Prayer flags hung outside of “New Church” United Methodist Church were created by congregants and community members during the Candler Park Fall Festival on Oct. 1, 2016 and Oct. 2, 2016.
ATLANTA – October 19, 2016 – Why does God kill babies? Did God create dinosaurs? Why do people say bad things are part of God’s plan? Why does that corner street preacher say I’m going hell for being born gay? And is the Republican Party really the only “Christian” political party?
All these questions were overheard during a high school youth group. Although they might appear silly at first, these questions from America’s youth disclose the reason many people attend church in the first place; to seek answers to life’s hardest questions. However, churches recent failure to truthfully answer these and other tough questions effectively has caused a mass exodus of many millennials and internet natives from organized religion. These people are known to many in the religious community as the “dones,” individuals so tired or done with church that they eventually choose to leave altogether, but have yet to lose their faith entirely.
“Dones” would be considered a large subcategory of the more frequently researched and discussed “nones,” also known as the religiously non-affiliated. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center article titled, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” self-identified, religiously unaffiliated Americans saw a 6.7 percent population increase between 2007 and 2014 while Catholics and mainline Protestant denominations both saw significant decreases. This percentage was even higher when they isolated based on age. The millennial generation alone saw increases as large as 9 percent.
Since this study was published, methods of motivating “nones,” and more specifically “dones” to return to church, have become widely discussed in many religious circles. In the last several years, articles like, “5 Ways Churches Can Reach Millennials” or “10 Reasons Churches Are Not Reaching Millennials,” have become relatively commonplace. Though they lack the specific jargon, one can easily tell they are debating ways to attract and retain the “dones.”
Attention is focused on “dones” because they appear to be more easily motivated to return to church since they already understand church. For a while though, the tactics for luring millennials back were highly superficial. Award-winning Christian blogger and author, Rachel Held Evans, points out in a 2013 blog post, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” “Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”
Yet this has not been proven to be successful. Yes, a church that makes these changes might see an attendance increase for a few Sundays while the younger generation “checks the place out,” but as far as long-term retention, the numbers are still plummeting. This is because most churches fix the façade while never truly getting to the heart of the issue. According to studies done by the Public Religion Research Institute, many young Christians believe the church often misses the nuances and complexities of their faith.
In her most recent novel, “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church,” blogger Evans also discusses this concept saying, “We [millennials] don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff—biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice—but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.”
Though the majority of church leaders still don’t understand this opinion, a few congregations are emerging as pioneers in this new field of faith. Churches like, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver or St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, Urban Village Church in Chicago or even closer to home “New Church” United Methodist in Atlanta, understand the importance of creating real faith communities at the intersection of an intellectual faith and warm hearts.
Take for example, “New Church” whose mission is just that, to create an authentic, artistic and adventurous Christ community at the intersection of intellectual faith and warm hearts. Like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of two dying, mainstream Methodist congregations in downtown Atlanta, “New Church” was founded at the beginning of this year and is growing its attendance by finding creative ways to have the difficult conversations about faith within their community. They do this by meeting at pizza places, pubs and parks, sharing testimonies about each other’s faith journeys, and always remembering each story is unique.
After attending a service for the first time last Sunday at their building at 1561 McLendon Ave., one congregant, Caroline Finn, 19, said she liked worship there because, “the theology is not focused on tradition, rules and being right or wrong; it is focused on finding and sharing God’s love. You don’t need to have the answers; you don’t need to follow any rules or interpret a passage [of the bible] a certain way. You just need to show up.” She continued by saying, “I think the ‘right and wrong’ rigid belief systems of other churches create in and out groups that can really intimidate and exclude people.” She loved this complete inclusion that “New Church” offered so much that she said she’d be back the next week.
When asked if this broad tone was intentional, co-pastors Anjie and Andy Woodworth, said “Very much so! It’s even in our strategic plan for the church. ‘We will be radically inclusive and will not ‘half-ass the all are welcome’ message. We will be as multi-ethnic as Atlanta, aiming for the diversity of God’s Kingdom.’” They are a come-as-you-are congregation through and through.
Adorned in a rainbow stole, Anjie preached last Sunday about this inclusivity and love to a mix-gendered, intergenerational congregation of about 100 with ethnic profiles from all over the world.
“It was amazing to see their reactions to this stunningly unique, conversational worship.” Andy reflected. “I feel parishioners like it because it’s honest. It never feels like your old dad trying to be hip by wearing skinny jeans to work. It feels like a place where everyone can relax, let their guard down and talk about life as it really is.”
If mainstream denominations really want to change the trajectory of church participation, reconnecting with the ‘dones’ and the millennial generation, research shows this is best way to do it. By hearing and validating people’s questions and understanding they don’t want off-the-cuff answers to life’s biggest questions, the church has the potential grow once again. Spaces for inclusive discernment are key, because who really knows for sure if God created dinosaurs? A discussion could be had!
“New Church” United Methodist Church was formed in the vital merger between the historic Epworth and Druid Hills congregations in downtown Atlanta. Primarily serving the Candler Park, Druid Hills, Edgewood, Kirkwood, Lake Claire, Virginia-Highlands, and Poncey-Highlands neighborhoods, “New Church” looks to be an community dedicated to serving those who are “done” with the hurtful expressions of church. This authentic, artistic and adventurous parish aims to be radically inclusive creating a multi-ethnic congregation as diverse as God’s Kingdom. “New Church” pairs an intellectual faith with a warm heart celebrating a new way to live life with Jesus Christ. For more information check out newatlantachurch.com.