Urban tribes and the church

We’ve just come back from a short holiday in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city. We stayed in South Yarra, an inner urban and somewhat hip location which is noticeably different to the suburb where we live in Sydney.

The obvious differences start with the dense inner urban environment of high-rise apartments and offices, the streetscapes of trendy clothing shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and the footpaths busy with mostly young professionals, hurrying to and from work, meeting up for drinks and meals, or buying food at the local markets.

And there are not many churches for all these people, because, fairly obviously, few of them would be interested. We attended a nearby church that aims to “reach a post-church generation with real encounters with God” and while the service was informal and lively and the congregation was young and included some creatives, there weren’t many South Yarra hipsters there.

The whole experience made me ponder again how the christian faith might be meaningful to these inner urban professionals, and how the church might need to adapt if it wants to be alive in the next generation.

Urban tribes

My friend Dr Martin Bragger, a retired minister who has studied these things, says our modern cities are a “kaleidoscope world” of different pagan urban tribes, each one living in its own parallel universe.

So the young South Yarra professionals are just one tribe alien to the church. There are many others.

I want to focus here on young educated professionals who are part of Generation Z (or maybe the tail end of Generation Y), whether urban or suburban.

And I want to ask:

  • Why would any of these want to come to church as we know it?
  • What are the cultural barriers making it difficult for them to connect with organised christianity?
  • What ways of being christian and making disciples would be meaningful to these educated young professionals?

Getting to know the young and educated

My wife and I spend a lot of time with educated suburban teens and young adults. It is fair to say that they differ a lot from our own generation:

  • Our education was mostly about learning facts, but theirs has been more about learning to think and question, to do research and consider alternative viewpoints.
  • This generation is obviously more connected and tech savvy than ours was, and so can stay up-to-date with the latest news. This can be a great blessing, but also a curse – as TEAR’s Paul Flavell once said of streaming world news on modern mobile phones: “We now have a world of pain in our back pockets.”
  • As a result, many of this generation are unwilling to accept authority, but want to understand why they should hold a certain view or take on a particular behaviour.
  • Attention spans may be shorter in daily life, although they are able to grapple with complex ideas if motivated.
  • The world may seem less safe and more temporary for them than it seemed for my generation.

Barriers between young urban pagans and the church

A lot of christian belief is difficult for educated non-believers to swallow. If they end up in a church that teaches 6-day creationism, that God did indeed order the genocide of the Canaanites, that Jesus is the only way to God, that hell is a real place of punishment forever, that women and gays are not as welcome as straight men, that miracles of healing are available today, or that Jesus really rose from the dead despite its (in their eyes) impossibility, the barriers are much higher, and long and serious discussion may be required to help them over these barriers. (I say all this without implying any particular answer to each of those dilemmas.)

But discussion with a few people in this demographic indicates that doctrinal teachings are likely not the major problems the organised church presents for them. When asked, they nominated:

  • hypocrisy – not living what we preach
  • judgmentalism
  • lack of love
  • too many rules
  • thinking we know everything
  • unfamiliar traditions are intimidating

What might a young urban pagan think of church services?

But even if these barriers were overcome and an educated young urban pagan entered a church, there are still barriers.

On a recent Sunday morning we drove past a church very familiar to us, and I commented light-heartedly: “What arcane rituals are going on inside those walls?” How would a young educated non-religious person think of what most christians are doing in “church”?

While walking and observing in South Yarra, I couldn’t help thinking of the cultural barriers between the people I saw and the arcane rituals of most churches, and I could only think that the two worlds might never intersect.

  • Who likes to sit for half an hour and listen to somebody talk, unless they are a stand-up comedian or someone whose message we are very interested in? If you’re young and educated, you probably want ask questions, argue back or at least discuss.
  • Public singing may be popular at in flash mobs and pop-up choirs, but singing doctrinal songs in Presbyterian churches or love songs to God in Pentecostal churches is likely to be boring or embarrassing for most hipsters today. English football supporters and Welsh Rugby fans may be the exceptions here.
  • Some people enjoy rituals, and some ancient liturgies are making a comeback, but I think most people feel uncomfortable, especially in rituals they are not familiar with.
  • Why would you want to spend Sunday morning doing these things when you might rather be having a late breakfast, sleeping off the night before, taking an early morning jog, or … well almost anything else?
  • It would be hard for many to take seriously many of the earnest concerns of conservative christians. They probably don’t care about many doctrinal issues that christian pastors preach about, and christians argue about.

For all these reasons, and more, I find it difficult imagining many educated young urbanites feeling like church has anything to offer. Of course, by the grace of God, some still do, but not enough to sustain the church of the future, in western countries at least.

What might a young urban pagan look for in a church?

We asked the same group what they wanted in a church, what would help them believe and mature in that belief, and they nominated two basic things:

Questions are welcome

They wanted to feel that their questions were welcome, even when questioning basic christian teachings. That there was no barrier or stigma to expressing doubt about received answers because difficult questions were seen as the way to learn and grow. They saw exposure to diverse viewpoints as important in learning truth.

And they wanted honest and well-based answers. Too often churches give answers that conform to their dogma, but are hard to respect because historical, scientific or other scholarship doesn’t support the church’s answers, or the answers don’t gel with what most of us know about life, the world or God.

An example is the Canaanite genocide apparently commanded by God in the Old Testament and recorded in the book of Joshua. More conservative christians try to justify the commands attributed to God, but educated younger christians think it is blasphemous to think a good God would command such a thing, the archaeological evidence makes the Joshua account problematic, and anyway, Joshua tells two different stories, with the genocide appearing to be exaggeration.

Conservative christians can tend to gloss over the problems with their view in their determination to protect their doctrine of an inerrant Bible, but modern young adults tend to want to question this approach and resent having their questions shut down or answered inadequately.

Community is important

The growth of social media indicates that generation Z values community and keeping in touch, even if older generations sometimes think social media provide only shallow communication. So it is no surprise to find that this generation tends to value the community side of christianity over passively sitting in church, or even actively worshiping. Many of them learn and grow in their faith most through discussion and learning with friends.

what would this look like?

This post is long enough. Next post, I’ll look at what a more effective church for Generation Z might look like – in cities in Australia at least.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

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2 thoughts on “Urban tribes and the church

  1. westofthebluemountains says:

    So it is no surprise to find that this generation tends to value the community side of christianity over passively sitting in church, or even actively worshiping. Many of them learn and grow in their faith most through discussion and learning with friends.

    I think you may be on to something there.

    Younger people tend to be more responsive to “causes”, so pulling that string in the name of the church would seem to be a good strategy.

    Like

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