In my older teens and early 20s I attended a midweek worship service put on by the student ministry of my hometown’s megachurch. I did so because I was a pastor’s kid at a small, aging, rural Baptist church, and I wanted to go to a church service with people closer to my age. That service was the epitome of “cool church:” Dimmed LEDs, tasteful fog on the stage, Coldplay-esque guitar solos, and a couple hundred teenagers and twentysomethings. It bore little resemblance to the dusty, green-carpeted, and piano-driven service I was at Sunday after unremarkable Sunday. Best of all, the people at the megachurch service were young, attractive, and on Facebook. Cool church felt like it was for me, and for the people I wanted to like me. It was a powerful experience.
This is why I can’t be flippant or judgmental toward the minister and the church featured in this New York Times piece. When the pastor tells the Times reporter, “If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?” I know what he means. He’s not being ridiculous. He’s not trying to mock the church or Christianity. He’s asking why church of all places shouldn’t be a place where people feel good. It’s a good question, one that many evangelicals, to their shame, merely scoff at and refuse to answer.
Cool church often begins as an effort to meet a real need. The problem of Christians who turn the cosmos-exploding truths of Christ into pretenses for being sullen, angry, and boring is a problem as old as Jonah. Many traditional evangelical churches are stunningly joyless places. Cool church is never joyless. It cannot be, since the premise of cool church is that we ought to be happy when we’re there. There were legitimate reasons that I wanted, as an 19 year old, to be at a megachurch on Tuesday evenings if I had to be at my Dad’s church on Sunday mornings.
The liturgy of cool church demands that I enjoy it. That’s why the preaching at the midweek service was always 30 minutes or less. Don’t get me wrong: There were faithful preachers in that space, and the Word never returns void. But there’s an internal logic to why the sermons at cool church are almost never longer than a sitcom. Cool church isn’t nearly as concerned with the content of the sermon as it is with the experience itself. Everything flows perfectly at cool church; the music team always picks the right “response” song (the sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit and minor chords), the preacher is always the right amount of funny, and the order of worship never leaves you too little time to hang out in the foyer or too much time with just your thoughts.
Why is this so powerful? At least for me, I think the answer is that cool church let me hang onto my insecurities while I pretended to forget about them. It is almost impossible to overstate how important “cool” is to the typical American teen. It is the end-all, be-all. If you’re cool, nothing else matters; if you’re not, nothing else matters. Compounding this is the fact is that every facet of American culture mythologizes adolescence and connects happiness to perpetuating it as long as possible. The ethos of cool church is a throng of worshipful 18 year olds who don’t particularly care what the New Birth means. What they really want is to know they’re not weird and destined for eternal loneliness. Cool church is powerful because it appears to relieve the tension between the absolute claims of the gospel and the far less cosmic but far more throbbing need we have to be cool kids.
For well-meaning people who really do care about reaching their generation of Jesus, the temptation to grab adolescent souls by their insecurities is severe. For one thing, it sure looks like it works. Cool church will never struggle to draw a crowd. In some places and seasons it’s the only kind of church that can draw one. Secondly, because evangelicals have grown to rely on the vague language of subjective experience rather than the concrete words of Scripture, cool church sounds biblical and healthy. “I had an encounter with Jesus” is an incontestable sentence, right? “I felt God tonight.” Who can say you didn’t? And maybe you did. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? In the insecure heart, where the promises of Jesus have not taken root and where the temporary and trivial minutia of adolescence have been mistaken for existential crises, forms of Christian worship can be cathartic. And that catharsis is easily confused for faith.
I can vividly remember the circle of friends that I worshiped with at the megachurch service. The vast majority of them no longer attend any church. One of them divorced after only about a year of marriage, and remarried soon after. One now identifies as agnostic. In almost every instance, I only know of the current state of their life because of social media. We fell out of real contact some time ago. The friendships, the worship music, the preaching, and the praying that had felt so real and so forever nearly a decade ago have mostly fallen like seeds on a rocky path. Back then, we would have sworn that it was Jesus we were meeting with every Tuesday night. Sworn.