Not long ago, the New York Times published an article about a new wave of booming non-denominational Christian churches in the Los Angeles area. A lot of it seems familiar: rock music, hip pastors, young, famous members of the congregation, texted prayers. But one church's co-founder, Holly Wagner, said something that has stuck with me: 'What we've found is that this generation, particularly the millennials, they don't want to know the theory... we make the Bible very practical and helpful and find humor in it.'
I think there is truth here. One thing that is hard about getting people to come to church these days is that we have to convince them they want to. Long gone are the days when 'everyone' went to church, longer still since people generally felt they should, and those of us who are left are often very shy about articulating out loud why we practice the Christian faith and what it means to us to be in church.
The theory is very important. Learning the basics of Scripture, creed, and sacraments, articulating them to others, worshiping God together, those of us who do these things understand that they are fundamental to our very life, and the life of the world. But clearly, not everyone understands this. It is easy enough to go on with one's life, as millions do, steering clear of religion altogether, and think, 'what do I need this for?'
And so, I think some of these rapidly growing churches do something quite brilliant, from a marketing (or I could say, evangelical) perspective: they offer a free sample. Cutting straight to 'how is this good for me?', they answer that question first and foremost. They go straight to the benefit it brings to those attending. I may not agree with every one of the benefits they promote (prosperity Gospel is not for me, I don't see a lot of Gospel basis for strict gender roles, etc.), but I do see how this helps get people in the door.
In the Episcopal church, and I am guessing, other mainline denominations, we have a huge emphasis on the theory, and the practice, of the faith. We want people to go deep, to grow in their discipleship, to really follow Jesus. This is, I think, one of our greatest gifts. At the same time, though, we may be missing many people who need this gift because they don't think they want it, or it fits. Here is where we could also try the 'free sample' approach.
There are many immediate benefits to Christian practice that don't require a huge amount of knowledge or even attendance at church: forgiveness, mercy, nonviolence, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, these are all easily relevant to our everyday lives. Ways to improve our everyday relationships are things we all need sometimes. As congregations, and individual Christians, there is lots of room to start there.
Being a Christian makes me a better wife, a better friend, better at my job. There's a lot more to it, but this is a way to start conversing with others, offering the invitation of a deeper faith. And if that's all they want, just a little advice on how to love one another better, then it is hard to see the down side. The upside could be inviting someone else into a relationship with God that changes, and saves, their lives.