Megachurches Court Cool to Attract Teens
Five suburban kids -- three boys, two girls -- sit at a circular table in a cafe eating gooey chocolate chip cookies and responding frequently to one another with the all-encompassing "totally." All of the signs of adolescence are there -- the pimples, the flirty giggles, and yes, the angst. One of the girls leaps up from the table and rushes off, shouting over her shoulder, "I just need some time to digest!" The remaining girl shrugs both her eyebrows and shoulders in the guys' direction coquettishly, then runs after her friend. The guys immediately bow their heads and begin praying like crazy.
Despite the cushy chairs and mainstream decor, this is not Starbucks. This is New Life Church -- some say the most politically influential site of evangelism in the nation. Kids come to this megachurch on the outskirts of northern Colorado Springs not only to be saved but also to sip mocha lattes. They come, sometimes in the thousands, to this megamall of worship to praise Jesus, not through quiet, mannered prayer, but through the gut-vibrating baseline of the three electric guitars that begin services. In the words of the lead singer, who sports flip flops with his white button-down shirt and gelled, hipster hair, the kids come because: "God, you are so awesome!"
God's "awesomeness" aside, I came here to understand what it is that churches like New Life are doing so successfully to appeal to teenagers. Generation Y (of which I am a part) is notorious for its dependence on nonhierarchical, virtual communities: music downloading sites, YouTube, Wikipedia and the big momma, MySpace. When it comes to the real world, we are largely apolitical, unorganized and skeptical of authority -- as evidenced from books like Robert Putnam's 2000 bestseller Bowling Alone and Jean Twenge's more recent Generation Me.
In dramatic contrast, the National Association of Evangelicals, whose 45,000 churches and 30 million believers make up the nation's most powerful religious lobbying group, continues to successfully recruit teenagers into its fold.
In this climate of isolation and cynicism, how have evangelical megachurches like New Life gained such a strong youth following? And more importantly, what can progressives -- feminists, democrats, civil rights defenders -- learn from their methodology? "The left" is looking a little winded, a little wrinkled and a lot in trouble if it doesn't figure out how to appeal to a youth accustomed to MTV, MP3s and incentives. After spending one long Sunday evening at the New Life Church, I had a better sense of how the evangelical right pulls it off.
The Christian rock band played about five songs, showered in red, white and pink state-of-the-art lighting and periodic rolling clouds from the fog machine. Teenagers knelt down, stood in the aisles with their hands raised and rocked out at the foot of the stage, singing along; the lyrics of each song were projected on three giant television screens. One young woman spontaneously choreographed some kind of contemporary praise dance off in a corner, mixing Twyla Tharp modern with the Harlem shake as the spirit moved her. The lights were very dim, as if to visually indicate to every insecure 14-year-old around that, for once, no one was watching or judging.
It makes perfect sense -- teenagers are naturally emotional, bent on constructing their own unique individuality and deathly afraid of being judged for both. The angsty lyrics and dramatic delivery mirrors their internal world, but the dark, to-each-their-own vibe is in direct contrast to the cruel, external world.
Eventually the music faded into a soundtrack as a young pastor took the stage and translated the idea of God's glory for his "American Idol" audience: "We ask that you would make God famous in our city." Worship Pastor Ross Parsley, in his boot-cut jeans, short strawberry blond hair with pronounced sideburns, delivered his sermon from a Smartphone, throwing in frequent references to Hollywood movies. In fact, over the course of his 30-minute sermon he compared God's glory to the red pill in "The Matrix," the ring in the "Lord of the Rings," and, yes, the lion in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." God's wrath, he explains, is like the melting face in Indiana Jones.
When he asked "Does anyone remember the First Commandment?" and was met with only nervous giggles, he didn't miss a beat before responding: "Bueller? Bueller?" -- a reference to the famous '80s movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
Though Pastor Ross does sprinkle in some classic Valley Girl language (using "like" as a noun and referring to Obed-Edom as an "obscure dudeÃ¢â‚¬Â), he doesn't talk down to his following. He incorporated words like "behooves" and "arbiters" and phrases like "geopolitical woes," which seemed to send the message that, yes, he is one of them, but no, he doesn't consider them stupid. At one point he drew a parallel between one of the Philistines and the government, saying under his breath, "Maybe he consulted our Congress on passing the buck."
Though I would guess that many, if not most, of the teenagers in the crowd have no clue what he is referencing, they laugh knowingly; they felt part of an insider's club of people who "get it." This delicate mix of pop and politics makes kids feel cool and righteous -- not wonky, out of touch or nerdy.
And just when his sermon was skirting the edge of patronizing, Pastor Ross got tough: "WWJD bracelets and Christian contemporary music don't entitle you to the glory," he said. "Cut the garbage -- we must humble ourselves. Every one of us has to do something." The teenagers in the audience nod their heads in dramatic agreement, some raise their open palms, one pounds his fist into his thigh a few times.
You can't buy "cool" -- teenagers know that all to well. They respect a big brother-figure who is giving them the straight dope that you can't buy "glory" either. And what's more, this is action-oriented. Pastor Ross warned that "you never know what blessing you might miss" if you sit idly by. This God -- albeit a definitively Republican, homo-hating, pro-life God -- wants you to stop talking and start doing.
After Pastor Ross finished, Senior Pastor Ted Haggard, who consults with President Bush once a week and masterminded the New Life movement, took the stage and gave his protege a warm greeting. They both sat on tall stools for the Q&A. Pastor Ted encouraged his congregants to ask questions "regarding anything at all." He called on people by their first names and answered their diverse inquiries with what I can only describe as a frightening mix of damnation and Dr. Phil. One moment he was describing young people possessed by the devil writhing on the ground like snakes at a Mississippi gather, the next he explained, "The moment that I feel that God is using me to judge and punish, I hit the prayer closet fast to negotiate." I looked around at the teenagers, wondering if they were as confused as I was. They looked similarly bewildered. Some of them were even covertly text messaging their friends.
But he ended with a comforting idea: "God loves those who wrestle with him." The New Life Church has made God a man to both fear and love, a classic example of what George Lakoff calls the "strict father" model. For the New Life Church, worship is both a mandate and an individual expression, contemporary culture is both an evil and a celebration. But unlike the brand of confusion produced by electoral politics that promises a "stronger America" or health care for all, New Life Church promises concrete rewards. Both pastors spoke often about the payoff for those who are faithful; Pastor Ted even referred to "the toys" that those who pray will undoubtedly receive, holding up Sam Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune as the quintessential example.
For teenagers, unlike aging adults, the ultimate reward is not yet heaven Ã¢â‚¬â€ it is being "cool,Ã¢â‚¬Â being entertained, being inspired. The teenspeak-talking evangelists assure these insecure kids that if they pray hard enough, they will not only be loved, but rich. Unlike the hell that is junior high, at New Life, they are resolutely on the side of the powerful and popular.
As Pastor Ross looked around at the nodding, foot-tapping teenagers filling the stadium seating, he triumphantly shouted, "We are growing the church young!" Unless progressives can figure out a way to reach that same audience, I fear he is right.
For more on the making of this story, see AlterNet's video interview with Courtney Martin at the top of this page.