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Generation Z doesn’t want nightclub churches

Father Guilherme drops some phat beats. Credit: Facebook

October 12, 2023 - 1:00pm

According to new polling, there has been a global and rapid rise in the number of people identifying as non-religious, especially among young adults. In the US, for example, 43% of 18-28-year-old Americans now identify as “nonbelievers”

This raises a challenge for religious institutions: namely, how can they appeal to younger generations? One popular approach in recent years has been hosting more “modern” events in churches and cathedrals. In the UK, for example, Canterbury Cathedral recently announced its first ever ‘90s silent disco, featuring music from pop groups including the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls and Eminem. Last month Durham Cathedral welcomed the Hoosiers, while St James’s Church in Piccadilly regularly hosts drag nights. One cathedral even installed a 55-foot helter-skelter.

This isn’t just happening in the UK. Orthodox churches in Turkey have hosted techno raves. St Thomas Church in Berlin recently transformed into a “techno temple”. From Prague to Rome to South Carolina, places of worship are being turned into tourist attractions and concert venues. Portuguese priest Guilherme Peixoto even hosted a DJ set for over a million young people before Pope Francis gave final mass for World Youth Day. 

It’s easy to see why the Church feels the need to “modernise” to attract younger members. But while it’s commendable to try and create a sense of community for Gen Z, is converting cathedrals into nightclubs really the solution? However well-intentioned, it’s unclear how church raves or DJ priests will inspire younger people to take these institutions and their values seriously. These events hollow out the depth and meaning of religion, turning it into a commodity. What should be a sanctuary for deep reflection instead serves fleeting pleasures, while the focus shifts from inspiring faith to making money. 

We are a generation coming of age in a world where everything meaningful in our lives has been commodified, from friendship to intimacy to our mental wellbeing. Everything around us feels cheap and commercialised. Perhaps, then, the way forward isn’t cathedral nightclubs but, instead, keeping these spaces sacred. 

Young people across the West are yearning for something deeper. In a 2019 survey, British teenagers ranked second-to-last in an international listing of how far young people felt their life “has meaning”, with nine in 10 of the 16-29 bracket saying they felt purposeless. 

Few have tried addressing this crisis, but one example that resonated with many was Jordan Peterson’s “Biblical Series” — the academic’s YouTube lectures on the psychological meaning of the Bible stories — which attracted millions of views, sold out arenas, and reframed religion for thousands of young people. What Peterson did was focus on the cultural and historical significance of these institutions, myths and their enduring moral lessons — moving even those of us who weren’t religious. 

Many Zoomers feel lost and disconnected. They have weaker ties to tradition, history and cultural identity compared to their forebears — despite the fact that strong cultural heritage can contribute to a sense of belonging, social cohesion, and better mental health. Converting historical monuments into entertainment venues will only deepen this disconnect. 

Instead, we should be preserving the sanctity of these spaces as much as possible. Because, actually, the more the modern world continues to commodify everything, the more soulless and superficial everything else becomes. And as this happens, Gen Z might see the appeal of something more sacred.


Freya India is a freelance writer.

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Arthur G
Arthur G
9 months ago

If a Church doesn’t actually believe in anything except vague platitudes to “be nice”, why would anyone be interested? If everyone goes to Heaven and there is no Hell, why bother?

Anodyne, completely non-judgmental Christianity makes no sense. If we are not sinners in need of repentance and salvation, the Church has no raison d’etre.

Last edited 9 months ago by Arthur G
Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
9 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

This is spot on
There is also a community aspect. Curchgoers need and want to be part of a community. Where group members help each other (rather than a NGO connecting charity donations sent to third world migrants)

Last edited 9 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
9 months ago

Just a small clarification – the link you give to support “Orthodox churches have hosted techno raves” goes to a single story of a church building that is no longer in use as a church (stopped hosting services in the 1920s) hosting raves. That’s analogous to a disused church building in my city that through a series of purchases is now used as a nightclub; it’s not analogous to the examples you give of the CofE hosting drag nights/helter skelter/etc.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
9 months ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

It did seem like the sort of thing the orthodox wouldn’t tolerate. Take note Unherd.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
9 months ago

The success of the Irreverend podcast in the UK is another case in point, alongside Peterson’s success. Three very learned but also very humble and engaging CofE vicars with orthodox (with a small “o”) Christian beliefs discuss faith and current affairs. It has consistently been amongst the most popular religious podcasts in the country and has helped many people find their way through very dark times indeed. People disillusioned with brash materialism, unthinking wokeness, and sanctimonious lecturing about the power grab that is sometimes referred to as “net zero” don’t want third rate Liberal Democrats in robes or silent discoes in churches; they want grounded, challenging, spiritually rich religion that has stood the test of time.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

Why would I go to a nightclub church, when I could just go to a nightclub and spare myself the sanctimony?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

Ha! Not unusually, you’ve nailed it in one.
I enjoy being in the spaces our forebears created, our great cathedrals and village churches, albeit to enjoy the sense of peace, of history, of the endeavour it took to build and maintain them. The author is right in that trying to adjust the atmosphere will simply ruin what is of value, albeit i feel it in a non-religious sense.

David Ryan
David Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Try and say a few prayers while you’re there Steve. Even if you don’t believe in God, and even if there is no God, it will do you good.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  David Ryan

No thanks, i’m fine without (and within).

I paint, that does the same thing. It’s ancient, it’s human, it may actually communicate something to others. You should try it, it might do you good.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
David Ryan
David Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Fair enough. How do you know I don’t paint already?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  David Ryan

You may well do, but it’s an even bigger presumption to recommend prayer to someone you don’t know.

David Ryan
David Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It certainly is not. What planet are you on mate?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Well, I paint, and sculpt, AND am a serious Bible-believing Christian. I am astonished at folks who feel they they are just “fine” without God; there seem to be a lot of them. I believe it is pride that keeps them from acknowledging their need for God.

David Hewett
David Hewett
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Then, clearly, you are wrong. Believe what you like but it won’t make a jot of difference.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
9 months ago
Reply to  David Hewett

Sorry David I accidentally down voted you and can’t change it. I didn’t mean to, I meant to reply. I meant to say I can’t talk about the state of anyone’s soul but round here atheists and republicans do seem to be like vegans – they do seem keen to tell you. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it pride but it is bloody boring and predictable after a while.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
9 months ago
Reply to  Helen Nevitt

I just upvoted you to cancel out my down vote. I don’t agree with what you say necessarily – how can you be so certain? but not so much I’d down vote you. I mean she’s framing it as her belief, that’s all.

William Amos
William Amos
9 months ago

Sanctimony?
I haven’t been clubbing in a few years but my local pub has an ‘Intersectional Pride’ flag up all year round alongside and a ‘gender neutral toilet’ with attached screed. There are various angry stickers up in the loos saying ‘F*ck the Tories’ and ‘Not My King’. There are also at least two signs warning ‘racists’ that they aren’t welcome and a box of flyers warning me about sexual harassment.
At least in church we only read The Litany and Commintation Against Sinners on Good Friday and are assured of God’s forgiveness at the end of it!

Last edited 9 months ago by William Amos
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago
Reply to  William Amos

The Dog & Intersectional Duck in Dalston? They do a great oat milk stout and their 0.0% alcohol Palestinian Pale Ale slaps fr, no cap.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
9 months ago

“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.”

Philip Larkin, “Church Going”

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
9 months ago

The CofE has been trying this sort of gimmick for decades now, without result. Repeating actions whilst expecting different outcomes might not be, technically, the definition of insanity, but it’s a pretty clear sign you’re not paying attention or are too stupid to draw the proper conclusions.

It seems to me that for those not brought up in the church, not returning after lapsing as it were, most people turn to the church for definitive answers. They’re looking for the profound and to understand “the rules” of life, the following of which means everything will turn out okay in the end.

The mundane, the ordinary, the workaday, isn’t what they seek – they already have that. Besides, Christian pop/rock/EDM etc is invariably cringy.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago

The Church of England has become astonishingly irritating, but the urge to “move with the times” is not just irritating, it is an utter betrayal of the basis of faith. How can these weird Bishops not realise that?

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
9 months ago

When a product is no longer selling, and the over-credentialled kid in marketing decides to sell another manufacturer’s product but in the same box and present that is a win for the original product.
All that instead of actually selling their own product to the people who want to buy it but instead just annoy them when they keep finding a different product in the box when then they open it.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago

There are many faults with the present Church of England but the urge to be “moving with the times” is infuriating. Faith is timeless, you silly Bishops

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
9 months ago

Tonight I am going to an early music performance, Byrd’s mass, in one of the most starkly, stunningly beautiful churches in Europe. I managed to get a standing ticket. I was lucky. I suppose the audience will be full of people like me, getting on a bit. But there comes a time in all our lives when we want something else, doesn’t there? These young people will get old. Let’s hope the churches don’t become so up to date and achingly right on trendy they lose something else so they won’t be there for when these young people need it so much it hurts.

N Satori
N Satori
9 months ago

Worshippers have become mere punters as the Christians lose touch with the supernatural element of their religion.
Intellectuals may pine for spiritual depth in religion (and in themselves) but the less sophisticated worshipper hopes that striving to please God will bestow good fortune on them. The way in which God is addressed in prayer often sounds like the way one would flatter and show obeisance to an all powerful tyrant.
However, if the Christianity cannot deliver the supernatural goods then all they have left is a take-it-or-leave-it moral code – and a great big empty space to be filled with Faith.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

When was the last time you attended Mass? From personal experience unbelievers and the lapsed are astonished that the little Church near them is standing room only on Sunday.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago

Bizarre. Concerning the heater skelter slide(?), the first thing that crossed my mind was the Tate-La Bianca murders in LA, which were orchestrated by Charles Manson. I guess I’m too old to be interested in a carnival rather than a church service.

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 months ago

I believe (irony) that it is a mistake to confuse belief in a deity with the religious industry that sprang up to ‘service’ (more irony) that belief.
You can reasonably argue that many religions have been swept along (in the West at least) with the commodification of their industry. It’s not the first time – think of how indulgences were monetised earlier in the last millennium and how the ‘princes’ ended up taking a substantial cut.

Elvis Quinn
Elvis Quinn
9 months ago

So much of the talk about the decline in religion is focused on the loss of the “communal” aspect. This seems usually to come from those more on the conservative side of things, who bemoan the loss of the civic benefits of organised religion.
Most of these conservatives aren’t *really* believers themselves, they’re just more interested in religion as a form of social organisation (like a lot of things they claimed to value). They don’t give much thought to people’s *personal* relationship to a higher power; which is, in fact, very important, despite how many of them would write this off as liberal or humanist aberration from what the role of organised religion is meant to be.
I don’t think this communal aspect is ever going to come back, despite such efforts. I think, especially for the younger generations, that belief is more private, perhaps more introspective even. Or if not that, some young people take religion on more for its “aesthetics” (something the Generation-Z put a fair bit of importance on).
This, I think, is where we are.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago
Reply to  Elvis Quinn

No true Scotsman conservative believer lol. Do you know any of these younger believers who are more “introspective” or more interested in “aesthetics”, or are you regurgitating things you read online?

Elvis Quinn
Elvis Quinn
9 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

You’ll have to explain to me how I made the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, Albert, because as yet, I fail to see it. It was simply an observation of the modern secular conservative; of which there are many, and some write many books and articles.
As for your question: A lot of it is trends I see online, yes. It’s a very good indicator, since young people spend so much time (and that being social time as well) online. And yes I do know some of these people.
The statistics do show that now, many more young people find their communities online, rather than in real life, and spend less time outside. Real-life attending of religious institutions, such as a church, have statistically gone down as well. When you’re spending more time in rather than out, then yes, you could agree one is more likely to go “inward”.
What are your observations?

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago
Reply to  Elvis Quinn

“Most of these conservatives aren’t *really* believers themselves”
When it comes to something as profound as religious belief it’s unwise to question someone’s inner experience. Is Tony Blair’s Catholicism sincere? We know he quietly visited the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It’s too easy to disparage the humanity of people with whom we disagree (mea maxima culpa).
Whenever I see earnest-looking teenagers at Mass I wonder what brought them to places that are mysterious, even ominous, to their peers. It has never occurred to me to ponder if they *really* believe.
Someone I knew well spoke of experiencing a Marian apparition but appears to live as an atheist. A young lefty woman expressed disbelief that her communist, lesbian friend regularly went to church. I would not dare to question the reality or sincerity of either’s belief.

Elvis Quinn
Elvis Quinn
9 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Please don’t take what I said as disparaging the humanity of anyone, this was not my intention.
What I was really highlighting was how the narrative is framed about religion and it’s social role. The pundits that I see decry the waning of religion seem to only prioritize it for this social purpose. Of course have no real insight into their inner feelings, but can see how they are expressing these priorities. Which to me gives a clue at least as to where they stand spiritually.
Two conservative pundits – who I can name off the top of my head – who wish to strongly maintain Christianity as a civic religion in the UK, but who have declared themselves to be fully atheists, are Theodore Dalrymple and John Derbyshire.
Generally, the conservative, socialist, the idealist are more concerned with theories of social order rather than inner spiritual experiences. I take this to be a perennial truth. It’s a priority in worldly things.
And it’s from here how the narrative is so often framed; which we find in the articles, the punditry and in the books. And on UnHerd.
It was the conversation, the narrative, that my initial comment was aimed, I don’t have a glimpse into everyone’s life. 
Your stories are very interesting, and very hopeful to me, really. Thank you for sharing. I imagine these people to be mostly quiet and discreet about their beliefs and feelings. And unlikely to feel the need to proclaim anything.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
9 months ago
Reply to  Elvis Quinn

As a conservative who compalins about the loss of the “communal” aspect and the loss of the civic benefits of organised religion, I kinda agree to your comment. Up to a point.
Communal aspect can and will be restored, but this require accepting we are a Christian minority, that should become more communautarian and focused on its community interest.

Last edited 9 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Simon Tavanyar
Simon Tavanyar
9 months ago

The question is, “What is God doing in the world right now?” Every church body must frame a persuasive answer to that question, that a seeker can grasp and join in with.

Gregory Toews
Gregory Toews
9 months ago

Tom Holland is correct when he says christianity needs to embrace the “weird” stuff, and how doing less than that merely makes it just western, secular, liberalism with a cross. Even if the “weird” stuff is nonsense, it has more internal consistency than a materialist cosmology. Not only is the material universe without meaning (by definition), a material phenomenon such as my brain shouldn’t even be able to conjure up a notion like meaning. Or meaninglessness, if I may be cute. A material universe doesn’t step outside of itself (again, by definition).

Rae Ade
Rae Ade
9 months ago

It’s possible that the churches are using events to drive revenue, rather than to increase congregations.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago

Jordan Peterson is a two-bit hustler who has been conning you rubes for years.

Michael Daniele
Michael Daniele
9 months ago

Oddly, just like Trump! I’m beginning to think you’re a low-capability AI.