You might say that the speed at which “Keep Austin Weird” took off says something about how innate this motto is to the nature of our city. It captures in a just few words one essential part of that “something else” about the this town that keeps native here and draws new neighbors in droves. And the words surfaced in my mind as I was reading through this interesting blog post.
Author Rachel Held Evans writes about the trend of millennials leaving the Church. “Church attendance has plummeted among young adults,” she writes. “In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as baby boomers were as young adults.”
She goes on to say that Churches have made a lot of efforts recently to make worship more “cool” in attempt to appeal to millienials – everything from installing a Starbucks counter to super jazzed up Christian rock bands, to labeling worship with modern vague names like “Prime” or “Vertical,” to running smooth and stylish ad campaigns. Rachel argues that none of that works, and that actually, millennials would prefer something more classic: “Recent research from Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” Rachel goes on to say:
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
She also characterizes millennials as being in search of a more authentic faith, and that they’ll pick up on any inauthentic attempt to smear veneer over what it’s a true community of Christ lovers (those are my words of how she said it). And her conclusion?
The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.
This Rachel isn’t from Austin (as this Rachel, myself is!), but she hit the nail on the head with the phrase! Keep worship weird! I can identify with that for sure, and I suppose I am a millennial too after all. I remember back in high school when the other youth groups were having rock concerts and posting cool banners to attract us to their services, that I felt pretty unenchanted by those efforts. And I do remember thinking like – what do they I’m about? I don’t want flashy or cool…I want substance! I want answers, or least someone to take my life questions seriously! And I want a way to connect to something greater than me – I don’t want to just be entertained! I love the way Rachel put it:
You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality.
That brings to my last thought on this – how do we connect to something greater? Through weird symbols – through a sound, grounded experience of the supernatural as symbolized in the natural. Ashes are a perfect example – they are a tangible, physical representation through which we can vitally connect to and meditate on our own brief existence, and thus the urgency of Christ’s loving call for us to repent, to turn back to Him.
And in many ways, the trends Rachel was describing show how Churches have white-washed worship, have scrubbed away all the symbolic and traditional nature of Church. Of course, this has links back to the Protestant Reformation, which I think deeply marks our US and US Catholic Culture. And yet – millennials, and many Protestants among them as this blogger was – are being drawn back to that weird type of worship! I think that says something about human nature. We are meant for symbolic thinking – isn’t every great work of art and literature proof of that? And every mathematical model or scientific diagram? Not only are we drawn to express grand things through tangible means, as a small Cross charm might symbolize an entire faith tradition, we are also drawn to make the untouchable touchable, as in the ashes smudged on our foreheads. But our culture has lost much of this capacity to thing symbolically.
Gertrude von le Fort, an early 20th century woman philosopher, says it this way:
“The language of symbols, once universally understood as an expression of living thought, has largely given place today to the language of abstract thinking…Symbols are signs and images through which ultimate metaphysical realities and modes of being are apprehended, not in an abstract manner but by way of likeness. Symbols are therefore the language of an invisible reality becoming articulated in the realm of the visible. This concept of the symbol springs from the conviction that in all beings and things there is an intelligent order that, through these very beings and things, reveals itself as a divine order by means of the language of its symbols.” (The Eternal Woman)
So, symbols draw us to God because through them, God has chosen to reveal Himself to us! And what an encouraging sign that millennials are hearing this born-in-us call to ritual and “classic” worship – I think it’s a sign of the healing of our culture. And by healing, I mean becoming more organic, more integrated people. We need to learn to think and worship through symbols again – and if you’re still thinking and worshiping that way- keep it!
Sound thinking is organic, symbolic, centered and holistic. Please note these four concepts, even if only to examine whether our own thinking has remained sound. Listen to them again: completely sound, spontaneous human thinking is organic, symbolic, holistic and centered. – Fr J. Kentenich, Free and Wholly Human
To end – we don’t need the flashy designs to sell us the product of Church, we don’t need over-stimulating entertainment and free coffee while we worship. Those things I would say accentuate the problems of modern man – we are overwhelmed with stimulation, superficial information, consumerism and drive-in, easy everything. We need silence, mystery, fasting, and tangible symbols of heaven on earth. We need substance that we can slowly digest, perceived with our mind and our hearts and our physical senses. We need weird worship…so, my dear Austin, who rocks at weird symbols expressing our culture (the painted guitars around town, the UT Tower, Willie’s braided pigtails, all the graffiti, and that weird but adorable froggish “Hi How are you?” alien thing…just to name a few)… you’ve heard me – KEEP WORSHIP WEIRD!