The character that Scottish novelist J.M. Barrie created over a hundred years ago may be what we are creating in a segment of the modern church. The notion of a boy who would never grow up implies a forever childhood of play. The way Barrie’s character was able to remain forever a child was to always forget what he learned from the past.
The Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote “Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy, to be forever a child”. In order to not know what happened before you were born one must be ignorant of history. That would seem to require a rejection of the past as irrelevant or of no interest. Are there places in our world today that actively set aside history as irrelevant? Is this what we are doing in a segment of the modern church?
I have previously argued that what we have done in youth ministry in recent decades is what we are doing in many contemporary churches today. It’s not uncommon in the profession of youth ministry to find people who really don’t want to grow old. To do so would be to be perceived as irrelevant. But at what cost does relevance come? Do we throw away 2000 years of church history in order to create a church that is hip and cool? If we do church the way that youth ministry has been done in recent decades, are we not just creating an atmosphere for Peter Pan Christians? It is so easy to find churches that have created a rock and roll concert atmosphere devoid of any resemblance to the church of past centuries. We play some music, give a talk, and send them home.
There was a time when I thought that doing church like we did youth ministry would be a good idea. That was back when some folks were intentionally planting youth churches and I thought it would be cool to give it a try. My prerequisites for a worship service would be extremely contemporary music, good creative use of video and drama, and solid biblical preaching. I had no interest in old hymns or liturgy. Ironically at that point, the one part of the worship service at my very traditional church that moved me was the doxology. I lacked a real understanding of the significance of prayers from the front in a service or other aspects of traditional worship. As I continued to dream, I thought we should find a cool place to meet rather than a church building. Perhaps we could creatively transform an old warehouse into our worship space. Now you might be reading this and thinking that I am making this up because I am accurately describing many churches today. I honestly daydreamed about these things twenty years ago. There were already churches that resembled this to some extent - like Willow Creek but without the cutting edge feel to it. Just like we came up with cool names for our youth groups, we would need to come up with a creative name for our church (and not call it church of course).
I drive regularly past a sign for “Outbreak Church”. I am sure that has been the name of many youth groups in the past. There are plenty of churches out there whose names were first youth groups. Journey, Restoration, Elevation, Generation, Revolution, Encounter, Warehouse, Mosaic, and Passion all fit that description. Then the sort of post youth group names that are a bit more sophisticated like The Point, The Well, The River, The Rock, and The Refuge are out there. I am all for creativity in both youth ministry and the wider church. I also personally don’t get excited by many traditional church names - especially 1st Denomination, 2nd Denomination, etc. But back to the issue…
Are we creating Peter Pan Christians who never want to grow up because we are too busy doing relevant, hip, and cool church? Do we think the church must be perceived to be fun so that others might actually come along and participate? That is the mindset of many in youth ministries. We believe that fun is essential for outreach and if that carries over to the church are we not refusing to grow up? Now please don’t misunderstand me on this. I like fun and believe it has a place in our lives. I don’t strive for boring in anything I do. Deep down I still want to be hip and cool and have fun like a teenager. Being a youth pastor by nature means I really don’t want to get old. However, throwing away the history of Christianity or specifically the historic aspects of worship that have connected people to God for centuries is a mistake. It does little more than create Peter Pan Christians who refuse to grow up. Yet many churches have been planted that do exactly that.
There is hope! Some years ago God drew my attention to the concept of revitalizing a dead church. The idea behind it being for a congregation to be planted in an old church building that either has closed or is on the brink of closing its doors. Recently on The Gospel Coalition Blog was a post about several contemporary church plants that have moved into old church buildings. In the article the following words jumped out at me: “A 2008 survey by LifeWay Research found that "unchurched adults"---those who hadn't attended a church, mosque, or synagogue in the past six months other than for holidays or events---are more turned off to utilitarian buildings. More Americans prefer a medieval cathedral to a contemporary church building. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, at the time said the findings surprised him, but suggested the look of a Gothic cathedral was more likely to connect visitors with the past.” When we connect people to the past, we are eliminating the possibility of them remaining forever a child.