When I was young, there was nothing worse for a church than to be “traditional”. We stripped back the liturgy, swapped the organ for a drum-kit, and replaced the hymnals with Hillsong. We unceremoniously dumped the icons, architecture and rituals that had fed the church for hundreds of years. We were desperate to present a cool, socially acceptable, “relevant” package for modern culture.
Today, something unexpected is happening. There is a small but distinct movement of young people abandoning the smoke machines, multi-purpose buildings and celebrity pastors of recent church models, and heading back towards traditional worship services, where sacraments are central, buildings are beautiful, and the liturgy has a historic rootedness about it. Gracey Olmstead, Rachel Held Evans, Aaron Niequist, Ben Irwin and Erik Parker have written illuminating articles about why young people are embracing “un-cool” church and becoming “liturgy nerds”.
What is going on?
Every person’s journey is different, but here are a few reasons why those who have grown up in evangelical churches are increasingly drawn to high church practices and historical forms of worship.
Young people today have been marketed to all their lives, and they can see past gimmicks and tricks. They don’t need church to pretend to be something it’s not – an entertainment venue, a relationship course, a nightclub. They find it refreshing to enter a building which openly proclaims itself as a worship space, to take part in ceremonies and rhythms which unashamedly focus on worship. They’ve swapped the salesman’s pitch for simple sacraments.
In an era of continuous rapid change, young people are seeking to feel grounded and connected to their past. This is why retro and vintage fashions have made such a comeback in recent years. Farmers markets, knitted scarves and cardigans, typewriter fonts, nostalgic photo effects, thick-rimmed glasses and Op Shop clothing are the new “cool”. In the midst of chaotic change and technology, there is a strong desire to be rooted and grounded in traditions of the past.
God cannot be contained in a 30 minute sermon. Or even a 45 minute one. We worship a God we cannot see, cannot truly understand, cannot adequately explain, cannot prove. Ancient forms of faith allow us to return to a sense of mystery, rather than containing God in a box made of words.
ICONS & SYMBOLISM
Shane Hipps points out that icons and images are replacing words as the main method of communication. This generation are deeply visual and iconic. The word-centred, book-dependent communication style of previous generations has given way to a love affair with symbols and imagery, which are far better expressed in ancient liturgies than in contemporary worship.
Sacramental worship offers a hands-on, multi sensory, participatory act of community. The simple, everyday rituals of a bath (baptism) and a meal (eucharist) are tangible and interactive, inviting God’s people to actively participate rather than passively listen.
The departure of young people from “new” churches to “old” ones can be deeply confusing to many who grew up with strict denominational boundaries. However, it has the potential to lead to healthy, restorative spaces for many of God’s people. After all, we are all one church. As Brian Zhand expresses it; “we need the whole body of Christ to properly form the body of Christ. This much I’m sure of: Orthodox mystery, Catholic beauty, Anglican liturgy, Protestant audacity, Evangelical energy, Charismatic reality — I need it all!”