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The Impending Death (and Rebirth) of Cool Church

Everything has its season.

And the season of the cool church is, in many ways, coming to an end.

There was an era when simply being a cooler church than the church down the road helped churches reach unchurched people.

There was a day when all you had to do was improve the church you led to gain traction.

Trade in the choir for a band. Turn the chancel into a platform. Add some lights, some sound, some haze. Get some great teaching in the room. And voila, you had a growing church.

But we’re quickly moving into a season where having a cool church is like having the best choir in town: it’s wonderful for the handful of people who still listen to choral music.

Somethings changing. And a hundreds of thousands of dollars in lights and great sound gear are probably not going to impact your community like they used to.

So what’s changing? Plenty.

 

Cool Isn’t Enough (Anymore)

You might think I’m against churches have bands, lights, and creating a great environment. Not at all. In fact, as we speak, our team is building a facility for the church at which I serve that facilitates all of that.

If you are going to gather people, gather well.

My point is not that you shouldn’t.  My point is that it’s no longer enough.

And maybe it never was.

The mega-churches many of us watch today didn’t get to be as effective as they are simply by being cool.

If you really study how most large churches have become effective in leading people to Jesus (and yes—haters step aside—many large churches are effective in leading people into a real relationship with Jesus Christ), they have always been about more than just lights, sound and show. There’s substance. More substance than critics would ever give them credit for.

Are mega-churches universally healthy? No.

But neither are many small churches. In fact, sometimes the dysfunction in small churches eclipses that of medium sized or large churches.

As Geoff Surratt has so helpfully pointed out, you can’t say that just because a few mega-churches have collapsed that they are all the same. Churches like North Point, New Spring, Cross Point,  SeaCoast and Life Church, to name a few, have developed great leaders on their local campuses and across their teams. They’ve moved far beyond a structure based on one ‘famous’ name.

So why would cool church be fading into the sunset?

3 Reasons Cool Church Isn’t What It Used To Be

Decades ago as cool church started to take root among very large, rapidly growing churches, many other, smaller churches and church plants followed suit.

And for a season, it ‘worked’.

Getting some awesome lights, better sound, better music, and a slightly more hip communicator grew churches.

Sure, some of the growth was transfer growth, but a big percentage of what many churches experienced was not transfer growth. People invited their friends and their friends came back.

So what’s changing?

But now most cities have a great selection of cool churches. Many towns have at least one.

It’s no longer unusual to have a band in church. It’s not even that novel to have lights and great sound or to play all the cool songs.

And…in the process of all this imitation, three things happened:

1. Cutting edge keeps changing…fast

What was novel isn’t novel as novel for long anymore.

The rise of technology and social media means that you now hold access to pretty much anything you want in your hand whenever you want to.

You used to have to hire experts or do some exploring to find cool things.  Sometimes you even had to travel. Now you just download an app, watch a video, stream a song or follow whatever trend you’re passionate about in the moment—whenever you want to. Instantly. Usually for free.

Consequently, there’s kind of a trend-fatigue or indifference happening. Trends are shorter, less interesting, and we’re all growing oh-so-bored with what’s novel.

Which means that it’s harder than ever for churches to be cutting edge because cutting edge keeps changing.

2. Indifference to church has grown 

As this helpful Barna research points out, even in the US, people are increasingly indifferent to church.  That’s certainly been true in Canada, Europe and in places like Australia and New Zealand for a while.

So a decade ago having a cool church would have gotten you more traction than it does today.

If people aren’t into church, it doesn’t matter how cool, hip or trendy your church is, people won’t be that interested.

You behave this way. If you’re on a health kick, you’re not going to order the burger and fries, even if they are the best in town. And if you’re not on a healthy kick, the spinach, arugula, kale salad with tuna isn’t going to capture your imagination, no matter how healthy it is.

3. Imitation killed innovation

Of all three points, this one probably bothers me the most.

To begin with, when churches imitate each other, we rarely borrow all the best practices—we just borrow the ones that are easy to see or seem obvious.

But what’s made growing churches grow is deeper than the cool factor. Consequently, leaders who finally get what they were longing for—a cool church—are often shocked to discover they don’t deliver what they promised.

And in the process of all that imitation something even more important is lost: innovation.

What’s needed now more than ever is church leaders willing to pioneer….to go deep into a culture that keeps changing to reach people who are increasingly resistant.

What’s needed most as we look at what’s ahead is innovation. And it’s sorely lacking among many church leaders.

Should you never imitate? No…that’s not wise either. To refuse to borrow best practices from others is arrogant and, to a large extent, futile thinking.

The point is simply this: don’t let imitation kill innovation at your church.

Irrelevance Isn’t the Answer Either

So should you run from all things cool, trendy or hip?

No.

Relevance is better than irrelevance.

The answer to the challenge of keeping up with relevance is not to return to irrelevance.

Relevant church has many critics, but to not bridge the cultural gap is even more ludicrous (in my view) than trying to bridge it and maybe failing.

To agree to be irrelevant, ineffective and bad at what you do is a terrible option.

So what do we do as we head into the future?

5 Keys to Rebirth

The church can take many forms. But for all those leaders who, like me, believe in gathering people together for the sake of a larger mission, what does the future look like?

I think you stay relevant (and maybe even a bit cool), but you go beyond that. Dig deeper.

Here are 5 keys I see to a future of greater impact. In many ways, they are the new cool. Authenticity is the new cool. The mission is the new cool. Hope is the new cool. Community is the new cool. And so is experimentation.

1.  Authenticity

Sometimes under cool is an inauthenticity. Dump that.

Authentic resonates. People are looking for what’s real, what’s true and what’s authentic.

Here’s a post on how to be an appropriately transparent leader without oversharing.

2. Prioritize the Mission

The church has always been about something bigger than itself. At the centre of our mission is Christ.

A church that is focused on a larger mission will never become self-obsessed. Cool can carry with it a sense of narcissism.

You lose your narcissism when you lose yourself in a bigger mission.

And that, by the way, is something Millennials are longing to give their lives to.

3. Deal Hope

We leaders are dealers in hope.

And Christianity provides more hope than anything.

I’m 100% behind making messages practical, applicable and helpful. I think the Gospel is that. But it is also much more than that.

If all we have is this life, we’re to be pitied more than anyone (pretty sure the Bible says something about that).

In an age where all most people see is that which is imminent, people need to be ushered into the presence of Someone who is transcendent.

Christianity at it’s best has always been about both imminence and transcendence.

4. Elevate Community

I’m all for lights, sound, relevance and even video walls if they help the mission.

But as my friend Reggie Joiner says, the church will never be able to out-Disney Disney.

And that’s true, we will never have the budget or resources to entertain or engage the best. But even if we did…what would be the point?

While we can’t out-Disney Disney, no one should be able to out-community the local church.

God is in the people business. He loves us. And the goal is to connect people with Christ and with each other.

As your church grows bigger, it also needs to grow smaller by connecting people relationally. I know we’ve said this for years, but it’s never been more urgent.

5. Experiment

Experimenting is the key to innovation.

And, as we’ve seen, in an age of imitation in the church, innovation has been sidelined.

Bring that back.

Do what you do now, but start experimenting on the side to see what’s really going to make the biggest impact in the future.

The truth is I don’t think anyone knows what that is right now.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

If you’re looking for more, here are 11 traits of churches that will impact the future.

What Do You Think?

What are you seeing in the church today.

It’s easy to criticize, but what can you add in terms of contribution?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • Thanks for a thoughtful assessment of where we’re at today in church. All the points you make here for “rebirth” are valid. Jesus is at the center of our lives as disciples. In order to help others get to know him and learn to follow him, authenticity, mission, hope, and community are all key ingredients.

    When it comes to experimentation with our services and meetings, I think everything needs to be on the table. What makes music essential? It’s not. A trained public speaker? Nope. One guy up on a platform and everyone else seated in a lecture hall? Where did that even come from in the first place? (It’s not a rhetorical question.) So much of our practice is not scriptural but we treat it as if it is. No tool can do all the work and every tool has its place. We limit ourselves unnecessarily if we select only from the limited palette of our recent experience.

    One key failing of the church as it is currently instituted is the sharp, non-biblical divide between clergy and laity. Almost all of our modern practices serve to maintain and even widen that gap. Luther’s reformation gave the Bible back to the people. I believe the current one underway in the Church is giving the priesthood back to the people as well. Ever since the Exodus (19:6), God has declared us a kingdom of priests. And just about ever since, we have fought him on it (20:19). Maybe here soon, we will quit fighting and realize he had the right idea all along. And then maybe our practices can change to reflect that reality.

  • whitman toland

    sad that not one of the points has anything to do with prayer and simply asking God what He wants… we have so much strategy that we actually don’t need God anymore… we have taken matters into our own reasonable hands, just like Saul… could it be we have disqualified ourselves on God’s eyes while gaining approval in man’s? just a thought… keep believing…

    • For sure Whitman. That’s at the heart, I hope, of all I do and what the church does. But if every post says ‘keep believing and keep praying’ then this becomes a blog about stating the obvious. But you’re so right…prayer, scripture, trust and the power of God are at the heart of the church and our ministry. I’m trying to help praying, trusting leaders get beyond being stuck.

  • VB501

    My formerly liturgical Church left tradition several years ago to become “contemporary”. I am tired of it. It seems, focused on “self”, pop psychology, irreverent. I want something that connects to the past. The focus on “entertainment” is cheap, tawdry.

  • Ben Sadler

    Great article. My church has grown and now plateaued. Now we are planning for 2017. And we need to make some changes if we are to bring glory to God. This article really helps

  • William Woods

    Very interesting article. At age 58 I have become acutely aware of the impact, technology, social media has on Australian Society, on different age groups, even myself and definitely the church. It’s a phenomenon how isolated, individualistic, introverted and desensitized we are becoming. In meetings at a church service it is not uncommon to see people texting , checking Facebook and leaving to take phonecalls. Sadly our church disbanded and many gave up attending partly because of the leadership trying to become more trendy and cool somehow the vision and hope was lost in the process. The love of many grows cold comes to mind.

  • I completely see this in the Church today. Outward-focused community and authentic leadership stands out loud. Anything less simply will not have any credibility in the future church. This is a really big subject, one that is sure to continue for a while.

  • Stephen Abbott

    Trying to entertain rather then seeking Righteousness as Jesus calls us to do is probably the issue with failing churches all over, be they “cool” or stuck in the Dark Ages.

    • Entertaining is one thing…relevance is another. I get it, but relevance still matters I think. Thanks Stephen.

  • James Regan

    I think another point that needs addressing is that ‘a band’ is no longer so relevant. Music moved on again, and as a 20 something Christian male who did not have an upbringing in any sort of church, I do not particularly recognise mellow classic rock as more relevant to my life than organs. I like rock music, but now, when someone says that, it is more and more common that they mean they like the Eagles, and less and less common that they mean they like looking for up and coming artists(I’m guessing the genre name got changed to ‘classic rock’ for a reason then).

    How many people these days listen to rap music? or dubstep, if you are trying for something a bit easier to replicate? or even, pushing the boat out here, styles of rock music from more recently than the 80s? I know rockmusic is a step towards relevance, but it stopped being ‘pop’ music some years ago now.

  • Jeff

    I find when you preach the Gospel to the right people, the right people will listen and share it. Sometimes the harvest isn’t that plenty and that’s at time for the church to keep making straight lines with their crooked sticks. One of my favorite pastors is Erwin Lutzer and personally….he’s not that “cool” on a human level. But when he talks about an eternal city that will constantly be made new by God…with no sin or strife….God overrides my cultural tendency. Actually holding and believing in prayer meetings is a major factor in the “coolness” of the church. It’s as if their spirit tells their heart it’s “cool.” Yo.

    • Jeff

      People just want to see God work. That’s what giving is mostly all about and that’s what sharing the Gospel is all about. We want to see Him do it…that thing He does. And I know the latest poll shows the millennials want cathedrals and “cute” churches but here’s the thing: We don’t know what we’re talking about. I don’t know where urges come from for certain but everyone has a picture in their mind of what church is and it’s up to us to align it with God’s precious Word.

  • David Lindner

    We have been having this discussion for a while at our church and I think you’re right on target. I have loved what a lot of churches have done in the past decade, but what does it say that church has suffered greater decline in an era where the church has been trying to be more relevant than ever?

    • Thanks David. Appreciate this. I think relevant is still the right direction…it’s the cool part that’s got us sidetracked. Maybe we need a different kind of relevance.

      • David Lindner

        Yes, I definitely agree, Relevant is a must. And I’ll even go so far as to say that if Relevant isn’t a pursuit, those churches will cease to exist in the next 10 years or so. We’re getting too post-Christian to be irrelevant.

        I could be wrong. Definitely been wrong before. But it just seems that the trend is intensifying and with people not feeling societal pressure to be religious, they wont’ put up with irrelevance for much longer. They’ll just be done.

        • Lyra elbon

          When did the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ become irrelevant? Relevance more and more seems to be defined as making sure people like us …

          • David Lindner

            I wouldn’t define it that way. I wholeheartedly agree that the gospel is always relevant. But it is not always shared through relevant means. Which leads to the perception of irrelevance.

          • Jeff

            I’m no biblical scholar but I thought the early church was largely seen as irrelevant to those that oppose them but significant. I think credibility is the word we should be looking for and that’s a different ball game. I wish it were as easy as the cosmetic stuff we look but it’s deeper than that. People really have to get to a point where they say “You really do believe this Jesus, don’t you?” We major in the minors and minor in the majors.

          • Jeff

            This is entirely my view on things but I think there are misconceptions about Christ’s body. And it’s really us they are hurt with because last time I checked God was perfect. Some think we’re all about rules and laws and guilt and shame and I think to those people they just say to themselves “I don’t need this. I’m going to be an atheist.” And others, they think we’re all about love and hyper-grace and laziness and those people I think prefer a more rigid god because the conventional wisdom goes “all good people get to Heaven.” And that god somehow needs our finite abilities here on earth to somehow manage our own way there. Our Holy God is so big we can’t even grasp how much we can’t even grasp how much we can’t even grasp how infinite God is. (To infinity and beyond!) He created the Heavens and that has yet to enter into the heart of man and the Heavens themselves cannot contain Him. How much bigger is He? We also serve a God that goes against my blind human heart by actually being glad that Lazarus was dead so that others might have faith. He’s counter-intuitive because since birth we’ve (I’ve) been listening to His enemy. I think when they see us rejoicing in our big God, Jesus Christ….and His purposes and our Salvation ….they’ll look at their measly life insurance policy or their brand new car and wonder “What do they have that I don’t?” “What will be my legacy?” We have Jesus Christ. We have the answer to every problem they’re facing whether we realize it or not. Relevance comes and goes and I find it’s the times that the world is screaming “They’re just a stupid cult!”…I find those are the times we’re growing the most in significance.

          • David Lindner

            I think I would tend to agree Jeff. I do think a big hurdle we face in today’s church is a result of the lack of credibility of too many churches. And I, by far, don’t think the pursuit of cool is of much importance.

            However I will say that I think relevance is important. And I think it’s our resistance to relevance over the past 20-30 years that has cost us our credibility. If we saw the mission of being the church as the most important thing, I don’t think we would care what the means are that we use to share that message. But by either fighting to retain what was relevant to us when we found Christ, but is no longer relevant to current and future generations or by dismissing the need for relevance as worldly we silence our own voice.

            I’ve spent too much of my life working in churches that caused a lot of pain and sent a lot of people away from the church. For those who left because their preferences weren’t being met, I wasn’t that concerned. But for those who left because they didn’t want to be around those fighting for preference, I am greatly concerned. And as long as we’re focused on fighting to preserve what was relevant for us, we make the gospel and the church all about the preferences of those who are already in. And I don’t see that anywhere in scripture.

          • Jeff

            Agreed! I think preferences are all about comfort from something other than Christ. It’s encouraging to me to sense the compassion in your tone even though you’ve seen so much hurt. Be steadfast my friend!

  • jonperrin

    Great article Carey! I’ve been following for awhile but haven’t commented until now. While bells and whistles used to work, the church “market” is now oversaturated with them. Today people are looking for AUTHENTIC churches.

    By the way… I LOVE your podcast. We would have joined you in Austin or DFW for the Orange tour, but were moving. I’ll see you the next time you’re in Texas.

    • Thanks Jon. And thanks for the feedback on the podcast. So cool. It’s joy to be able to do it. And for sure…next year! Hope the move went well!

  • Anthony Van Iersel

    The nees to be cool is the allure especially if you have spent time in church being spoken at rather than spoken too. Your church educated me for the first time in years of attending and then years not attending. The experiment of saying the meanings of different translations and giving real history to the text is what blew me away. Keep taking chances in all aspects of life and church and people will respect and follow that leadership.

    • Anthony…this comment gives me great joy. So thankful you’re part of what God is doing at Connexus. 🙂

  • Neil Johnson

    The hardest thing in this process which I think is spot on is to allow ourselves the chance to fail if it is not in the direction that God wants us to move. If we step out in faith with God at the helm even our failures become successes at some point. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

  • Thank you.

  • Jonathan Krems

    This is the best article I’ve read by Pastor Carey!

  • john allcott

    I would only add 1) make disciples, 2) make disciples, & 3) make disciples.

    • For sure. And that’s really hard to do if you have no people to disciple.

      • catz60

        So Carey – Who in this world doesn’t have people to disciple. Going out the front door of your home……there’s people to disciple.

  • This is excellent.

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  • joshpezold

    Great article. Love it. What I see in churches today is people come to services and programs for a number of different reasons. Great marketing, events that demonstrated kindness to them, “cool” worship bands, etc. But they stay because they have developed friendships with people. They stay because they are being cared for. They stay because they’ve been invited to use their gifts to accomplish the mission. Friendships are the glue for non believers and believers. For a nonbeliever to stay in a Christian Church they must really like the people they are with, and that’s the only chance they have in considering Jesus is to love someone who loves Him. Making disciples is always best in relationships. We truly are better together!

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  • You’re right Carey in saying that people in Australia have been indifferent to church for some time now so being cool doesn’t make much difference to the broader community.

    I agree with your 5 points on rebirthing the church, especially experimentation. A new generation needs to discover new ways of ministering ancient truth.

    I’d also add that churches which invest strongly in the development of ‘home grown’ leaders thru coaching and intentional deployment will see some excellent fruit.

    Thanks for your insights

    • John…thanks for the comment and the insight. Totally agree that developing new leaders is key…and a trend among all healthy, growing churches.