Reinvigorating the “Mainstream” Church: How to Fill the Pews with a New Generation of Christians

Eric StetsonBy Eric Stetson

Let’s begin by facing a stark reality of Christianity today: The churches that are growing are the fanatical, Fundamentalist ones — and the churches that are shrinking are the moderate, mainstream ones that most people grew up with. This is not true in every individual case, but it is a general trend borne out by statistics and much anecdotal evidence. The stereotypes of the boring mainline Protestant church with the empty pews and the frustrated minister, and the booming mega-church with a charismatic minister who shouts into the microphone about the Rapture and a fiery apocalypse for sinners, to cheers and “amens” from a packed auditorium, are not stereotypes for no reason. In many cases these things are simply reality.

Why is that the case? And for those of us who are not Fundamentalists, who care about the future of Christianity and do not want to see it become a religion dominated by exclusionary, dogmatic, and extremist teachings, how can this problem be solved? I believe the answer is that the Fundamentalist churches have a clear and exciting vision — repulsive though it may be to the liberal heart and mind — whereas many moderate churches are groping around, treading water, unsure about what to preach and teach and emphasize in their services. They have rejected much of the dogma that used to be standard conservative Christianity, which has been taken and amplified by Fundamentalists to become an uber-Christianity on steroids reminiscent of Crusader times, but they haven’t really found a convincing and inspiring spiritual message to replace it with. Some mainline churches increasingly focus on liberal politics, perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to the right-wing political activism of Fundamentalists — or perhaps, to some degree, because they need something to fill the theological vacuum that has been left behind after they moved away from conservative interpretations of religion.

Minister preaching to rows of empty pews
Are you struggling to fill the seats in your church? Maybe it’s time for an inspiring new message!

If you are a pastor of a “mainstream” church and you are worried about the decline of moderate denominations and the rise of a raging Fundamentalism, I would like to challenge you to take bold action to reverse this trend. And I think I know how it can be done. Much of it has to do with understanding what is happening in the younger generation, and how to reach these people who could become lifelong Christians or who could leave the church in the dust.

I am 28 years old [in 2007, when this article was written], and spent much of my time in college studying religion, both in the classroom and among my peers. I would like to share with you some of my observations, and how they might be relevant to the goal of reinvigorating mainstream Christian churches and countering the increasing dominance of Fundamentalism. First of all, one thing that I have noticed is that young people are either quitting Christianity completely, or they are joining churches and religious movements that have a strong message to proclaim. The whole concept of church as a pleasant, bland experience where a whole community comes together to uphold the traditions of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them, is dying out. The younger generation is much less inclined to continue traditions for tradition’s sake. Instead, we are looking for a message that really resonates with us, or else we will not be interested in church at all.

For this reason, young people today don’t tend to care about denominations very much. Even if they join a hard-core Fundamentalist church, they still tend to think of themselves as “non-denominational.” So any church or religious organization that wants to attract new members and supporters from among the younger generation needs to think ecumenically. It needs to have a message that reaches across denominational lines, rather than staying within a narrow tradition. One of the reasons why Fundamentalism is doing so well is that it emphasizes a core message that has more to do with the big picture, theologically, rather than being tied down to any particular denominational heritage. Perhaps this is why so many young Fundamentalists are apt to call themselves simply “Christians.” Often the question will be asked by a Fundamentalist to someone else, “Are you a Christian?” What they are really asking is “Do you believe in the tenets of Fundamentalist Christianity?” But that is not how they perceive themselves. The tendency is to believe that Fundamentalism simply is Christianity, period. This shows the success of Fundamentalism as an interdenominational, ecumenical movement.

In other words, people who believe in the buzzwords and catch phrases of the Fundamentalist movement — such as “Jesus is the only way,” “He died for our sins,” “Lord and Savior,” “Believe and receive,” “Don’t be left behind,” and “Burn in the lake of fire” — could be attending a church that belongs to any number of Fundamentalist denominations, but they see all who share their basic view of Christianity as “Christians” and all who disagree with it as “not Christian.”

You see, “Christianity” is starting to become something of a counterculture in America today, especially among the youth. Young people who decide to leave the ossified, sclerotic, moderate mainstream churches they were brought up in and join the Fundamentalist movement are encouraged to think of themselves as “a holy people, called out of this world, who must take a stand for the true faith.” Surrounded by a culture of materialistic excess, sexual liberation, popular new religious movements such as New Age and Neo-Paganism, and growing numbers of unchurched people, young Christians who decide to be serious about their Christianity often gravitate toward those who tell them that they are different from everyone else and that they are the only ones who are saved and everyone else is condemned by God. They are lured into a web of “fellowship” and “discipleship” — Christian buzzwords for building friendships and gaining mentors within the religious movement — and their Christian commitment increasingly comes to dominate their whole life. All their relationships are soon to be found exclusively within the Fundamentalist Christian community. This further encourages them to become more deeply committed to it and to remain there, despite whatever doubts they might have about the truth of the religious teachings, because they have been recruited into a whole system that generates and perpetuates a self-image and a communal bond with those who are “right with God,” excluding those on the outside.

So it is easy to see how Fundamentalism keeps growing, and recruiting increasing numbers of young people into its cause. In a generation when many grow up without fathers or with parents who are divorced and have little time for them, and in a society where community life and even a sense of national unity is on the decline, youth need somewhere where they can feel like they belong. Even better is when they are given a sense of being special, not just ordinary. The Fundamentalist Christian world provides both of those things very effectively: “God loves you, because you have chosen to follow His Son, Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. You have been called to holiness. But the others who do not know Christ, they are in sin and darkness, and will not be taken to heaven in the Rapture when Jesus soon returns. They will be left behind and will burn forever in the Lake of Fire. Praise Jesus that you are one of His chosen!”

Many young people today are not interested in a religion of exclusion and narrow-mindedness. … They are becoming spiritual seekers. Many are confused and crave a sense of direction.

How can the mainstream churches, with a more open-minded, tolerant and inclusive view of spirituality and of life in general, ever hope to compete with such an effective psychological appeal that Fundamentalism offers today’s troubled youth? To begin to answer this question, let me offer another observation that I picked up when I was immersed in the heady brew of competing religious groups in college: Many young people today are not interested in a religion of exclusion and narrow-mindedness. In fact, a very large percentage of the younger generation in America is leaving the Christian faith completely — or at least leaving the church and believing in their own personal view of God and Jesus — because they perceive Christianity as a religion of arrogance, hellfire and damnation, and lack of respect for the spiritual paths of people who do not agree with Fundamentalism. But they are not necessarily becoming Atheists. They are becoming spiritual seekers. Many are confused and crave a sense of direction.

What this shows is the incredible success that Fundamentalism has had in perverting people’s perceptions of Christian teaching. Most people who turn away from Christianity do so not because they don’t like Jesus, but because they think that the only way they can believe in Jesus is the Fundamentalist way. Most people who leave the church do so not because they don’t want to be Christian, but because the Christianity they hear preached in the churches does not match their own inner sense of who God is and what Jesus taught. Or, in many cases, it is because the churches they grew up in no longer teach much of anything about the deep spirituality of Christian faith, but have become mainly a day-care and community center with stiff and boring Sunday services. In an age when the younger generation is increasingly mobile, towns and communities are falling apart as people travel the country seeking jobs, and people do not get married and have children until much later in life than they used to — if at all. The moderate church with little spiritual depth, that just sort of fades into the background as one of the many “ordinary” churches you can attend on Sunday to keep the tradition you were raised in alive and pass it along to the kids, just doesn’t have the draw that it did back in the 1900’s.

The 21st century church must adapt to this reality. If they hope to win the younger generation back to Christ and get them back in the pews, going to church has to be an experience that is truly interesting, inspiring, and even exciting. That’s why churches that offer contemporary worship services with a rock band, and a more charismatic style of worship that produces a natural high, tend to gain members today. But that is not always enough. And for churches that do not wish to do this because they love their traditional style, or cannot offer a new type of service because they are small and don’t have the money and personnel to have rock concert-style praise and worship, they must think of other ways to appeal to the younger generation.

Ultimately, making cosmetic changes to your worship services is less important than the quality of the message you teach. No amount of hip contemporary music, large videoscreens, or other innovations designed to draw in youth will work in the long run unless the message that comes through in the services is something that people feel they either want or need to hear. Preferably, it should be a message that is both desirable and useful. The Gospel as preached by the early Christians was something people wanted to hear, because it was focused on God’s Fatherly love and the forgiveness of sins; and it was something people felt they needed, because it offered a path of spiritual growth and heroic action for serious seekers of truth.

I would submit for your consideration that the only way to ensure that a significant number of unchurched young people will ever come back to church is if you begin offering a message that inspires them to reconsider what it means to be a Christian, what the faith of Jesus is really all about. Millions of young people quit going to church because they are tired of hearing the same old dull sermons that have been preached for decades over and over again. The standard theology of mainstream Protestantism no longer makes sense to them, and is either ignored in the churches that nominally claim to uphold it, or is taught in a half-hearted way because in many cases the ministers no longer truly believe it themselves. Such is not a formula for success in growing a church — especially with today’s sophisticated youth who are hungering for new ideas, who can look up hundreds of different religions and denominations on the internet and choose what they like best.

Give them something truly revolutionary! Give them a message that maybe they’ve never heard before. Tell them that every person is the beloved son or daughter of God, called to grow up into the perfect image of Christ, sooner or later, no matter how imperfect we may be today — because God never gives up on any of His children. Tell them that you can be a Christian if you don’t believe that the Buddhist guy down the street is headed for hell. Proclaim to them the Good News that in fact, the real Jesus of the Bible would have hung out with that Buddhist guy, and with a youth who is covered in tattoos and piercings, and with a homosexual — and that if Jesus were here today, he would go into a Fundamentalist church where they are preaching that 95% of the world’s population will be “left behind” by an angry God, and he would overturn their pulpit and rebuke the minister like he did to the money-changers in the temple, and like he constantly criticized the Pharisees who were the Fundamentalists of his own time.

Tell the young people that Jesus calls us to a higher standard of love for our fellow humanity — that we are judged not by what religious doctrines we believe in, but by how willing we are to help the least among us: the poor, the suffering, the outcasts of society. Inspire them to be true men and women of God — not by puffing them up to think that they are God’s only “chosen ones” who will be saved in the Rapture while billions of others will burn, but that they can be the “ministers of reconciliation” who will work with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit to save the whole world, by every action of love that they do each day. Tell them that the real God is the very essence of Love — a love that never ends or fails — and that God has an unimaginably wonderful plan to fix everything that is wrong, to heal all wounds, to find all who are lost, and to correct all who have corrupted themselves with sin. And tell them that this wonderful plan for the restoration of all things is what was taught by the original Christians who founded the church, nearly 2000 years ago.

How to win today’s youth to Christianity? Tell them that the Gospel really is Good News! They’ve probably never heard that before in their whole life…

How to win today’s youth to Christianity? Tell them that the Gospel really is Good News! They’ve probably never heard that before in their whole life, with the loud voices of Fundamentalism constantly presenting a “Christian” religion of salvation for a few but exclusion, judgment, and wrath for everyone who doesn’t agree with their preferred doctrines. Boldly sharing the message of Christian Universalism from your pulpit, you just might have a chance to reinvigorate your stagnant church or denomination.

If Fundamentalism, with its angry and divisive message, has succeeded in becoming a great ecumenical movement of our time, who’s to say that Universalism with its beautiful message of hope, peace and brotherhood for all couldn’t achieve a similar level of success? Fifty years from now, could the question “Are you a Christian?” be understood as the equivalent of asking someone, “Do you believe in the unconditional love of God and the all-embracing saving power that God showed to the world in Jesus Christ?”

A whole generation of people are streaming out of mainstream Christianity, and are going either into the confusing smorgasbord of New Age spirituality, the cynical path of Atheism, or that horror of horrors — Fundamentalism. You have the power today to do something about it — before it’s too late. Take a stand for the Gospel of God’s all-embracing love, the Gospel that was preached by Jesus, Paul, and the early church. Educate yourself about this Gospel and its history, so that you can skillfully defend it. Study the deep theology of Christian Universalism and discover a completely different view of God, Christ, human nature and destiny, than what you were taught in seminary. It is a message that I believe you will be happy to preach in your church, if only you come to realize how Biblically and historically based this message is, how authentic and true, how revolutionary and exciting — and how uplifting and inspiring it can be. This is a Gospel that can change lives. It is a Gospel that can give hope to millions who have felt excluded from the church. It is a Gospel that can regather the flock, in a way that nothing else can.

Don’t make the mistake of being satisfied with the status quo and watching the moderate churches wither, while the Fundamentalists win the battle for the heart and soul of Christianity. Fight back! Provide a compelling alternative in your church — a message of spiritual substance both deep and practical that Jesus would be proud to hear you teach. Invite His spirit to enter your church and thoroughly transform it. Trust in the power of the original Christian Gospel of God’s overpowering love and salvation to win the victory, and be part of making that victory a reality for the next generation, starting today.

Eric Stetson is the author of a 2008 book, Christian Universalism: God’s Good News For All People. He served as the founding Executive Director of the Christian Universalist Association.