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Dude, Do Young Adults Really Want a Relevant Church?

What's relevant church means to people may be arbitrary. What young people say they want in their 20s is not necessarily what they want 10 years later.

A young writer has some advice for church leaders trying desperately to attract and retain young people: Change carefully and wisely.

What young people say they want in their 20s is not necessarily what they want 10 years later.

When I came back to church after a faith crisis in my early 20s, the first one I attended regularly was a place called Praxis. It was the kind of church where the young, hip pastor hoisted an infant into his arms and said with sincerity, “Dude, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The entire service had an air of informality. We sat in folding chairs, sang rock-anthem praise and took clergy-free, buffet-style communion. Once a month, the pastor would point to a table at the back of the open-rafter sanctuary and invite us to “serve ourselves” if we felt so compelled.

For two years, my husband and I attended Praxis while he did graduate work at Arizona State University and I worked as a documentary producer. As someone who had defected from the church at age 23, I thought it was the perfect place for me: a young, urban church located four blocks from Casey Moore’s Irish Pub, an unchurchy church with a mix of sacred tradition and secular trend.

I’m not the first person ever to go low-church, and Praxis isn’t the first institution to pursue that hard-to-get demographic: young people.

Church Leaders in Search of Relevant Church

Across America today, thousands of clergy and congregations—even entire denominations—are running scared, desperately trying to convince their youth that faith and church are culturally relevant, forward-looking and alive.

For some, the instinct is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender.

But as someone who left the mainstream church and eventually returned, I’d like to offer a word of advice to those who are so inclined: don’t.

Or at least proceed with caution. Change carefully, change wisely, with thoughtfulness and deliberation. What young people say we want in our 20s is not necessarily what we want 10 years later.

Churches, of course, are right to worry. They’ve been losing young people like me for years.

A study released last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that not just liberal mainline Protestants but also more conservative evangelical and “born-again” Protestants are abandoning their religious attachments.

Our complaints against the church know no bounds: We don’t like the politics. We want authenticity and openness. We demand a particular worship aesthetic.

Churches often leap to meet these demands, and yet the arc of my own story suggests that chasing after the most recent trend may not be the answer. As I’ve written elsewhere, I was raised in a small Presbyterian congregation but left and later returned to the church for reasons too complex to summarize here.

Relevant Church Means Something to Each Person

When I slipped back in, I wanted what my own parents had wanted in their hippie youth back in the 1970s: an anti-institutional church that looked less like a church and more like a coffee house. But after two years at Praxis, the coffee tasted thin.

I felt homeless in heart.

I missed intergenerational community.

I missed hymns and historicity, sacraments and old aesthetics.

I missed the rich polity—even the irritation—of Presbytery.

In 2007, when my husband and I moved from Arizona to Austin, Texas, and went in search of a church, we skipped the nondenominationals and went straight to the traditionals. We found an Anglican church where every Sunday morning we now watch clergy process up the aisle wearing white vestments and carrying a six-foot cross.