For one Indiana church, there is no better way to convert young, “hell-bound” heathens than to ask what God thinks about what people do in bed? New Day Church, in the rural U.S. state of Indiana, has launched a new advertising campaign focusing on sex with the hope of gaining new, young proselytes. New Day and similar churches use deliberately edgy and provocative tactics in order to lure back young people who have rejected church and religion, and to strengthen religious faith in teenagers. But is such an approach disingenuous? After all, while these churches adopt novel, up-to-date ways of attracting young people, they tend to cling to the very theology which has turned off so many young people in the first place.
The campaign is centered in the town of Brownsberg, where one can find banners, posters, and even drink coasters featuring a man asking the question, “What happens when God gets between the sheets?” New Day’s pastor, Denis Roy, is using the saucy campaign slogan to promote a series of sex sermons in an effort to make church relevant to teenagers, and to demystify the church’s stance on sex, which, as Roy states, often incites a “knee-jerk reaction” of “shock and awkwardness” according to the Associated Press. Roy hopes to eliminate the taboo surrounding sex in church by showing how religious faith can inform sexual behavior: “Often there is a disconnect between people and the church”, the AP quotes him as saying, adding that “Sex is one of those issues that people are dealing with, and we believe God has the answers.” The efforts of New Day Church come as recent data reveal the growing population of young people unaffiliated with religion. According to a recent poll conducted by the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of nonreligious Americans nearly doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 8.2 per cent to 15 per cent.
Other churches have followed in Roy’s footsteps. Typically, churches designed to draw young people are located in retail businesses such as coffeehouses, concert halls, and even bars and clubs, where the desired congregants will feel more comfortable hearing traditional religious messages about sex and morality. Downing Fish Ministries is one of these young start-up churches. It holds its services inside a tattoo parlor on Sunday nights with a modern worship service that resembles a rock concert more than a religious chorus. According to the AP, Miller says that congregants range from “professionals in suits to the extremely pierced and tattooed to Goths, hippies and ex-cons”, adding that the modern church service attracts people who feel left out on the margins.
Then there is Gene Faesel, pastor and founder of Current Church in Franklin, Indiana. (Noticed a theme yet? Yes. That’s right. All of these religious leaders are male.) Feasel’s church is held inside an old downtown building which doubles as a music venue. “The best way people can experience the love of Christ”, the AP quote him as saying, “is on their level where they feel comfortable, so our music venue is our greatest outreach.” The AP also report him as saying that he does not actively advertise his church, because he does not want his congregants to feel duped into coming. Fair enough.
But exactly what is the agenda of these churches? What are their doctrines? Do they embrace the spiritual progressivism of many inner-city churches, or do they cling to the conservative theology of the suburban and exurban evangelical megachurches which dot the American landscape? Do they affirm the harmless and loving sexual relationships of today’s youths, particularly when such relationships have been vindicated by scientific research, or do they cling unthinkingly to Bronze Age mores? The answer is fairly straightforward. According to the AP, Feasel “doesn’t pull any punches with his message. He preaches straight from the Bible, a tradition he and most other ministers at alternative churches refuse to sacrifice.” In other words, alternative churches like New Day are really just conservative evangelical denominations in really hip sheep’s clothing. They still believe you will go to hell if you do not believe God became a man and killed himself to atone for your sins, since God needs blood to be drawn to be appeased, and there is nothing else you can do to appease him. For them, this is “Christ’s love”, and the Bible, the inerrant “word” of God.
If these “alternative youth churches” are really just “cool” versions of more dowdy Bible-based churches, what do they think God actually has to say about sex? According to the AP, Roy discusses God’s purported view “on topics such as intimacy, pleasure, sexual preference, pornography, adultery and even sexual healing”. Bill Payne, a parishioner at New Day explains the mission of his church to the AP: “We aren’t here to judge you or look down on you but to share the love of Christ”. But the conventional evangelical Protestant view is that homosexuality is immoral, that women should submit to men, and, even until a few decades ago in some denominations, that interracial sex was immoral. In addition, pornography is judged immoral, and polyamory—even if it is mutually consensual—is scorned as adultery. And, of course, it is necessary to believe in the human blood-sacrifice of Christ to redeem one’s sins and thus avoid eternal torment. More and more young people, however, are questioning the sanity of these beliefs, because, for them, such beliefs are just plain unfair and irrational. While the church will attract young people with rock music, it will continue to repel them with their ineluctably disapproving stance on same-sex affection, polyamory, and other expressions of human love, not to mention women’s rights and other social justice issues.
The real question is whether so-called alternative churches like New Day will accommodate superficial youth trends, but not the youth worldview—that is, whether they will pigheadedly stick to their Biblical dogma without an iota of self-criticism, or hear the voices of their young people and seriously re-examine their orthodox stance on the diverse array of human sexualities. This remains to be seen, but, either way, there is one thing we can hope for—youth discernment. For young people are not stupid—they can spot an impostor, and dismantle his charade in the blink of an eye.