Tired of “Wannabe Cool” Churches? So Are Young People

As a minister, I fight off the urge to critique other churches when visiting them; as a journalist, I can’t. One thing I’ve noticed when visiting around, particularly in the metro-Atlanta area, is the near parity between their environments, language, and ministry approaches. It’s as if some hyper-hipster blueprint exists that the average worshipper is oblivious to but of which the staff is well aware. Sure, these churches have different names, but they might as well not.

If you’ve visited even a handful of churches lately, you know exactly what I am talking about. The music is usually a sampling of what is on the local Christian radio station with an occasional secular ditty thrown in (usually with the undesirable lyrics replaced by more acceptable ones). The crosses have all gone; they’ve been replaced by abstract, contemporary art and over-designed logos of church ministries. The pastor might be preaching a series named after the latest summer blockbuster, and he’ll try his darndest to incorporate something from Lady Gaga to prove he understands popular culture.

The trend is driven by the desire to attract or retain younger congregants who are fleeing Christian churches at alarming rates. According to a 2007 LifeWay Research study, 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly. Such statistics have sent ministers scrambling in a frantic attempt to recover a sense of “relevance” in their church. At our church, we have even found ourselves often susceptible to these same temptations, and often we’ve faltered.

But is it working?

Unfortunately, not. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article by Brett McCracken on “Wannabe Cool” Christianity, twentysomethings want authenticity more than they want cool. “If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken,” the article concludes.

Scholar David Wells in his book The Courage to be Protestant echoes this sentiment:

“Younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

As a 28 year old, I emphatically concur. What has made the church so magnetic for so many centuries isn’t the programming, but rather a person. Namely, the person of Jesus Christ.  The former aren’t bad in themselves, but the latter is the bedrock. When He fades behind the flashbang marketing, we lose our most precious distinctive.

As McCracken says, “If [young people] are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true.”

So listen up, pastors. Let’s stop trying to measure up to some standard of style, and let’s get back to the One who started it all. If we return to him, they just might return to us.


Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer for outlets including USA Today, Christianity Today and CNN.com. He was named one of “30 Emerging Voices” reshaping Christian leadership by Outreach Magazine. His latest book, “A Faith of Our Own,” illustrates how a new generation of believers are engaging the world with Christ-centered faith. Jonathan resides in New York City. www.jonthanmerritt.com