A few days ago a news story came out that McDonald’s is slumping because of upstart restaurants like Chipotle or Freshii or Shake Shack are appealing to the desire of millennials to customize, rather than standardize their food.
The church can probably learn something from this, but if anything the message is millennials are not opting for the things the world expects.
So imagine my surprise this past week when I read two articles about the movement of evangelical millennials leaving their mega-church roots for boring old traditions and liturgy found in Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran varieties.
Actually, this is not new, but has been an underground trend for a while.
Popular writer and blogger, Rachel Held Evans is about to come out with a book on her journey from Evangelicalism to the Anglican/Episcopalian fold. Nadia Bolz-Weber embodies millennial culture and is succeeding at navigating the cultural commute from hipsters to the Eucharist. The Barna Group even recently released data on millennial preferences of church architecture, which suggested that churches that looked like traditional churches were preferred over auditorium style buildings.
Christian millennials seem to live in this multi-layered world of reading the bible on their iPhone and tweeting in church, while singing ancient plainsong and praying prayers spoken by saints of centuries past.
And maybe this makes sense in the context of the hipster trends that have even infected my millennial hair and eyewear. My generation is instagraming photos of our knitting projects and writing our first draft blog posts on typewriters (see blog tagline above).
Yet all of this makes we wonder. Is Liturgy just another version of a millennial hipster fad? Are looms, vinyl record players and vespers things we are going to commit to for a lifetime?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if Liturgy is going to be the Christian fad of the late 2010s like Power Point was the fad of the early 2000s.
At the same time, I think there is something deeper going on when it comes to millennials and liturgy. Particularly, when it comes to evangelical millennials finding liturgy and jumping in with two feet.
Now as a High Churchly Millennial myself, I should confess that I have not actually been a pastor to more than a handful of folks my age. The vast majority of my parishioners have been boomers or older. In fact, one of the concerns of Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans is how to retain our own “young” people.
So for evangelical millennials to begin wandering into our spaces is surprising, but I have a few theories about this trend. Evangelical churches are doing something with their people that many mainliners have mostly given up on decades ago – evangelicals are creating biblically literate Christians.
I have been teaching confirmation (two years of Lutheran indoctrination for 12 and 13-year-olds) classes for a decade in some form or another. And while I love reading the bible with students and talking about issues of faith, it is clear that we are not introducing our children to the bible beyond once a week classes with the pastor. When I ask kids if they know the basic details of many of biblical stories, including the life and ministry of Jesus they rarely come up with any.
What’s worse is that this biblical illiteracy is not limited to teenagers… it is rampant among mainliners. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have much more established cultures of bible reading. Evangelicals are encouraged to read the bible daily and to engage in group bible study more rigorously than many mainliners.
And this is where the experience of Liturgy comes in.
Liturgy is scripturally rich. The prayers and music texts are full of biblical images… images that come and go fast. A Eucharistic prayer might reference creation, Abraham and Sarah, Eljiah being fed at the river, David and Goliath, Ezekiel and the dry bones and then Jesus all in a few lines. If you can’t move quickly between stories and images, it can begin to sound like jargon and non-sense. I suspect a lot of mainline folks, especially bored teenagers, feel completely lost during a lot of liturgy.
As our need to be connected to and to understand what is happening around us increases through teenage years and into adulthood, biblically rich liturgy can become an experience of alienation. People don’t know what is going on or why the presider is yammering on about all these people with old sounding names. This is when the old trope that “Liturgy is boring” starts to get thrown around. Yet, most teachers know (and pastors should too) that kids who claim school is boring, often do so because they are not comprehending basic concepts and are struggling to keep up with what is going on. Many mainliners are in this boat.
Now imagine instead, you are a biblically literate teenager or young adult. You know your bible. You have done sword drills, and trivia. You have memorized verses and verses of the bible. And yet the worship you attend is 15 praises songs, which may or may not have a few psalm verses as lyrics, 3 extemporaneous prayers, and is concluded by some dude in a graphic t-shirt lecturing for 45 minutes on the ten principles of prayer found in Malachi chapter three.
I can see why, when biblically literate evangelicals end up in a Lutheran or Anglican worship service, they find a whole new playground of biblical worship. All of a sudden the richness of the biblical narratives come alive. Biblical images are used abundantly. Bible stories are quoted frequently. Scripture is read aloud regularly. The biblical knowledge of personal devotion and youth group becomes the new language of prayer and song, of ritual and community. You are thrown into the divine drama and you are with a community who is practicing and acting it out together.
“By things we have done, and things we have failed to do” weighs heavy on our hearts as we confess these words in community, and then receive the gift of absolution and forgiveness.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” takes on new meaning when the acolyte processes the big bible down into the midst of the people in order to hear the gospel read.
“Peace be with you” is embodied when we say it as we embrace fellow Christians around us.
“This is my body, given for you” is felt when a hunk of bread is torn from a loaf and placed in our open hands and we feel flesh the of the one giving us this bread meeting our flesh, somehow bringing together earthly bread and divine body.
Liturgy has the ability to awaken the richness of the core narratives of faith in ways I have never experienced elsewhere. I can’t imagine another means of embodying the bible – embodying the Word of God – so deeply as we do in the liturgy.
Now, I am not saying that mainline millennials are not able to appreciate liturgy. Nor am I saying that evangelical millennials are about to become liturgy loving Catholics, Anglicans or Lutherans.
But rather I am trying to make some connections that point to bigger issues among Christians in North America and the West in general. The fact is many evangelicals seem to be good at keeping early church’s serious commitment to catechesis, yet have dropped many of liturgical commitments. While many mainliners have maintained the liturgical commitment of our forbearers, we have dropped much of the catechetical commitment to introduce our young and our new members to the bible and to the richness of the biblical narrative. The two dynamics play into each other in ways that none of us anticipated.
So back to my first question: Is liturgy just the latest hipster fad among millennial christians? I cannot really say. I wish and hope it isn’t. But I also know that vestments and their fabrics (all the funny robes that priests and pastors wear) excite me in the same way others of my generational cohort might be excited by bee-keeping or printing presses or growing organic gardens or listening to vinyl.
Yet, I would posit that there is something deep and more profound in liturgy, even with all its ancient adornments and traditions. Liturgy is rooted in the rich and beautiful biblical narratives that help us to make sense of the world – or perhaps show us how God is making sense of us.
Even if liturgy and vestments and ancient ritual appeals to my millennial and hipster sensibilities, I know it is a life long interest, a life long calling if you will, to continually encounter God in ways that Christians have been encountering God for centuries.
And that’s no fad.
If you want to read part 1 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial, you can find it here.
Is Liturgy just another hipster fad? Are millennials drawn to liturgy differently than previous generations? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik