If you’ve been a young adult in the last 15 years, then there’s a good chance that you’ve been to or been invited to an ugly sweater Christmas party. By this point, they’re almost Noel cliche – most young adults have an assortment of sweaters they’ve picked up from Goodwill for just these occasions. Maybe your small group or young adult ministry at church has even hosted one. So, in the spirit of the Christmas season, I’d like to examine why this “gimmick-y” phenomenon works for people under 30 and what that might mean for your church.
“Gimmick.” There, I said it. In our culture, gimmicks are everywhere – they’re an onramp to participation in everything from grocery stores to minor league baseball stadiums. However, my guess is that if you’re a church leader, the idea of “gimmick” as an on-ramp to participation in your spiritual community makes you throw up a little in your mouth. Church leaders, especially those of us with lots of education, tend to turn up our nose pretty quickly at the guerilla tactics of the megachurch world: giving away iPads, dropping candy out of a helicopter at an Easter egg hunt, inviting Tim Tebow to speak at your church (those last two are real, recent events at a church in my city).
We’re too refined for that, right? The “product” should sell itself. Our appeal is the water and the word – true preaching and teaching – catholic-level depth. We don’t need gimmicks in our churches – that’s for “them.” But quite honestly, that just makes us sound like the kind of people who look down our noses at Wal-Mart shoppers as we make our way to do our vegan shopping at Trader Joe’s in our hybrid cars wearing skirts over jeans.
But I’d like to de-criminalize gimmicks. Not because I think we need them to advance the Kingdom of God, but because I think part of bringing shalom to this earth is not obsessing about our own depravity or making an unnecessary idol out of stoicism in church. At my church, we’ve started to do just that – de-criminalizing gimmicks – and a lot of it has to with our desire to be a multi-class church that reaches people on the margins.
Last week, I guest-preached at a rural church and brought up a volunteer to do a stunt on stage in the middle of the message. An 11-year-old afterward told me it was the best sermon she’d ever heard. I assure you it was not the best sermon she’d ever heard – especially according to our seminary-educated standards, but it may have been the most fun. There’s something there.
I have several friends, whom I love, who I go back and forth with about whether how you do church is neutral or prescriptive for the class of people you’ll get in your faith community. You’ll read tons of literature on how churches should be deeper, more liturgical, and more mysterious/ethereal if you want to reach Millennials. And I think that’s true – if you’re trying to reach university-types. Vegan, hybrid-driving, Trader-Joe’s-eating-types. But the fastest-growing segment of Millennials in North America right now is not that group. In fact, it’s community-college-or-less folks. Folks who shop at Wal-Mart because it’s cheaper, who love UFC, who drive big trucks because they can, and who do most of their living/parenting out of wedlock with the assistance of pharmaceuticals. The kind of folks who frequent minor league baseball games and spend all of their food money on beer they’ll inevitably spill on someone else. The kind of people most yuppie (or Reformed) churches aren’t aimed at.
They love gimmicks. And while some might attend your church for the gimmicks themselves, most just see them as an on-ramp – a fun, pressure-less way to connect with new people. Like an ugly sweater party. I think, deep down, there is a part of all of us that would love to have more fun as a regular part of the church experience. We want to top each other’s stories, we want to rear our head back with laughter, we want to engage both sides of our emotional spectrum. Shared experience is what builds a solid base for community, and if some of that shared experience was something other than singing, thinking, reading, and listening (which are, by the way, things university-types enjoy much more than GED-types), I think we would see a vibrancy return to many of our churches.
And the reason is simple: when people, especially non-stoic people, enter an overly-stoic church experience, they think to themselves “Is this what these people’s lives are really like? What a sad existence!”……and they’re right. Either it’s out of line with who we really are (inauthentic) or we’re just boring people (personal problem):
So I thought I’d give you some real-life examples of fun things we’ve done at our church to give you some food for thought:
-Free Photo Sunday: One Sunday a year, we rent a photo booth and allow people to use it as many times as they want with family, friends, pets, whatever – all free – for an hour before/after worship
-Monthly Altogether Sunday Trivia: On the first Sunday of every month, we do intergenerational worship (we normally have full-service programming for infants to 5th grade). We always try to do fun things during that service, but one of those monthly occurrences is a game of trivia, right in the middle of the worship and complete with some crazy prize. Last month it was a frozen turkey. This month it’s Snuggies. Two months ago it was gift cards to a local coffee shop.
-Original Art Sunday: One Sunday a year, we do an entire worship service where the music, art, poetry, videos, etc. are all made by people from our church. The message is some sort of interactive art project.
-Summer Camp Sunday: Our church has a 100-child summer camp all summer long, so the first Sunday of the summer, we treat the worship service like a summer camp – everyone does arts and crafts, everyone plays a game (like red rover), and we play crazy camp songs with dancing and motions. It’s a riot.
-25th Anniversary Hair Band/Kickball Tournament: For our 25th anniversary last year, we opened the service with a mock Time Life commercial celebrating the music of 1987, played an 1980s worship song with hair band wigs, kicked beach balls around the sanctuary with sharpies to write prayers of thanks on, and ended the day with a kickball tournament with one team representing each of the pastors who’d served at our church.
-Missional Community Olympics: We had each of our missional communities form a team, dress in a crazy uniforms, and compete in wacky games for a big trophy we got from Goodwill. Then we served snow cones.
-T-Shirts: We give away a lot of t-shirts. Participate in a three-day mission trips, bring someone to church on Easter, volunteer at events, whatever. They work.
-Sunrise Grand Prix: Now that our city hosts an annual F1 Grand Prix race, we host our own. We bring two volunteers on stage, give them some cash, and have them run as fast as they can to purchase an item. First one back to the stage wins.
-Karaoke Sunday (still in the works): The band has a list of 50 songs ready to go. We select 5 people from the congregation to pick a song and then come up and lead the whole church in that song with the band backing them.
-And more: I dropped a watermelon off a ladder, we had an Elvis impersonator sing “Blue Christmas” for an offertory, we sing old pop songs, we made a “Blair Witch Project”-type ghost spoof for Easter, wear your work uniform to church Sunday, take trash to church Sunday, a dubstep processional at a wedding, a conga line at a funeral, not to mention our infamous Synod rap video.
….and to my knowledge, we’ve never compromised on the Gospel. I’m not saying you have to do all of that. We’re a bit (okay, a lot) crazy – but it’s working with the people we’re after. You can read more about that in this Christianity Today article that is partially about us and non-university young adults.
So as you get ready to enter Ugly Sweater season, maybe it’s time to ask yourself a few questions:
- What class(es) of people is our church geared toward? (If you don’t know the answer, the answer is probably your class). Is that what we want?
- How do we incorporate fun into our spiritual practice (not “celebration,” which is what suburbanites call singing non-hymns)?
- When was the last time I laughed out loud in worship or at a church event?
- If you’re a highly educated pastor or church leader: how do I have fun (read: let loose) in my own life, and how can I enter the space of people who aren’t like me?