DC church reaching millennials with evangelical, but strangely noncontroversial take on life

Trust me. As a guy in his early ‘60s, after studying trends in American religion for more than four decades, I have seen plenty of news stories explaining how this church or that parachurch has found the magic formula for reaching people who are young and/or sick of organized religion.

These news stories come along every decade or so and are usually rooted in concerns stirred by research into the minds, hearts and lives of another a new generation. This was true with Baby Boomers, Generation X and now the millennials.

I’m not being cynical. We are talking about serious issues for clergy of all kinds, as they try to discern how changing times affect young people heading into the big spiritual gateways of life — marriage, career, children, mid-life angst, retirement and, well, you know.

Right now, the journalism ground is still shaking about you know what -- that headline-grabbing (still) 2012 Pew Forum study about the sharp rise in the number of people, especially the young, who openly describe themselves as unaffiliated, when it comes to institutional religion. Yes, lots of single young adults are sliding into the “Nones” zone.

This brings me to a long “Acts of Faith” feature, written by a freelance writer, that ran the other day at The Washington Post with a headline that, trust me (again), I felt like I had read (with a different noun at the end) several times in my professional life: “A new crop of D.C. churches has discovered the secret to appealing to millennials.” 

Here is the overture, complete with a 36-year-old pastor who — in the post-Associated Press Stylebook world in which we live — doesn’t have “The Rev.” in front of his name.

Aaron Graham is talking to Washingtonians about power.
“How do you live out your identity and have influence, not just in your personal life but in your public life?” he asks, standing at the front of a school auditorium in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Lanky, informal and casually dressed, Graham could be mistaken for a tech guy, albeit one who is clearly at ease talking about the meaning of life in front of several hundred people. The crowd before him listens raptly; some people take notes.
Graham continues. “We all have the ability to talk to someone. How will you live out that calling? Let’s pray,” he says, bowing his head. “You call us, God. How do we make our time here count? How do we use our influence?”

Welcome to the District Church, a 6-year-old evangelical flock that the Post informs us is the “biggest new church most Washingtonians have never heard of.” It has about 600 people in its folding chairs on Sundays, the “vast majority” of which are Millennials.

Now it’s time for the latest variation on the thesis statements I have seen in the past, in other cities, in other times, in other newspapers:

The District Church isn’t D.C.’s only church for young professionals. In the past few years, there’s been a wave of new churches targeting the young professionals who have moved into the city in droves. But Graham’s church is the most successful of that crop. That might  have to do with his intuitive sense of what young people in Washington are seeking, which has resulted in a potent combination of social justice, multiculturalism and unfiltered evangelicalism.
Over the past five years or so, churches all over the District -- and all over the country -- have discovered the same thing. Religion, it turns out, can still appeal to young people: it simply needs to look a little different.

These churches have fabulous websites, which has been true to one form of another for a decade or two. Their worship services place an emphasis on congregational participation. There are plenty of small groups during the week, which is crucial for singles (and has been for decades). These churches depend on the work of lots of volunteers. They have unique social outreach programs, such as the District Church’s emphasis on adoption and foster parenting.

Most are nondenominational and avoid defining labels in their names, another trend that has been building in recent decades. Why is that? This leads us to a key buzzword.

Many could technically be called evangelical -- that is, they believe in the authority of the Bible and emphasize spreading its message -- but the word has political baggage with conservative connotations, and many pastors shy away from it. …
Graham’s philosophies and practices seem to resonate with some D.C. residents In particular. Maybe that’s because he gets that many are in Washington to make a difference and are looking to be inspired. In response, he encourages them to find meaning within the context of Christianity.

Clearly, the big idea here is that District Church is larger than familiar evangelical labels, in part because of its emphasis, as the story states, on combining “social justice and personal piety.”

This is supposed to be new, which would be stunning news to many priests and pastors in settings ranging from urban African-American churches to some, repeat "some," well-established suburban megachurches that are extremely active in missions and social-justice work in their communities, as well as around the world.

Frankly, religious leaders have been talking about the need to reunite social ministries and evangelism since, well, the early urban crusades by the Rev. Bill Graham a half century or so ago. The issue isn't talking about it, but doing it.

So who is THIS new Graham? Maybe that will offer clues to his success. The story notes:

The son of Baptist missionaries, Graham spent three years of his childhood in Liberia observing poverty firsthand, and another six months or so in Kuwait, six weeks of it as a hostage in the US Embassy after Saddam Hussein’s army invaded the country in 1990. Then he returned to the US and became a suburban kid in Richmond, Va. Taken together, those experiences shaped him.

It’s easy to find additional biographical material that adds depth. For example, Aaron Graham’s parents were Southern Baptist missionaries, a crucial detail. He graduated from the University of Richmond, before doing a master's at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary. He worked in urban ministry in Boston and the District Church has strong support from Baptists in Virginia.

Add that up -- especially with his work with Sojourners magazine -- and it would appear that he has solid credentials in the so-called “moderate," progressive wing of Southern Baptist life.

So what does all of this have to do with the Post feature?

For starters, this certainly sounds like a church and a talented emerging leader worthy of coverage. But, frankly, there is little here that screams innovation and 600 people is a nice flock, but how does that compare with other successful churches in the District? How about those urban plants linked to the Presbyterian Church in America? What do the very traditional Southern Baptists at the thriving, urban Capitol Hill Baptist Church think of this development?

As someone who worked in urban Washington for a decade-plus, let me raise another defining issue that is not addressed in this Post feature, at all. Let’s flash back to an "On Religion" column I wrote when the “Nones” survey first came out:

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject.

For example:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases.

So, to be blunt, what is Pastor Graham and his nondenominational congregation saying to throngs of edgy DC urbanites when it comes of the hot-button issues of our day linked to love, marriage and sexuality? What is the "authority of the Bible" on these topics? How are these alternative evangelicals getting along with all new LGBTQ laws in the District?

This is a very strange silence in a story about a church that, according to the Post, has found (remember that headline) the “secret to appealing to millennials.”

Honest. I am curious. I think the answer to that question would be quite newsworthy.

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