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New faith column: Hipster Christianity

September 18, 2010

Latest column on Brett McCracken’s new book “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.”

Here’s the full text and a BONUS Q&A:

Book provides much-needed critical look at Christian hipster trend

I’ll be honest. I’ve occasionally felt like a square in some Austin churches. I don’t wear vintage clothes or ride a fixed-gear bike or have any tattoos. I don’t shun chain stores or exclusively buy organic, locally grown produce. And when I’ve attended services in the warehouses, bars and homes where these Christians often gather and where the church band sounds like something you might hear at Club de Ville, I couldn’t help but look around and think, “Man, when did Christians get so hip? When did church become cool?”

These are the folks Christian writer Brett McCracken profiles in “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide,” a new book that looks critically at the recent trend of young Christians who have blurred the lines between secular culture and the church, who have blended the hip with the sacred.

I admire McCracken’s taking this topic on because, frankly, I’ve struggled for years to explain the trend and always felt as though I came up short. Many of the Christians — some prefer to be called Christ followers — resist labels. They are rejecting what they see as the consumer church and don’t want to be pigeonholed. As McCracken shows us in the book, their theology and worship styles can vary dramatically. So how does one define this phenomenon?

McCracken, a 20-something believer who grew up in an evangelical church and is a regular contributor to Relevant, a Christian hipster magazine, is well-positioned to tackle the question. In “Hipster Christianity,” he presents an assortment of examples and paints a picture, albeit with sometimes broad strokes, that provides some much-needed insight. But ultimately this is a critical analysis of the movement. McCracken worries that making Christianity “cool” could undermine the Christian message and is calling for an expression of the faith that transcends appearances.

It’s important, though, to understand how these young Christians got here. As McCracken explains, many emerged from megachurch settings where their youth pastors tried to protect them from the dangerous influence of secular culture. They lived in a parallel Christian culture with approved music, books and films — as one friend described it, a kind of “Christian off-brand.”

This generation of Christians wanted to burst the church bubble they grew up in. They found value in secular music, books and films. Instead of building megachurches, they questioned whether a congregation needed a building at all. Many met in bars and coffee shops and warehouse spaces. They focused more on the social gospel — raising awareness about hunger and homelessness and human trafficking — and less on trying to save souls. And over time, their music and clothing and lifestyle became indecipherable — at least at first glance — from their secular hipster counterparts.

Did they go too far? McCracken asks. In their embrace of the social gospel, did they neglect the soul gospel? In their efforts to be seen as radical, did they just wind up looking and acting like everyone else? And if Christians are indecipherable from their non-Christian peers, McCracken asks, haven’t they missed the point of following Jesus?

In some cases, yes, says Kester Smith, pastor of the Austin home-based church Immanuel.

“Part of the problem is that we saw some sacred cows that needed skewering and enjoyed it so much, we skewered anything sacred,” he said. “Now we take pride in the idea that nothing offends us, that we don’t have the religious hang-ups our parents did and, most importantly, that we aren’t any different from ‘you.’ And that’s the truly frightening thing behind the power play and the commitment to cool. We want to make a difference, but we don’t want to be different. We don’t want to be ‘set apart’; we don’t want to be God’s ‘peculiar people.’ ”

This is one of the risks of trying to be culturally relevant, according to Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life, a young congregation that meets in homes and rented spaces downtown.

Dodson doesn’t reject secular culture outright the way some evangelical leaders do, but he says Christians still need to uphold their convictions about what is “good and true and beautiful.”

“Some beliefs and behaviors are worthy of celebration and others should be criticized, questioned, or even rejected (winsomely),” he said in an e-mail. “Hipster Christianity seems to avoid this more difficult path of cultural criticism and engagement.”

We’ve needed McCracken’s book for a while now, not just as window into this trend but as a challenge to Christian hipsters who might need to be reminded that, although rejection of the old model of church might be justified, they shouldn’t make the same mistakes by not looking at themselves critically.

McCracken said the book is meant as “a conversation-starter on a topic that people intuitively know is a struggle (we all want to be cool, right?) but maybe hadn’t directly discussed in terms of its impact on Christianity.”

It’s nice to know these conversations were already under way here in Austin, though I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. This city has always been hip.

EF: I’m glad you took the time to research and write this book because I think many people — myself included — have been trying to understand this particular Christian trend for years. What inspired you to take this on? And how hard was it to try to explain a movement that resists being labeled and is theologically diverse?
BM: I think there are a few things that inspired me to research and write the book. For one, I am myself a twenty-something Christian, and I’ve grown up in evangelical Christianity. I’ve seen first-hand the ways in which churches try to be cool or edgy, and how this can be both a good and bad thing. Through working for Relevant Magazine (a very “Christian hipster” magazine), attending a Christian liberal arts college (Wheaton) and now working for a Christian university (Biola), I’ve also seen firsthand the development of a “Christian hipster” subculture among twentysomethings who grew up within evangelical culture but now seek to distance themselves from some of the ills and excesses of it and instead wish to embody a Christian faith that is friendly to and relevant within the broader culture.

It was certainly challenging to attempt to explain this “movement,” which is admittedly quite theologically diverse. Hipster Christianity is definitely not a monolithic, uniform entity that looks the same in all iterations. Each expression of it is different, because each cultural context is different. A “hipster church” in Brooklyn looks different than one in San Diego or Austin. And so it is very hard to attempt a broad-stroke analysis like this, under the banner of a term like “hipster Christianity.” I don’t mean for the term to be an iron-clad label that boxes anyone in to any category; rather, I simply wanted a functional title with which to open up the conversation and explore this broad, fascinating subculture that does exist and definitely raises interesting questions for contemporary Christianity.

EF: You are concerned that hipsters, while they may have been right to reject the church of their youth, might have become too culturally relevant, too “cool,” too indecipherable from their secular counterparts. So this movement isn’t perfect and the institution hipsters are rebelling against isn’t ideal either. What would the ideal, authentic expression of Christianity look/sound/feel like in today’s world?
BM: I think first and foremost it would be a loving, welcoming community that is motivated outward–serving others, putting the needs of others before our own (as opposed to obsessing about how we look or are perceived), spreading the Gospel both in word and deed–and characterized by love for each other. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said (John 13:35) that “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is hugely important, and I think that sometimes when you have churches where there are loads of fashionable hipsters, it can sometimes create divisions where the “uncool” people feel inferior or alienated… Which can work against a healthy community.

I also think that the ideal, authentic expression of Christianity would have to include an emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. That is, it wouldn’t be an inert, static body content to just be a club or cultural get-together once a week. Rather, it should be about the business of spreading the Gospel and making disciples, as directed by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20.

In terms of what this looks like in sight/sound/feel… I think it means that you have churches where relationships are prioritized over flashy technology or impressive buildings, where depth of preaching and meaningful worship are more important than entertainment/spectacle/performance. It means churches that truly value creation, community, the arts and the intellect because such things are good. It means churches that are confident in the fact that Jesus is Lord and that he has inaugurated a new kingdom, a different way of being human.

EF: What’s the most helpful feedback you’ve gotten on this book — positive or negative? I’m guessing some people might react defensively while other types of Christians will say, “Man, am I glad somebody finally explained this thing to me.” And still others will be grateful that you’re challenging them to make being Christian more important that being “cool.” So what are you hearing?

BM: There has been quite the diversity of feedback, both positive and negative. It’s been helpful to hear from many people–especially pastors and church leaders–that they are wrestling with these issues in their own churches, and that the book offered an insightful, well-timed analysis of issues they are facing everyday. That’s exactly what I wanted the book to be–a conversation-starter on a topic that people intuitively know is a struggle (we all want to be cool, right?) but maybe hadn’t directly discussed in terms of its impact on Christianity.  I’ve received several emails from readers saying something like, “thank you for being observant and writing about something that is happening that no one is talking about,” which is very encouraging to hear.
Of course, many others have reacted defensively–the label “hipster” tends to immediately anger people. The most productive criticisms I’ve received are probably those that suggest that I don’t go into enough depth into the legitimate causes and reasons for why my generation of young evangelicals is rebelling and trying to live Christianity out in a different way. Certainly those reasons exist, and it’s important to understand them. I cover some of them in Hipster Christianity, but the ambition of the book was not necessarily to be a raison d’etre explication of this whole generation of young evangelicals. Rather, I wanted to focus on the specific issues raised by hipster culture, and “cool Christianity” in a broader sense.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 18, 2010 11:55 am

    I initially read your Hipster Christianity piece in the Statesman online.

    I really enjoyed your commentary even though, as someone who willingly left evangelicalism (and Chrisitanity in general) a long time ago, I’m probably much more welcoming of the trend than many active or traditional Christians are.

    I do, however, appreciate your perspective and the respectful way in which you approach your topics.

    Anyway – just wanted to let you know that I added a link to your Statesman piece @ http://www.real-austin-texas.com/austin-news.html

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