“Not Your Parents’ Church”—that’s the tagline for the Sunday morning Christian gathering that meets a few downtown blocks from my home. I’ve been there a few times, and the only thing I can tell you is they’re really, really cool. They wear skinny jeans and drink coffee during the service—and not just “church coffee,” but the good stuff.
If you go to their website and click on “About Us,” you’ll find this sentence at the top of the page: “First off, at [hip name of the gathering] we like to have fun.” Their second point is much better, but still seems too cool for school: “We’re built around a come as you are mentality,” they promise. Their overall presentation seems to insist, “Look, we aren’t your parents’ church! See our hip language and sick web design!”
After sitting in on a few sermons and perusing the Beliefs and FAQ sections of their website, I’m convinced that their theology is solid, and their intentions are quite well-meaning. But even though many of their theological concepts are sound, what seems problematic is the overall context that frames their theology and practice.
It’s no secret that the young demographic in churches today is wearing thin. Today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings who have grown up in the Church have grown disillusioned and discontented, and churches trying to intentionally reach them should be applauded. Yet I wonder if there are drawbacks in this approach.
Our generation is emerging into adulthood—we’re claiming our independence and struggling to find our place in the world of jobs, relationships, finances and faith. And during this formative time, I wonder if it is counterproductive to forge a way of our own that is shaped more by who we don’t want to be than who we want to be.
Are we framing our theology in terms of what it is not—not boring, not old-school, not whatever your parents raised you on? By defining our faith in terms of what it isn’t, have we assumed the role of the marginalized hipster and so built our faith on a framework that is reactionary and defensive? If we can only gain spiritual independence by distancing ourselves from “other” faith expressions, we risk organizing the body of Christ into “us” and “them.” Sure, it might be marketable, but is this really the point?
Jesus once compared His generation to children sitting in the marketplace, angry with Him because He wouldn’t dance when they expected Him to (Matthew 11). His point was that He didn’t come to be the Messiah they expected Him to be. He came to be who He was—to be, in a sense, who God was. “No, no,” this Messiah said. “I’m not here to overthrow Caesar. I’m here to overcome the world. Put away your flutes, and join Me in My dance as I recreate the universe one atom at a time.”
And in reality, neither this Messiah nor His message was very marketable. Quite the opposite, actually. Jesus’ angry episode in the temple was horrible for business. With indignation, the Messiah looked around at those who exploited the temple for their own purposes. And as He overturned the money tables, He chastised the merchants, calling them thieves, and accused them of turning the temple into something that reflected their own agendas—not God’s.
Whenever I pass through downtown, I think about this church’s slogan, “Not Your Parents’ Church.” I think about how maybe they say things like that because they’re trying to be cool, to be marketable, to be exactly what non-Christian people want. And I think about how this approach works with our generation—how we can’t wait to disassociate and cut ties with anything that signals us as passé or culturally behind. I think about some American Christians and the kind of Jesus they’re offering the world.
And I wonder how many more revisions and updates this Jesus can undergo before He stops being the very unmarketable carpenter that He was.
Perhaps this all seems too harsh a critique. But I imagine Jesus’ response as something like this: “No, this isn’t your parents’ church, but it isn’t yours, either. This is My Father’s house.”
Certainly, we need a faith of our own. We need to rediscover the glory of the Gospel in an age that has relegated it to something of no use and no importance. Certainly, we need to engage our faith individually and in community in authentic ways.
I’m not sure exactly how we can reform some of these misguided aspects of American Christianity. But I think the cross is a good place to start.
Behold the man nailed to a tree—that peasant, from a working family, despised and unknown. Look at Him there—the weakness of God, rejected, despised, unfashionable as ever, cursed by His own Father. If only He’d gotten with the program.
But He didn’t. And that’s the point of the cross. That’s why there was a cross. Jesus didn’t ever get with the world’s program. He remained authentic to who God wanted Him to be.
So as we start to claim this faith as our own, maybe we need to stop looking at what “not” to do. Maybe we should get with His program.