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Watch-wearing and pew-sitting

watch and pewThere have been many, many, many blogs and articles written attempting to define why the younger generation (known as ‘millennials’) are leaving the institutional church. Most of these articles attempt to tackle some point of church practice, or a perceived rigidity in current religiosity, while suggesting that Millennials have a different temperament regarding spirituality and religious practice. Millennials, it is argued, contain certain defining characteristics that make the current practices of mainline churches unattractive. It’s not that what the church is doing is wrong per se, it’s just that millennials think and act differently than the generations that have gone before them.

Case in point: millennials do not wear watches.

I’m not making this up. The lack of watch-wearing amongst millennials is the classic example given when describing this generation. It is stated over and over again, almost as if it is a point of scientific fact. Leonard Sweet makes this claim in his popular book Viral: How Social networking is poised to ignite revival – although he uses the language of “Googler” instead of ‘millennial”. Sweet writes “One way you can tell Gutenbergs from Googlers? Check their wrists. Googlers rarely wear a watch.” (pg. 135) Watches, apparently like sitting on hard wooden pews, are things of the past and shunned by this more tech-savvy and less traditional generation. This fact is seen as essential to any understanding of this generation, particularly when attempting to understand their lack of church attendance, or the need to enact new models for ministry. Thus, we in the church have had to think our way through a very curious relationship between the absence of watches and the lack of church attendance. Watch wearing and pew sitting are apparently intimately connected.

watchI had to laugh, then, when I saw a promoted post on Facebook which advertised one of the newest advances in the realm of mobile technology. With a tagline that read “Tired of constantly checking your phone?” the company known as “Pebble” advertised its latest product . . . a watch! Sure it may have the possibility to connect with Facebook and read text messages, but let’s be honest here: it’s a watch. It has a face which is able to display time; it has a strap which wraps around one’s wrist. It’s a watch, a fancy shamncy watch. Apparently, that which was exalted as the go-to example of what it meant to be a millennial is now seen as a nuisance.

Screenshot taken from Apple's website

Screenshot taken from Apple’s website

This advertisement, however, promoted on Facebook, is not a random post from a random company trying to repurpose an old idea. The development of a mobile device that you strap to your wrist is one of newest things to hit the mobile market. Apple is launching its own version of this very idea in early 2015. The “iwatch” will hit the market, and no doubt the watch-less generation will become a watch-wearing generation and then all our definitions of who is who will come crashing down.

It may seem trite, to make such a big deal about the resurgence of watch wearing, but it is a big deal. The fact is, for years there has been a push to engage in ‘new’ ministries under the rhetoric that millennials are fundamentally ‘different’ than previous generations. There is truth, in part, to this statement, and by no means do I advocate a church which does not connect to the current culture. However, the question now is, if ministries in the church were based on certain assumptions about millennials–exemplified through the lack of watch-wearing–what does it mean for the ‘new models’ of ministry if such assumptions are no longer valid?

There is a common saying that states “Everything old is new again”, and we see this truth in other areas of our lives. We see it in the fashion industry when old looks come back in style; Movie houses launch reboots and prequels with a varying degree of success; Instead of getting smaller, cell phone makers now strive to produce the largest phone; and apparently watches are again becoming cool.

Perhaps we need to reclaim this truth as it relates to our church life. Instead of thinking about the newest trend to which the church must capitalize, perhaps we need to dive in to some of the old, time-honoured practices that have informed the church’s worship for centuries. I wonder if striving to squeeze ourselves into the jam-packed schedules of today’s family has meant that we have forsaken some ancient practices like sitting in silence and meditation. Have we sought too much to accommodate the current ‘diminishing attention span’ that we have drifted into a style of church which moves frenetically from one thing to the next without any time to be quiet or still? Have we become so enamoured with having a ‘contemporary’ sound to our musicality that we effectively drown out the worship that emanates from the heart and voice of our congregations?

The danger in always attempting to address the ‘newest’ trend or concept is that we inadvertently find ourselves deleting some of our oldest spiritual practices from current christian spirituality. Do we know, for example, how to meditate on God’s word day and night? Do we understand what it means to be still in the presence of the Lord? How do we pray without ceasing? Do we know how to come to God and listen and learn the fear of the Lord? (Psalm 34:1). If the life of our communities are never given to such things, how will Christians today ever learn or develop such holy and faith enriching habits?

I am sure there are many reasons why millennials, and others, are choosing to leave the church. And, I am sure that blogs written before this one, and better than this one, will have useful insights into that issue. I am simply suggesting that we may want to stop and consider that people may be leaving the church not because it is ‘too old’, but because we have thrown too much at it.  Amid all the sounds, screens and moving parts of our church life today, have lost that basic premise of coming together to worship our Lord?

If millennials can once again strap watches to their wrists, then maybe we don’t need the newest thing; Maybe we need the oldest.

What are some of the ‘old practices’ that the church has lost? Are there other ‘old traditions’ that are making a resurgence in contemporary churches today?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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8 Responses to Watch-wearing and pew-sitting

  1. Great post, Kyle!

    I love it when conventional wisdom about a given generation is debunked. Makes me want to do a Nelson Muntzian ‘Ha-HA!’

    And I agree that we shouldn’t discard the old just because it’s old. But neither should we hang onto it and revere it just because it’s old – or forsake the new because it’s new. Everything was new at one time, right? Wasn’t Amazing Grace a contemporary worship song when it was standardized to its current tune in 1835? And wasn’t the Book of Common Prayer written in contemporary language in 1549?

    I’d suggest that we need to be cautious about what we discard, and equally cautious about what we hang onto.

    Keep blogging, Kyle!

  2. Yes the current process of Anglican expression has taken on many adjustments, while holding on to the doctor of faith. That said where is the will to encourage parishes to put up signs and posters telling the community at large they are practice what it is to be openly Anglican. Parish leaders need to encourage laity to attend, daily devotions as routine, at least weekly,

    This is not a demand or stipulation, rather a voice to mention what is the focus of communities who are reaching forward to the people in hundreds. Teach and guide those in age from 27 and under through to 54 and above, who sense the parish has lost connection with the very people in it’s pews and wanting more not more demands.

  3. Great post!

    As someone who is by some definitions a millennial (1985) I can honestly say that what attracts me to the Church tends to be rooted in timeless practice (it is timeless because it’s worked!) and rooted in orthodoxy. I come to Church to be transformed, not to transform it to suit me.

    Too often these days, there seems to be a sense of a need to reinterpret Scripture, and thus the doctrines Scripture informs, as well as practices in a process which, in effect, is attempting to reshape God in the image and likeness, at least perceived, of man. Sunday services are experiential; instead of coming to praise God, there is a perception of a need to come and experience the worship itself, and that feeling is what keeps people coming back. This faith, however, bears a striking resemblance to the seeds sown on rocky soil (Mt 13. 5-6) in that the minute someone loses that feeling and experience, they no longer feel a need to attend.

    The idea that the millennial generation has a different view of ‘spirituality’ than their parents is one suggestion for a reason that youth no longer attend that I find has merit. Not in the sense that it’s something that can be avoided, but in the sense that it reflects the state of catechesis among millennials. For a good chunk of the time when I ought to have been given a stronger Christian education (from the age of about 10 to 20) I did not attend any church. The only reason I’d ever even heard of the Nicene Creed was because I irregularly attended an Anglican parish for Christmas and Easter with my Grandmother.

    When someone has received received poor catechesis, how can they be expected to understand the importance of what they’re being asked to do? Why would they want to bother with coming to Holy Communion? Do they even understand the value of the Sacraments, the real presence and God’s grace being conferred?

    When looking to engage with disaffected millenials, we should be taking our cue from Anglican history. Via media reflected a desire to steer a course not of compromise, but rather of a return to the patristic, creedal Church, rooted in Scripture. As a result it rejected the extremes of the deletions of the Puritans and additions of the medieval Roman Catholics. In modern times, we should similarly seek to stick simply to that formula of seeking the catholic, patristic faith, rooted in Scripture, and reject ultra-reactionary revisionism that seeks to steer a course simply backwards to a different time or an ultra-liberal interpretation that sees modernism as necessary regardless of how much it diverges from Christian orthodoxy.

    Is contemporary music from a rock band going to engage millenials? Sure, some of them, just as it does for some in their thirties, fourties, fifties or even sixties. That’s not to say a hymn sung in four-part European harmony and accompanied by a pipe organ will engage others of every generation. Some people will prefer to have a hymnal in hand, others the words projected on a screen. These are, as Hooker would say, things indifferent. Sound doctrine, solid homilies and fidelity to those doctrines and teachings will do far more than changing the music to attract and KEEP millennials coming to church.

    A few weeks back there was a discussion on this subject in a Facebook group I follow spurred by the following video, which I offer now as it focuses on just this issue of young people leaving the church and does it in a rather amusing way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP8tTXKzObc

  4. Kyle Norman

    Thanks for the encouragement Rob – I often read your blogs to learn how blogs ‘should’ sound! By no means am I suggesting that a contemporary sound is wrong. I have a wide range of worship music which I love – and they all appeal to different sides of me. If anything, this is more in response to Seuss-arists and U2charists – things developed to ‘reach’ the millennial generation which seems gimmicky at best.

    For me, this is more about some of the ancient practices of silence, meditation, study. It donned on me a while back that we have very little time to sit and listen in our service. There is always something ‘next’ – there is always another page to turn to – or screen to look at. Always something else to do. And as a rector, I am always fighting the clock that says I should be done in 90 minutes. Given this trend in how worship is, for the lack of better word, performed today – how will our congregations develop the habit of listening to the Lord, meditating on his word, or cultivating silence, if they never experience it in our churches?

  5. Dawn Leger

    One of the components I find missing from old and new is a simple way of teaching newcomers how to participate. Should you have to take a class in order to fully grasp worship, or should you be able to enter into it from the moment you walk in the door the first time? When I lead and prepare worship, I strive for the latter.

    There is an old saying about Anglicans, “We are how we worship”. Worship is our main identity. Yet so often our liturgies are only meaningful to those of us who have been around a while, not because they are not beneficial, but simply because their meaning is not clear at first sight.

    How often has someone asked me a simple question about liturgy and my response is an historical answer? So, rather than everyone is welcome, it’s everyone is welcome but you will find worship more meaningful if you take a history lesson first.

    So then we say, well, if you pray and worship enough, God will become more real in your worship and the liturgy will become a part of your being. True. And then we are quick to criticize, sorry, “correct”, when God shows them a different meaning from the historical meaning.

    Even before millenials were born, Christendom was quickly becoming post-denominational. As a single mother, my mom didn’t go to the church of her birth. She went where her and her children would be most welcome. Living in this reality means many of the assumptions we make about people walking into Anglican churches are no longer accurate, no matter what age they are.

  6. Good article Kyle. Not sure going back to basics will attract more youth however … returning to the 3 -Rs didn’t do much to engage students …

  7. It seems to me that we must remember that worship is primarily about God and us doing things that are focused on and pleasing to Him. Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to bring in people that we loose sight of this fact.Our focus is turned to the people and keeping them comfortable that God becomes secondary. We sometimes water down there service and make it so user friendly that it becomes more of a sideshow then a worship service . A lot of the big churches in the states have fallen into this trap. Church is primarily there for believers to worship God, nonbelievers are welcome but if our focus is truly on God and they don’t believe ,they are going to feel uncomfortable. It is not primarily a missionary or outreach tool ,God may use it that way but that should not be our focus.Outreach and mission times are the 6 days of the week were we live our worship for the world to see. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

  8. Hey Rob!! I’m not saying we have to go super old school bit not do we have to be über flashy with the latest trends (ie, let’s have church in a skatepark!).

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