Recently I moved across the country to California, far away from my friends, family, church, and reprobates like Joel Riley. Just kidding, Joel’s not a reprobate. He’s so much worse than a reprobate.
Anyways, I knew traveling to the Godless Sodom that is Los Angeles I would have trouble finding a good church. I had a long discussion with a good friend about what I was looking for and I think I narrowed it down pretty well. He, and a few others, showed me websites for a barrage of churches that the jive talkin cool young cats get down with JC at these days. Now, while most people thought these churches were IT man, they were IT, all I saw was a bunch of wannabe’s. Every website was trying SO hard to be cool.
I likened it to high school. See, in high school there’s the ‘popular/cool kids’, and there’s everyone else. When you get out of high school you realize that none of that social stigma stuff mattered and you move on, but when you’re in it it’s all you can think about. That is, if you’re not in the group you want to be in. See, people like me, the people who weren’t in the cliques, wanted SO badly to be in them. I went out and bought all the same kinds of clothes they wore. I was head to toe in Abercrombie. Shaggy hair came in and I shagged mine out like Ashton. I had to get the Jansport backpack, but not the Target one, the one from Macy’s because “seriously mom, I can’t buy the Target one, that’s social suicide.”
But what I, and every other wannabe doesn’t realize is that none of those things are what makes the in crowd what it is. The ‘cool/popular’ kids aren’t trying to be anything. They don’t shop where they shop because they’re trying to keep up. They don’t play sports to fit in. What they had that I didn’t was something I didn’t realize or develop until years later – confidence and a comfortability in their own skin. They weren’t faking anything, they were just the attractive among us who naturally excelled at sports, had good personalities/senses of humor and were comfortable with themselves. The ‘coolness’ was organic.
Now where were we. Oh yes. When I was perusing the websites of the various churches I would visit they all reminded me of my 16 year old self. They had cleverly contrived names for their ministries and gatherings. They had farmed out their website design to an enterprising graphic designer/company. They’d exhausted their budget at Ikea trying to make the coolest stage design they could come up with. They were all trying SO hard to keep up with the direction of the church. It nauseated me.
Last January (2011) I had the good fortune of going to Hillsong New York. It was by far the most amazing church I’d ever been to. I loved it. They did everything right but managed to keep God at the center above all else and God moved. It was incredible. But above all else it didn’t. feel. contrived. It was just real. They weren’t trying to be anything, they just were. The pastor, Carl Lentz, was what every UPC youth pastor and bible college student is trying so hard to be. He was good looking and well dressed but what our shallow minds can’t wrap their heads around is that the clothes and looks weren’t what defined him. He spoke with such sincerity, wisdom, practicality and fervor that I believe he is the same person, all the time. There isn’t a Pastor Carl and a Husband Carl and a Daddy Carl, there’s just Carl. And there’s just Hillsong.
What I found while searching for churches is that way, way, way too many churches are trying to keep up with the brand. They’re trying to be Hillsong, or Lakewood, or Free Chapel. They’ve lost their identity amidst an impossible quest for relevance, brand recognition, and acceptance. In trying to hard to not be ‘traditional’ they’ve become cookie cutter progressive churches.
In the end what they’ve done wrong is what they’ve always done wrong. They’ve seen something that worked for someone somewhere, deconstructed it down to a formula and are now following the formula to a tee without the substance. (Authors note: the Pentecostal reliance on formula's over substance and content is at the root of every major problem found in the movement, imho)
Cool lights and a stage design aren’t what makes Hillsong Hillsong. Cool clothing isn’t what makes Carl Lentz who he is. Clever sermon series’ aren’t what makes Joel Osteen Joel Osteen. What makes these people and churches exactly who and what they are is the fact that they embrace their strengths, understand and use their weaknesses, and are ok with who and what they are. They aren’t trying to be something they’re not, rather they’re being true to who they are.
It’s cool that these churches want to be appealing and are getting out of the mundane liturgical traditionalism they’ve clung to, but they need to be organic. They need to be true to themselves before they go calling a creative meeting and giving fancy new titles to themselves and perusing Urban Dictionary for a new youth group name. It’s not the name of your service, church or group, it’s the content. A clever name may trick people into coming, but it can’t fool them into staying. So please, stop trying to give your church a makeover and figure out who you are and who you can reach, not how to be the cool church in town.
**BTW – I did find a church, and it’s fantastic.