Over the past 20 years, the Protestant church has noticed a great shift in their demographics as many young people have abandoned the traditional church and have moved more towards modern, non-denominational churches.
If you ask a Protestant college student where they attend Sunday service, they’ll likely mention a non-denominational church. Belmont University, a private Christian college holds a “church fair” for students seeking to get plugged into local Nashville churches. The vast majority of churches are “non-denominational,” meaning that they are not affiliated with a traditional denomination (Methodist, Baptist, etc.).
According to data collected from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, the non-denominational church is the second-largest church category among Protestant churches, behind the Southern Baptist Convention. The 2010 report found that non-affiliated churches were in the “top five religious groups in 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.”
Millennials and those who fall into Generation Z are attracted to these modern churches because they actively target young Christians— something with which traditional churches often struggle.
The trend among college students to avoid traditional denominations is a reaction to a shifting culture and the belief that strict religious traditionalism is too restrictive and can sometimes feel hollow. Within traditional Protestant denominations, one certainly finds more reliance on traditional liturgy and doctrine. Liturgy is the script or rubric to conduct religious services.
Is it traditionalism that repels young church goers? If it is, then should every religious tradition modify their core practices to keep their community alive? Religious tradition is why infant baptism is still practiced in many denominations and why the church still serves holy Communion. Neither of these are bad, and should continue because they are instructions/ceremonies derived directly from the Gospels. The rejection of traditionalism has allowed many modern churches to successfully attract young Christians by excising traditional music, doctrine, and rituals from their services.
However, the problem many people have with established denominations is what they perceive as ‘strict traditionalism.’ In Mark 7:8, Jesus spoke against those who cling to non-Biblical traditions, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (English Standard Version)
In his book The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan phrased it differently: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
So, which approach is more effective in spreading God’s Word: traditional or modern? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. People who cling to traditional worship and those who hate it both confuse religious tradition with traditionalism. As much as traditional and modern churches can be seen as opposites, we should not look at them as if they are on a strictly linear spectrum; instead, we should apply what is known as the Horseshoe Theory.
Many refer to the Horseshoe Theory when discussing politics, claiming that the far-right and far-left are more similar than they are different– with both doing significant damage. Similarly, we should not compare the very traditional, denominational churches with the modern, less structured churches, and claim that one must be better than the other.
Churches who cling blindly to tradition and refuse to adapt to any changes in the culture can be just as damaging as a church that throws away biblical tradition in order to “attract the masses.”
So what is the solution?
According to Jaroslav Pelikan, tradition is living faith. Christians today can be guided by the same faith as Christians from years ago. Biblically-based tradition must be used in all churches to give worship meaning, structure, and to keep them free from chaos. Churches cannot abandon tradition in the interest of filling seats.
Reasonable change for a church can be beneficial as long as the faith filled message is still accurately conveyed and does not change with shifts in the cultural wind. If this balance is struck, then a Church can effectively evolve with the Christians of today while staying true to its purpose and message.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.