastor of an emerging church can receive is to be told that his/her own difficulty in following Christ has given someone hope that they, too, can fail and still keep following Jesus.
Twenty-somethings also see a generation ahead of them in the church that cannot live well with moral ambiguity. Boomer Christians tend to divide the world into three categories: the holy, the secular, and the downright sinful. For example, there was a debate years ago about whether or not Amy Grant had "sold out" when she left the Christian recording industry and crossed over to the secular market. It wasn't evil, boomers would say, but neither was it holy.
The new generation of Christians, however, tends to see only two categories: the holy and the sinful. This means things that previously fell into the "secular" category are now open for consumption and experimentation without judgment. Take, for example, tattoos. I am often asked the proper spelling of Greek or Hebrew words for a young adult's decidedly Christian tattoos; but then, a Chinese dragon or skull and crossbones is just as acceptable. If it is not sinful, they reason, it is holy. Most young musicians I know don't want a Christian recording contract because that would pigeonhole them. Five Iron Frenzy, a band with a large Christian following that was instrumental in planting Scum of the Earth Church, kept playing nightclubs, bars, and going on tours with non-Christian bands.
Part 2 of "Scum of the Church" will be posted soon.
This article was edited and modified from, "Young Adults and the Church: The Way Things Are," in SAMJournal issue 159