I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I've taken myself. So here's a picture of my family's church in Arkansas.

I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I’ve taken myself. So here’s a blurry and low-quality picture of my family’s church in Arkansas.

I frequently read or hear things about how few “young people” there are in churches, and how the youth of this generation doesn’t care about religion and is falling away from the faith. The definition of “young people” will vary depending upon the context; it could refer to a specific narrow demographic group, usually high-school aged kids, or it could just be the opposite of “elderly” in a binary system where everyone is either young or elderly. It doesn’t really matter; regardless of how you define youth, it is statistically true, at least in many congregations and denominations, that there are a lot of elderly people and few young people. At least in this society, it is accurate to say that young people as a demographic group are falling away from the church. Sometimes people comment and complain about this in order to criticize young people for leaving the church and sometimes they’re criticizing the church for losing young people.  In either case, it’s understood that something must be done to bring young people back into the church.

People offer lots of reasons for why young people might have a tendency to leave the church, and most of these reasons imply possible solutions. For example, it is often said that young people don’t like liturgy, and that a contemporary worship style encourages teenagers and young adults to attend worship and to develop an emotional affinity for church. I had thought this was actually a very recent idea, but I once saw a non-denominational hymnal from the 1920s that claimed that young people are so emotional that they can only be drawn to religion by singing hymns that are very emotionally charged. Hence, I-Love-Jesus theology becomes preferred over Jesus-Died-For-Me theology. This is a problem, and I highly doubt that it has any success in drawing young people into the church.

Then there are some people who say that young people leave the church because church is boring or irrelevant. I think this may be a more valid argument because I actually have heard former Christians or Christmas-and-Easter-only churchgoers say that church is boring. It would seem that this actually ties very closely to the reason in the previous paragraph, because the proposed solution is often the same: dispense with the liturgy, change the musical style, and present a more modern and socially relevant image to the world. Let youth group activities take precedence over worship, use pop culture references to keep things interesting, and make sure that the clergy come across as being cool and fun people. The problem with this is that it turns church into a social group and a genre of entertainment. If the desired young people start coming to church for the fun and the society, they will only stay for the fun and the society. People can get tired of a favorite band or a favorite genre of movies after loving it for a few years, and people can drift away from a set of friends over time. In the same way, people can get bored of a fun and culturally relevant church just as easily (and in fact, much more easily) as they can get bored of a liturgical and confessional church. You can’t combat a person’s tendency to get bored by catering to their changing tastes. But boredom becomes irrelevant when the topic at hand is understood to be important. Someone can stop liking their favorite food, but they can never get tired of eating. Someone can stop liking their favorite TV show, but that won’t drive them away from television itself. Someone can get bored with their favorite hymn or stop being fascinated by their favorite Bible verse, but they won’t get bored of religion if they realize that religion is more than whatever personally relevant message they are currently getting out of it. A clear law and gospel message is always relevant, and if that’s what people are hearing, people aren’t likely to get bored and aren’t likely to let temporary boredom drive them away from the church.

101_9768Another commonly offered explanation for why young people might not like to go to church is that religion is too full of rules and accusations, and that most of these Christian values are hypocritical anyway. If we want to bring young people into the church, we should therefore tone down the morality and emphasize God’s love. In other words, we need less law and more gospel. That would certainly be true in a congregation that was too legalistic in the first place, but it doesn’t work to remove all references to sin. If you do that, you’re throwing out every aspect of theology, because things like forgiveness and grace and salvation lose all of their meaning when sin isn’t acknowledged. The result of this is a church that portrays God as nothing more than a benevolent guiding spirit who loves us. That is certainly appealing, but in the long run, it’s much less appealing than the message of a God who loves us so much that he sent his only Son to live a sinless life and die to pay for all of our sins so that we might have eternal life. That story has some gruesome and disturbing chapters, but it’s a story with a much happier ending, and besides, it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious what’s really driving young people away from the church. It isn’t that church is too boring, too old-fashioned, or not cheerful enough. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The problem is that this society doesn’t acknowledge the fact that children are intelligent and easily interested. Our culture caters to children’s short attention spans, propensity to become bored, and undeveloped thought processes when those are traits that children don’t actually have. I think we actually encourage kids to become bored quickly by letting them know that we’re afraid they’ll become bored, and we discourage them from being curious and intellectual by letting them know that we’re afraid they won’t understand things. Therefore, everything is dumbed down for kids, and that includes religion. For example, when I was a little kid in Sunday school, I frequently was made to sing a certain fun, interesting, and easy-to-remember song that went like this:

“Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT, HEAD! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord!”

If you’re still reading at this point, I’m betting that you skipped most of the words of that song, or at least skimmed over it pretty quickly. I got pretty annoyed and impatient just typing it out. I was going to cut it off in the middle, but I decided not to do that because my annoyance and any reader’s disinterest in those lyrics is exactly the point I’m trying to make. In contrast, here is a song that Martin Luther wrote for children in 1531:

“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word/ Curb those who fain by craft and sword/ Would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son/ And set at naught all He hath done./ Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known/ For Thou art Lord of lords alone/ Defend thy Christendom that we/ May evermore sing praise to Thee./ O Comforter of priceless worth/ Send peace and unity on earth/ Support us in our final strife/ And lead us out of death to life.”

Do you notice a slight difference between these two songs? For example, do you notice that the first one is repetitive, boring, and demeaning to the intelligence of anyone who is told that they’re supposed to like it because of the fact that they’re a child? And do you notice that the second one is more interesting, more meaningful, and doesn’t drive you berserk with its utter inanity before you’re even halfway through the second verse? Do you notice that the first song would make you want to rip out your own vocal chords if you were forced to sing it on a regular basis while the second song is something that would actually be enjoyable to sing frequently? Also, it’s worth noting that it has a tune that is more interesting and aesthetically pleasing (by virtue of the fact that it has a range of more than three notes) while still being quite simple and easy to sing. As a young person and as a former small child, I feel qualified to say that young people don’t appreciate having their intelligence insulted by stupid and annoying ditties and that young people have good enough attention spans and enough emotional maturity to be capable of understanding that church isn’t supposed to be a form of entertainment. If young people are being driven away from the church, maybe a good solution would be to stop forcing young people to sing “Father Abraham.”

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