Designed to Leave: Creating Space in the Church for Postmodern Generations

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The world is changing, Church.

Blockbuster Video is down to it’s last store in Bend, OR. Toys R Us closed it’s doors in June 2018. Meanwhile, Sears and KMart continue their selloff. Everywhere you look there’s change and if we can’t adapt in this new culture we’ll fare no different than Kodak, Betamax or Tower Records.

Maybe that’s why this New York Times article caught my eye: “Sorry Power Lunchers, This Restaurant is a Co-Working Space Now (July 9, 2018).”

I was particularly attracted to this quote by the Millennial co-founder of Spacious, Chris Smothers:

“Actively consuming isn’t what we want to do with the space in our neighborhoods anymore…Retail spaces are designed for you to come in, make a transaction and get out, and that’s why you feel weird in a coffee shop all day, because all of these spaces are designed for you to leave.”

As I read that last sentence all I could think about was what “church” has become in the past thirty years, especially those of the evangelical non-denominational type.

After all, thanks to the “megafication” of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, churches of all sizes and stripes reimagined their Sunday mornings into an event (featuring a full-band worship and culturally-relevant sermon). These events were specially-hosted inside an auditorium that’s “designed for you to leave.” Pews were out, theater chairs were in. The larger churches, with multiple services, are particularly prone to this mentality. It’s why we build performance halls, hire specialized staff, study people flow and focus on traffic patterns. We need to get people in and out…fast.

I call it “drive thru” churchianity. We’ve designed “church” as a space to come…and leave.

This shift, led by a Baby Boom generation returning to their spiritual foundations in the 1980s, turns out to be nothing more than adoption of consumer culture. We built our churches on biblical purposes that were guided by business principles. It’s why we focus on body counts, offering totals and ecclesiastical CEOs. We mass disciple like we mass market. Our facilities look like warehouses, our services like concerts, and our programs like fast food menus. This attractional model certainly was successful with boomers and many Gen Xers, but has fallen flat with Millennials.

Millennials aren’t looking for a passive show. They seek an active experience. They want to interact, collaborate and share. They were early adopters of social media, from Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Snapchat. And now these same Millennials are reinventing the workplace, especially through companies founded by Millennials (Spacious’ co-founder Chris Smothers is 30 years old, by the way).

But I still can’t get that quote out of my head: “designed for you to leave.”

Is that what we did to the Millennials? Is that the type of Christianity we gave them? It seems so. We designed a faith experience that was easy “to leave.”

Maybe it was the gimmicks we used (and still use) to motivate Millennial faith development. Instead of leading them to memorize God’s Word, attend Sunday School or bring their Bibles because it would be helpful and beneficial to their faith as adults, we bribed them with candy and prizes to invoke their participation. As a result we gave them a faith that was easy to leave. After all, if the prize is no longer “helpful and beneficial,” then let’s move on.

Maybe it’s how we programmed Millennial youth ministries. In the 1990s, we shifted from a discipleship (Sunday School, small group, retreats, personal discipling) to an entertainment model (Wednesday night worship and preaching, festivals and large youth conferences) to better reach this postmodern generation. Consequently, we reduced Millennial’s biblical learning to clever PowerPointed messages packed with hip clips from movies, grooved by youth culture lingo, and delivered by cool dudes (and dudettes) with grunge fashions, body piercings and tattoos. As a result, we gave Millennials a fashionable faith that wore terribly thin when reality bites.

But it’s not just the Millennials who have headed to the door. Gen X is just about “done” too. For decades they’ve waited in the wings for their opportunity to lead, suffering through various battles and changes that Boomer elders engineered to create the ideal church. But now, as aging Boomers overlook Xers for younger voices (especially to hire), Gen X has grown apathetic, disillusioned and tired.

A lot of Gen Xers and Millennials now stay away on Sundays and prefer to find faith community in small Bible fellowships, spiritual mentoring and Christian service. Faith, they have found, is better lived out on Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. If they follow a particular pastor or church, it’s done so through live stream, vidblog or podcast.

Remember, if we created spiritual spaces that are “easy to leave” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people no longer come.

What’s happening in the urban restaurant industry is something churches should heed and consider. Essentially, Millennials aren’t taking lunches like their elders and the lousy noon time crowds have dried up the profits for local eateries. Enter Spacious. It’s a company that reimagines a restaurant into a working “office away from the office” space for individuals and small groups. Now these struggling restaurants are booming with Millennials sweating away on smartphones and laptops.

Church, did you hear that? Once struggling restaurants are attracting (and growing) with young people because they moved from a delivery and sales model to a communal, interactive experience.

You see, Faith was never intended to be a ninety-minute once a week presentation (which is one of the reasons postmodern generations find the Sunday-only event so spiritually anemic). Rather, authentic Faith is best experienced within a dynamic collaborative “working” environment. Which begs a question: What if Sunday morning looked more like a gym or practice field (with coaches and mentors) than a concert and lecture hall? What if our worship experiences resembled what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Paul’s description reveals the collaborative, interactive and experiential nature of the first century church. It’s a far cry from what we see delivered on most Sunday mornings. After all, Church was meant to be more than one person from a stage with a microphone.

But there’s another kicker: What if a church reimagined itself into a collaborative space the rest of the week too? It’s a shame that we have buildings that sit empty Monday through Saturday, except to house the staff and an occasional meeting or extra service.

It’s critical that we get more “spacious” in our gatherings to reach postmodern audiences.

The Church of Christ is alive, moving and interactive.

And that’s attractive to any generation.

About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on July 16, 2018, in American church, Christian Growth and Discipleship, Church buildings, Church Decline, Preaching, Worship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great article. totally agree. Participation trumps presentation. Everytime.

  2. I’m a GenX church staff member. What you have written resonates with me!

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