Fake Garbage, or “Trying Too Hard”

For the second time in a week, Thom Rainer’s ideas have formed the basis of my malcontent with church-as-it-is. This is rather stunning, as there are so many good sources for annoyed reflection. Today, it’s another essay (mercifully brief, however) about “what Millennials want.” This particular one is on “worship style”.

It could be briefer–five words, to be exact.

People don’t like fake garbage.

I’ve got to agree, but I don’t think it’s limited to the Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000). Had I chosen to be a parent, it’s very likely that my children would be Millennials. And I don’t like fake garbage, either.

I think it’s true that the musical genre is entirely irrelevant. Whether it is Bach cantatas or heavy metal, it needs to be done well if it is going to be attractive to anyone of any age. Thin, childish, musically inept worship songs may be a lot of fun, but (as Rainer correctly notes), are not going to have the theological richness that quality music (and, I want to add, decent preaching and committed worship leadership) will have. It’s trying to survive long-term on Pringles instead of selecting, preparing, and eating (with all the respect that food deserves) a varied diet of nutritious foods.

Even if there is an initial attraction, there needs to be more depth than the average “let’s get our God groove on” junk that I heard in the Nineties. If I ever hear another rendition of “Shine Jesus Shine” in my life, I cannot promise to be responsible for my own actions. (It was even somewhat difficult to grab the YouTube video for the link.) And here, let me put in a reverse-endorsement for what I have come to think of as the “Pretty Pretty Jesus Song”. It’s trying to survive long-term on Pringles instead of selecting, preparing, and eating (with all the respect that food deserves) a varied diet of nutritious foods.

I have no problem with using “popular” music genres for religious music. I just want it done well. For the last 15 years or so, my Holy Week devotion has combined Temple’s Palm Sunday to Easter radio addresses alongside listening to the appropriate-for-the-day excerpt from Jesus Christ Superstar. Yes, that shows that I grew up when every adolescent girl with a guitar was singing Mary Magdalene’s songs, even if she didn’t quite understand what they meant. And whether you love or hate Andrew Lloyd Webber, or the entire musical-theatre genre, one thing is clear. This is music that is excellent in its kind. It takes skill and talent to perform. It tells the story in a recognizable yet original way. It commands sustained attention.

Classical music–I here think of things like Bach cantatas and Handel oratorios–have the same power. Different genre, but the same qualities.

Rainer says that Millennials want quality in their worship. The fastest way, I think, to sacrifice quality is to try to do more than you are able. If you’ve only got a tiny choir, then have them sing only things built for tiny choirs. If you don’t have enough good singers in your congregation, do something really radical: don’t have a choir at all. Stick with congregational singing of theologically good hymns that are familiar to the people you have. (Most people don’t realize how profound “Amazing Grace” really is, because we hear it so much.)

Don’t try to do what you don’t have the resources for, or your existing congregation doesn’t like. Do what you can, do what you love, and do it as well as possible.

So, quality and theological “richness” can be handled fairly easily. The place it gets itchy is “authenticity.”

Once you start asking “What do Millennials (or any other group, really) want?” and pairing it with the ridiculous discovery that they want authenticity, the church-growth knee-jerk response will be “How do we get more authenticity so we can attract the Millennials?” And that has to be the most inauthentic, fake garbage response possible. Because authenticity is something you are, not something you can get. Certainly not something you can en/force.

In fact, once you stop the quest for “authenticity”, you probably achieve it. Again, do what you can, do what you love, and do it as well as possible.

But I also want to challenge the assumption that these are the things that matter to all Millennials, and whether you have a (good) praise band or a (good) traditional choir, you can attract this (or any) demographic if you have quality, depth, and authenticity. Because that treats people like a cookie-cutter demographic–not like people. That’s the difference between marketing and evangelization, the line between customer care and pastoral care. It’s a mistake churches shouldn’t be making.

No church is going to be right for everybody. Maybe there isn’t even a church that fits the same person throughout their entire spiritual journey.

There will be those in any demographic who are seeking quiet contemplation, and those who will be seeking acceptance into and bonding with a group. And there may be some who are seeking both, or change what they are seeking at various points of their spiritual journey.

And no church–whether the local congregation, or denominational tradition–may be fully able to cater to the entire spectrum of Christian spirituality.

Offer quality and richness. Do what you are best at, to the best of your abilities. And have the confidence that you are attracting the people who will benefit most from your offerings will find you.

Better that, than just padding the numbers by trying to do too much and doing very little of it well.

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