May 20, 2015

Making Jesus Cool

Jesus saves
Many of the Christian churches that litter the U.S. landscape undoubtedly notice when the number of empty pews in their sanctuaries seems to increase year after year. If the numbers we keep seeing reported in the news media concerning declining religiosity and church attendance among millennials are accurate, these churches have cause for concern. Their congregations are likely composed primarily of families with young children and older adults. If the data from millennials are accurate, they might expect to see a gradual decline in the number of young families.

For as long as I can remember, clergy have struggled to make Jesus more appealing to older adolescents and young adults. They recognize that there will inevitably come a day when the children who were brought to church by their parents will get to make their own decisions about whether to continue attending church. If only they could figure out how to make Jesus cool!

Can you think of any truly successful efforts by clergy to make Jesus cool? I can't. They all seem to be so transparent to the youth at which they are aimed that they come across as hopelessly artificial and contrived. Many teenagers have effective bullshit detectors, finely tuned instruments that tell them when adults are faking it. We adults, by and large, imagine that we are the clever exception that will go undetected. But they usually manage to see through our guise. They recognize that the hipster pastor (like the one in this video) is trying too hard to be genuine. They have seen too many clergy trying to be edgy and failing miserably. They quickly lose respect for adults who try to embrace the trappings of youth culture and manage to get it wrong every time. They know that Jesus isn't cool.

It seems to me that the clergy desperate to make Jesus cool have another approach available to them, one that might be more successful if they could only pull it off. The character of Jesus described in the Christian bible does have some cool attributes that ought to appeal to many teenagers. He rebelled against the authorities and some of their traditions and stood up for what was right (at least to some degree). But this message is awfully difficult to reconcile with what clergy and parents seem to want most from their teenagers: obedience and good behavior. Were the clergy to play up "Jesus the revolutionary" too much, they'd be guilty of rocking the boat and possibly inspiring the youth to rebel against the traditions of their faith and their families.

The main thing modern Christian churches have going for them is the power of indoctrination. Unfortunately for them, information is easy to come by these days. To maintain the effects of indoctrination over the years, a certain amount of continued sheltering seems to be required. As young adults leave their family homes, strike out on their own, and explore the world, they are no longer sheltered. And with the Internet being what it is, it is becoming harder to keep opposing viewpoints away from even the children.

I can imagine future scenarios where Christianity continues to thrive in the U.S., but they involve a very different sort of Christianity than the one we now have. They involve a Christianity where Jesus might finally get to be cool, a Christianity that would make many parents and clergy uncomfortable. And for that reason, they seem unlikely.

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