Hipster Christianity – is being missional just trying to be cool?

Have you ever wondered if a lot of what drives the ‘missional debate’ is simply a subset of Christians looking for an expression of faith that is set apart from the status quo – and in contrast a whole lot cooler? I have. Brett McCracken’s ‘Hipster Christianity – When Church And Cool Collide’, helped me to explore my thoughts on this question in a more informed way. Paradoxically, just reading it made me feel cool. So what’s the answer? Are we just dealing with Hipster Christianity or is that a harsh call?

Christianity is seriously hip these days.  As I write a song from one of nation’s most high profile churches sits at number 4 on the Aria album chart.  Christians like Guy Sebastion are regular competitors (and often winners) on talent shows and we have worship leader rock stars replete with groupies (well behaved ones) who generate millions of dollars. We also have a new bunch of cool people who go by various monkers including ‘missional’;, ’emerging’, ’emergent’, fresh expressions’, etc. I work adjacent to a theological college and I see the new breed heading into lessons each day with their skinny jeans, cool Tees and foppish hair teased, tousled and tamed into the latest look. Even Justin Bieber goes to church!

It was never like this you know. I remember the first flickering rays of light at the end of a dark cultural tunnel in my early years as a believer when cool musicians started to enter the fray.  Until then I had to make do with a diet of Don Fransisco:

and Barry McGuire’s Bullfrogs and Butterflies:

and others I’d rather not link here..

Then along came Amy Grant, Twila Paris, DeGarmo and Key, Michael W Smith, etc and then the ultimate in emerging Christian cool: DC Talk!

On the rock side of things Stryper launched itself on the scene, the Christian version of Kiss:

and the more earthy Rez Band and their incarnational ministry in inner city Chicago and Petra and Whiteheart. Steve Taylor’s brand of music satire was different from everything else and Steve Cockburn marched to the beat of a different drum.  Slowly but surely a compendium of Christians musicians arose to replace my ‘wordly’ album collection.  There were some examples of attempts at Christian cool which I thought set the cause back considerably.  Carmen comes to mind.  Some people just shouldn’t rap “Is JC in your house?!”:

Forgive my trip down memory lane.  McCracken does a less painful job of charting the emergence of cool into the Christian sub culture and gets to the heart of the issue in the first chapter:

“But it all really boils down to one simple desire: the desire to make Christianity cool. And this desire is bigger and stranger and more difficult that we’d like to admit. It comes with implications, baggage, and inherent problems that need to be discussed. the question of cool is loaded and it’s time we stopped dancing around it…..I’m writing about cool because I see its force, not only in the world at large, but in the church…What I want to know is, given the ubiquity of “cool is king” thinking, how are sacred realms – which seemingly teach and believe and survive on notions antithetical to coolness – coping? Specifically, how is Christianity dealing with a culture so driven by style? Is content taking a backseat?” p20-21

McCracken is a well informed writer who goes on to meticulously documents how American culture’s obsession with fad and hip eventually birthed the evangelical youth ministry movement. He provides extensive historical detail. To get the best out of the book its helpful to self analyse as you read, constantly seeing if you can detect the hipster within.

“We feel powerful if we are a part of the winning cultural trend.  How else do you explain our need to acquire extraordinary things like iPhones?” pg 25

I resemble that quote… McCracken differentiates between two types of cool:

“I should make it clear that there really are two distinct categories of hip in today’s world: (1) the naturally hip and (2) the marketed hip.  What I am speaking of above – about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message – is definitely the latter.  If Christianity is naturally hip, well that’s a horse of a different colour…What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it is, has been, and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating and exhausting drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?” pg 29

McCracken writes:

Part of the new “rethink everything!” disposition of evangelicalism in the eighties and nineties was an aggressively commercialisedChristianly!” arose…If the secular market produced anything remotely cool, trendy, or popular, you’d be sure to find a Christian version in no time. pg 85 development of an evangelical sub-culture.  A mind-set of “whatever the secular subculture can do, we can do – only

McCracken lists the Christian hipsters of today (where I regrettably do not get a mention), and inclludes Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Sufian Stevens, Shane Clairborne, Lauren Winner and Jay Bakker but to mention a few. He then lists hipster churches such as the two Mar’s Hill’s (Driscoll’s and Bell’s), Mosaic, Life on the Vine, Jacob’s Well, etc.

Chapter seven deals with the ’emerging church’, and McCracken likens this subset within Christianity to Bob Dylan: ‘new, edgy, elusive, anti-establishment, out-of-the-box, ambiguous and hard-to-define.’ He summarises the emerging church’s most articulated arguments as follows:

  1. Modernism is lame
  2. Christianity is edgier and less safe than people think.
  3. The Church gets in the way of the Gospel.
  4. Dialogue and conversation are better than argumentation and apologetics.
  5. Story and narrative are better than propositions and systems.
  6. Binaries are too simplistic.
  7. What we do is more important than what we think or say.

Chapter eight deals with the ‘missional’ movement, or mindset:

Missional has recently become a more popular buzzword than emerging” whereas emerging focused so much on criticizing the establishment church and declaring that something new was abreast, missional doesn’t waste time dwelling on what’s wrong with the church as much as what the church can do now for the world.  The church is an action-oriented movement, with much work to do, and the younger generations of Christians – especially Christian hipsters – love this activist core. pg 148

McCracken in my view rightly discerns the core of the missional idea:

At the core of the missional idea is a reaction against the big budget “we have Starbuck’s!” excesses of the McMansion churches and the seeker sensitive movement.  The focus shifts from a “come in and be blessed!” view of church to a “go out and serve” perspective.  Whereas seeker churches tend to have big budgets, large staffs, and an emphasis on growing “my church”, missional-minded churches tend to have small budgets, few staff and an emphasis on growing “the church”…As Dan Kimball says, it’s the difference between “I go to church” (consumer church) and “I am the church” (missional church).

Missional asserts that the church is and always has been an apostolic action first and institution second, serving its function by extending itself in motion between the kingdom and the world. pg 152

In this chapter he also looks at the emergence of a ‘new Christian left’, within hipster Christians.  I’ve noticed this tendency amongst hipster believers Down Under.  Increasingly younger believers are becoming vocal about their support of the Greens, which raises a whole bunch of contradictions (which I won;t go into in this article).

Chapter ten deals with wannabee hip churches, and I think I feel better that his description of wannabee hip pastors does NOT reflect my dress sense:

The wannabee hip pastors can be spotted a mile away.  they are firmly entrenched in their mid thirties or forties, and yet wear clothes from Hot Tpic, Hollister, Element, or Ed Hardy.  they have the requisite ever-changing arrangement of scruffy facial hair, and they frequently sport earrings or (if they are really committed) tattoos.  they wear tight fitting clothes, a lot of black, and often don thick-rimmed glasses.  the ones who are not bald spend a lot of time on their hair, frequently sculpting it into a spiky variation on the faux-hawk.  The more daring wannabee hip pastors might even wear jewellery or wallet chains.  all of them care very much about shoes. pg 183

(They dress differently here in Australia.  The early missional heralds in the late nineties and early noughties were to my generalisation mostly in their late thirties of forties, wore predominantly black, most had shaved heads and goatees, and the obligatory Doc Martins. The new breed are way more hip and diversified these days).

McCracken looks at the tendency of hipster Christians to be on the forefront of technology, taking a lead that others follow, and also the tendency to amp up the shock value.  How many trendy churches have you noticed doing very up-front, frank series on Sex?  The New York Times once described Mark Driscoll as having “the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.”

In chapter eleven McCracken addresses the question that sat in my mind all along: “What’s wrong with cool?”

I’m not sure when it first dawned on me – this notion that Christian and cool are words that may not actually go together all that neatly; that in fact pairing them in tandem might be troublesome…The question at hand is this: Are the pursuits of Christianity and cool irreconcilable?

He lists the following traits of coolness which he believes are at odds with the core of Gospel values:

  1. Individualism
  2. Alienation
  3. Competition
  4. Pride and vanity
  5. Focus on the now
  6. Rebellion
  7. Reduction of our identities to the visual

In the chapter twelve  McCracken examines legit coolness – or natural Christian coolness, and lists some criteria for ‘natural coolness’:

  1. When its a sincere celebration of art and culture
  2. When it’s centred on Christ, not on consumption and image
  3. When its different from the world (and different from the hipser world)
  4. When its willing to say not to sin’

In chapter thirteen McCraken presents a persuasive case for ‘reversing the ripple effect’:

As a pendulum-swing reaction against its anti-cultural, hermit past, the contemporary church has become utterly obsessed with culture.  How will we brand Christianity to appeal to the culture?  What are the ‘in’ things that the church must adopt in order to stay relevant in the culture?  What kinds of music, colours, and coffee brands do seekers like?  What are the latest statistics about teenagers and Twitter?  Should we have Twitter in our worship services?  These are the sorts of questions we are asking – questions that are turning Christianity into a shape-shifting chameleon with ever diminishing ecclesiological confidence and cultural legitimacy.  It’s time we take back our Christian identity from the clutches of marketing, consumerism, and the accompanying soulless bric-a-brac of mass-marketing capitalism.  It’s time we really discover who we really are (and always have been) as the body of Christ.

He looks at a number of problems the church faces:

  1. Reacting to ripples:  “Christians have, over the years, lazily relinquished their culture-making, innovative reputation.  Instead, we’ve become really good at imitation.  When something popular, whether important or unimportant, happens in culture, we respond by copying it in a ‘Christian way’..” He argues that we regain the position of stone throwers in our culture creating rather than reacting to ripples.
  2. Scratching where they itch:”To scratch where they itch then, seems like a futile pursuit for a church trying to win converts to the Gospel.  People are itching for a lot of things, and some of them might not actually add up to what the Gospel of Christ offers, but at the end of the day, the gospel is defined outside of and with little regard whatever people think Christianity is or should be.  Consumerism asserts that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price.  it’s all about me…”
  3. Marketing a non-commerical message: “The church today has a weakness for numbers.  We are infatuated with measurement and quantified data, statistics, opinion polls, market research, attendence figures, best sellers lists, budgets, and so on…But what happens to our faith when we turn it into a product that we must sell? What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible?

Having outlined three problems he lists an effective solution:

Finding our core: “The church’s only way out of this quagmire, I believe. is to commit to rediscover and re-articluate its core, biblical purpose in this world, and to devote itself to being the divine and eternal body of Christ, not the flimsy and ephemeral thing the world wants it to be.”

He quotes Paul Grant making a point in Blessed Are The Uncool:

A lot of the world’s hostility to the church is actually a plea for the church to be the church.  It’s capricious, to be sure: the world will also ridicule believers no matter how cool we try to be.  At the same time, the world desperately wants the church to be authentic and spiritually powerful.  the world doesn’t want the church to be cool.

In his final chapter McCracken asserts that ‘Relevance is not a fad and argues for a lasting rather than ‘cool’ Christianity. To illustrate his point he lists some hipster fads that ‘will have passed by the time you read this book’ and contrasts them with ‘Things about Christianity that will not have changed by the time you read this book.’  He goes on to argue for a selfless, confident, God centred Christianity.

I found this to be a well argued and engaging book, which I used for self-analysis as much as I did for analysing others within the various Christian sub-cultures I connect with. Some of the chapters listing the various hipster styles were surplus to requirement and made for some hard reading in the middle pages of the book.  All up its a constructive offering to the body of Christ who should be constantly analysing the cultural trends we experience and perhaps foster in the church – and the subsequent (if any) ramifications for the Gospel.

Finally, to answer the question I started with – are missionals just Christians trying to be cool?  Well, we’re all trying to look our best aren’t we?  Some are just better than others I guess. And no, I’m never going to wear skinny jeans or wear my hair like Bieber ok?!