The bass pounded. Smoke slowly fills the stage. When the countdown on the screens hits zero, the stage is filled with a conflagration of light. A line of figures slowly steps forward out of the white smoke. From the center of this line, a wild-haired woman in a black leather jacket and black ripped skinny jeans carefully moves to the center front microphone. She slowly and delicately brings her mouth close to the microphone like she is about to whisper a secret. Her low, sweet voice projects from the speakers hanging above the stage as the music pauses.
“Welcome to church!” she croons. The bass drops loud and spotlights swing manically across the sanctuary. So do the members in the crowd at Misfit NYC, a hip-hop event that draws around 800-1,200 mostly Millennials each Friday night to Christ Tabernacle in Glendale, Queens.
In 1984 Michael and Maria Durso and five supporters decided to launch a church out of Brooklyn Tabernacle into Bushwick. Later, they added the site just over the border into Queens. The mother church was growing fast with a gospel-music orientated service and had just locked into a venue that fit its style, the 1,383-seat Carleton Theater on Flatbush Avenue. The time seemed ripe to try something different deeper inside Brooklyn. At first the churches’ worship service styles were similar. But as the young generation grew, Christ Tabernacle added a Hip-Hop element. Today, the church draws 4,000 worshippers across three services each Sunday.
After struggling out of his alienation from Christianity, Adam Durso, son of the founders, concluded that younger people should not have to shuck their own culture just to attend church. Instead, they should be encouraged to bring their new styles and interests with them. “Their energy is closely aligned with their talents,” Durso believed. So, in 1996 he and some friends created a predecessor to Misfit NYC to welcome the hip-hop culture of the Bushwick-Glendale area.
These Millennials seem wild about this megachurch. Yet, the common take on the Millennials, the generation defined as those born between the early 1970s and the early 2000s, is that they hate mainline, organized religion. What gives?
The label “megachurch”, in particular, sends shivers down the spines of many a young twenty-something who have grown up nourished by the cynicism of Steve Colbert and the a-religiosity of Haruki Murakami. Suspicious of anything not open-sourced, keenly aware that too much centralized power can be dangerous, and disdainful of mass-produced ideology, the 20th century young adult desires a customizable religious brand.
Young Americans tend to believe there is no need for a religious leader or congregation. Instead, every person can determine their own spirituality and is responsible for their own behavior. A laissez-faire Creator wants people to be good to each other but otherwise is not personally involved with each individual. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have identified this spiritual belief prevalent among American youth as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Not surprisingly, this do-it-yourself religion trends Millennials away from organized churches. According to a 2002 Gallup poll, half of teens before the age of 15 went to church weekly. By the age of 18, however, only 32% continue to regularly attend.
Lacey Francis, a young adult leader at MVMNT, Brooklyn Tabernacle’s own version of a Friday night Millennial service, agrees that her peers are not big into church. “Young adults are the least likely demographic to be in church on a Friday evening,” she says. Francis also adds that the older generation doesn’t understand what is happening among their own kids.
The older generation thinks that young people have stopped attending church because young people are noncommittal, she observes. But she offeres a different analysis. The teenagers and early twenty-somethings are disillusioned by the corruption and inefficacy of the established church to solve world problems. Millennials, in this view, are disdainful of their parents’ megachurches and so have created their own.
Several New York megachurches, sometimes defined as a congregation of 2,000 or more members, have attracted many Millennial searchers. Designed by the same young adults that they are catering to, these churches follow Millennial values. Labels, conformity, and hypocrisy are demonized. Praised are personal expression, diverse community, and intensive exploration of real-life questions. Each Millennial megachurch features a concert-like worship service with original music. Volunteers exude hospitality by welcoming attendees and serving refreshments during the service. Speakers interact with the audience through call-and-response routines. They also encourage feedback on their messages as they speak.
Each one of these churches has also established a specific niche for itself. Misfit NYC hosts hip-hop musicians and speaks the argot of young adults who have grown up in the urban area. MVMNT, previously called Transitions, mirrors the traditional gospel style of its parent Brooklyn Tabernacle. When lead pastors Jim and Carol Cymbala inherited the church in 1971, the congregation was 30 people and dwindling. Carol began writing original music for the church’s gospel choir and reignited the passion of the community through her music. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir has now won six Grammy Awards, and the church has 16,000 members. MVMNT had about 100 attendees in 2005 but has grown to 600-800 youth on Friday evenings.
In addition to Misfit and MVMNT, the Manhattan plant of the Australian-based Hillsong, only four years old, opens its doors to over a thousand young adults at every service five times a Sunday. Its club-like anthems attract the youth subculture “hipsters.”
Millennials unwind in these churches where they are accepted, involved and provided with a heavy emphasis on helping the downtrodden. This wave of a new type of church experience is creating an original culture by uniting the DIY zeitgeist of the 21th century with the core faith elements from the churches of their parents.
Monday: The #Millenneal_Roadmaps/church
Saturday, December 20 4pm @Christ Tabernacle family Christmas show: "A Christmas Redemption" with Just Kidz
Where: 64-34 Myrtle Avenue, Glendale, Queens