These days, I frequently hear a word applied to churches that never would have been associated with houses of worship a generation ago: cool.
A glance at Merriam-Webster will tell you that the adjective "cool" has a wide variety of definitions, some not exactly complimentary. But the definition we are looking for here is "fashionable, hip" — read: not church.
In the days when cool was taking hold as an ultimate compliment of people who were in sync with the present day, if not showing the way to the future, most churches were still dressing their ministers and choirs in heavy, dark robes, singing centuries-old songs from decades-old hymnals and, of course, getting their instruction from a book well over a century old.
What fossils. How uncool.
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But today is quite different. You can easily find exceedingly cool-looking congregations where the ministers dress in T-shirts and jeans, the services are lit with high-tech lighting systems and the music is taken right from the radio — and not necessarily Christian radio.
But is that what cool people want?
"People sometimes assume that because I'm a progressive 30-year-old who enjoys Mumford and Sons and has no children, I must want a super-hip church — you know, the kind that's called 'Thrive' or 'Be' and which boasts 'an awesome worship experience,' a fair-trade coffee bar, its own iPhone app, and a pastor who looks like a Jonas brother," author and speaker Rachel Held Evans recently wrote on her blog at Rachelheldevans.com.
She goes on to say, "I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants, and ... brace yourself ... painfully amateur 'special music' now and then. Why? Well, for one thing, when the gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone's trying to sell me something. It's as though we're all compensating for the fact that Christianity's not good enough to stand on its own so we're adding snacks."
The ship sailed on modern worship quite a while ago, and while some find it distasteful, there is a valid argument to be made that some people are never going to be reached with that old-time religion, and each generation usually re-imagines worship in its own cultural context. There is nothing wrong with that.
The caution flag that has to be thrown up is when you start letting the style get in the way of the substance.
Evans' post goes on to address an Easter Sunday incident at a Charlotte, N.C.-area mega-church that might make you need to pop a blood-pressure pill. The church escorted a child with cerebral palsy and his mother out of the service after he made a disruptive sound, and the mother's efforts to reach out to the pastor were rebuffed.
The point she makes is that this is a church that has become so preoccupied with presenting its supposedly awesome worship experience that it set the actual mission of ministry back several steps.
Now, lest all the old-school church types start doing superiority dances over this incident, I have to say I could just as easily see that same situation playing out in some mainline denominational churches that are trying to have excruciatingly proper, dignified services. And while some modern churches can get hung up on being cool, I have also seen churches where I would argue they were prioritizing their pristine traditional presentations over genuine worship or ministry.
I have to also say I know of churches in the Lexington area of all worship styles that do excellent jobs of reaching out to people who are poor, have special needs or are in other ways broken — which, as Evans says, really includes all of us.
The point is not to elevate or degrade any of our worship styles. If there were not a variety of ways to worship, we would all just go to the closest church. We just have to watch that we don't get hung up on the trappings and forget the message.
In the grand scheme of things, the trappings are what God cares about the least.