By CHANDLER WILSON
Most millennials can recall Sunday mornings in their childhood where they sang from a hymnal and listened to a male pastor in a clergy robe while sitting in a pew wearing a suit or dress next to their parents.
But culture is changing, and so is the church.
Nearly one in five (19 percent) Americans is leaving their childhood religion and becoming religiously unaffiliated while only 3 percent of Americans who grew up unaffiliated are joining a religion, according to a 2016 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute.
Across the country, churches are trading in suits for jeans, hymns for contemporary worship music and multi-hour sermons for shorter worship experiences and small groups in an attempt to reach an increasingly non-religious culture that lacks trust in authority and is governed by social media.
“People don’t actually have real relationships with people because they do it all behind a computer,” said Shaina Smith, executive pastor of ministries at Victory Family Church in Norman, Oklahoma. “People are craving relationship and craving connection. The church is changing because the culture is changing. People want real. They want authentic.”
Compared to the mere 6 percent of Americans claiming no religious affiliation in 1991, the now 25 percent and rising religiously unaffiliated people in the United States, according to the 2016 PRRI survey, leave many to wonder if Christianity will fade away or be revived.
In Norman, one of the state’s largest cities, less than half the population considers itself to be religious, despite living in the Bible Belt.
According to Rev. Rodney Newman, a pastor at Bridgeview United Methodist Church in Norman and a Theology instructor at Oklahoma City University, religion is becoming irrelevant in people’s lives.
“Many now find meaning in relationships and friend groups and turn more to entertainment options,” Newman said. “For instance, some find meaning through popular music, television shows and movies that seem to deal with real issues. Religion doesn’t seem to add anything they can’t get elsewhere.”
Congregation counselor and author Dr. Steve McSwain wrote in a Huffington Post article entitled, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore” that too many leaders in church ignore the fact that the American church is dying.
Though the demographic of the country is changing at a fast pace, the demographic of most churches is failing to catch up.
While the church has struggled adapting and growing overall, many churches across the country are still experiencing growth with each Sunday.
According to a blog post from Carey Nieuwhof, pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario, Canada, those willing to reconsider their methods are succeeding in preserving their mission.
In other words, churches don’t have to change what they believe in order to attract today’s culture.
Victory Family Church, a local contemporary church with an influential presence across the metro area and within the University of Oklahoma student body, is located in a large building near the I-35 Flood Ave. exit and the Cleveland County Jail.
Head pastors Adam and Kristy Starling felt called to leave the church they worked at in Oklahoma City to launch Victory alongside members from another Norman church. Shortly after Victory’s January 2013 opening, Hobby Lobby donated thousands of dollars for expansion.
In Victory’s near six years, average attendance has gone from around 100 people to over 4,000 and continues to grow weekly, according to Smith. Now, Victory is doing its fourth building project as well as launching a second location in Newcastle set to open in January 2019.
The Starlings were hopeful their location, along with the different religious backgrounds, races, cultures, struggles and experiences of their 38-person staff, would attract a variety of people and grow their church.
With nearly a hundred small groups, ranging from soccer teams to prayer groups to a money management course, Victory has emphasized creating an environment of genuine inclusion where anyone can find what they are looking for.
“We want people to feel like family, so it doesn’t matter what they look like or what they are wearing,” Smith said. “We just want people to feel welcome no matter what.”
According to a 2017 Pew survey of more than 4,000 people, 48 percent of Christian interviewees said they do not attend church because they haven’t felt welcomed by congregations.
To better do this and create inclusion, Victory goes into the community as opposed to assuming the community will come to them.
“The modern church can offer an updated version of social engagement by servicing, giving voice to the marginalized and meeting the real needs of people,” Newman said. “This might include addiction recovery, criminal justice reform, community organizing and challenging embedded systems of injustice, including issues of race and gender.”
They do pop-up churches, park food trucks, speak with campus ministries and provide services to different members of the church and in the community, such as single mothers and economically disadvantaged people.
Because of this, along with their emphasis on diversity within their staff, their volunteers and throughout the church, Victory has found success in not only attracting a wide range of people, but retaining their attendance and involvement as well, according to Smith.
“Jesus himself certainly upset the current social order,” Newman said. “I don’t think social engagement will necessarily be through classes at the church but in home meetings, pub conversations, feeding the hungry and exploring new forms of prayer.”
Newer churches often find it easier to reach people because they are beginning with the most up-to-date strategies as opposed to older, more traditional churches who may have to change their approach, according to McSwain.
But traditional mainline Protestant churches do not have to hang flashy lights and hire a worship band to perform in their stained-glass sanctuaries to better connect with a changing culture, he discussed.
McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church has been in its original location behind Campus Corner and near downtown Main Street since 1924 and has a strong, traditional presence in the Norman community.
“I’ve gone to both contemporary and traditional services, and I like both for different reasons,“ McFarlin attendee Amelia Kinsinger said. “As a college student, I think the pastors at contemporary services generally have the messages that are better for my life right now, but I think the thing that’s nice about traditional is the atmosphere generally feels a little more authentic to me.”
With both contemporary and traditional services offered and a live-stream option for the 10:55 a.m. service, along with informative and updated social media accounts, McFarlin’s growth has remained steady as culture has changed.
“We stay current on technological advances and how those advances might help us continue to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Wendi Neal, associate pastor at McFarlin. “Millennials follow the same attendance trends that we see across other age demographics.”
As a leader of a church, there is a temptation to ignore trends or minimize the impact they will have on how the church is operated, Nieuwhof wrote.
McFarlin’s willingness to adapt with advancing technology and current trends while maintaining its traditional Methodist roots is what has kept it successful.
Many older congregations fall apart because of their unwillingness to change what they have always done, according to Newman.
They focus on preserving the institution rather than connecting with people, which leads newcomers to lose interest, he continued, but churches who are willing to adapt will find they don’t have to change what they believe in.
“Because our world is so surrounded by electronics and social media, the only way to interact with our generation is with interface,” OU senior Marykate Motley said. She grew up in a Methodist church and now attends Antioch, another non-denominational, contemporary church in Norman. “Without social media it’s hard to catch people’s attention or draw them in in the first place.”
Regardless of the size of the congregation or whether a church is traditional or contemporary, revival is possible, according to Newman, but churches must focus on serving people rather than focusing on their own struggles.
Newman believes revival will happen when the church begins to resemble the earliest days of Christianity.
“Early Christians were known to help and love non-Christians and provide security to those that felt abandoned or unable to provide for themselves,” Newman said. “Younger people tend to care more about social issues such as racism or sexism. The church of today seems to either not address these issues, talks about them too generically or takes retrogressive stances that come across as out of touch or even harmful, which is another example of how the church is fixated on internal squabbles rather than turning outward to the world we are called to serve.”
According to Nieuwhof, the biggest complaint of non-church goers is hypocrisy in the church, which leads to a declining trust in institutions and authority.
In order to combat the 65 percent of declining or plateauing churches in the U.S., the church would do well to address complaints and create a space where people feel welcome.
“The reason why we are a church is because we want to tell more people about Jesus,” Smith said. “It’s not the four walls. It’s not the building. It’s just so people can really have an encounter with Jesus, and we truly believe that their lives can be changed.”