Last week I had an experience that helped affirm something I have been thinking about for a while. Last week I was attending Gen Con, the largest gaming convention in the United States. On one of the nights I was playing A Game for Good Christians (which we reviewed here). It was a lower player count game, with four total players, and the other three players all knew each other. Of the group, I was the only practicing Christian. One of them had no religious background. Another of the players claimed to have just enough religious background to “get the game.” The final player grew up in the Catholic church, but in his adult years had fully left the faith behind.
A Game for Good Christians is all about interacting with scripture in somewhat novel ways, and of those three the former Catholic understood and appreciated the scriptural references the most. While this game did not spur a “come-to-Jesus” moment in the middle of the gaming hall, it was clear that this interaction with scripture was stirring something in him. Now I do not know this person’s story. I do not know what his experiences were, or what ultimately led him to walk away from the faith. However, it was clear that he enjoyed playing this game and interacting with scripture triggered something. It created a sense of nostalgia.
Nostalgia has fueled a lot of pop culture recently. Nearly all successful intellectual properties from twenty to thirty years ago have made some sort of comeback. Popular books like Ready Player One and series like Stranger Things revel in 1980’s references. Retro consoles have been big hit sellers for Nintendo, and one of the most anticipated video game releases of 2020 is shaping up to be a remake of the much-loved Final Fantasy VII that first premiered over twenty years ago.
Nostalgia is powerful because it reminds us of something. It stirs a memory and a feeling that we have forgotten, but did not want to lose. Often the reason we move on from a piece of media we enjoy is not because we cease to enjoy it. We move on because we feel like we move on to the next best thing, we feel like it is time for something new, or perhaps we feel like we are now to mature for what used to entertain us. When older stories and media are reintroduced in a well done way it reminds us that the media and stories we left behind are still good, and still worth investing in. Nostalgia is this act of being reminded, and media creation companies are finding a lot of mileage by going back down those old roads.
A number of companies have found there is an intrinsic drawl to nostalgia, and this is what my Gen Con experience affirmed. Churches need to do a better job at leveraging nostalgia. Young adults are less likely to be involved in a church, now more than ever before. The Public Religious Research Institute found that 40% of 18-29 year-olds now claim no religious affiliation. This number has been growing steadily for the past thirty years, and often the church’s response has been to chase the specter of relevance. There has been a constant push to be more and more like the current culture, but since the church is following instead of leading it always arrives late and looks behind the times.
I wonder if instead of trying to position ourselves on the cutting edge of cultural relevance as an evangelistic strategy, we went the opposite direction and leaned into nostalgia. There are a lot of religiously unaffiliated people today, but a lot of those people were not always in that category. The grew up attending VBS, going to youth group, and standing next to their grandmother while the congregation sang out of a hymnal. While those people have moved on from that time, I would hope a lot of them have mostly positive memories. I think the beginning of an effective evangelism strategy is found there.
However, this will not be done by simply re-creating what worked in the past. Adult VBS with hand motion songs and animal cracker snacks will probably not bring in masses of 20-somethings. The positive memories are not about the details, it is about the love behind the details. It was not the musty couches in the church basement that created positive youth group memories, but it was the fact that there was an adult leader there who invested in the lives of the teens. The same is true for VBS. It is not the Popsicle stick crafts that drive the nostalgic feelings, it is because the adults running it made it clear that they loved the kids and they loved Jesus.
Perhaps to reach the formerly-churched we do not need Starbucks style cafes, hipster preachers, or touring rock bands. Perhaps we do not need targeted programs. Perhaps what we need are venerable saints who welcome and who love. Perhaps the most effective evangelistic strategy we can employ is to recreate the same safe space that church created when we were young. The kind of place that says you are welcomed here, you are wanted here, Jesus loves you, and so do I. I fully believe that creating space and place for people to come together free of judgement and fully accepted, so that the people of God can be a loving presence in the lives of those who come will trigger a sense of longing and nostalgia for a great many.
I am not a church growth expert or an authority on church development. However, chasing relevance is not working. Perhaps if we tried re-creating the “way it used to be” in the best possible way, then we might find ways to re-engage the people who walked away, because nostalgia has that kind of draw on people.