Probably because many of us grew up in the Sandi Patty world of feathered-hair-and-heavy-mascara Christendom, the states of being “cool” and “Christian” have always seemed far apart. But the urge to merge the two and create a faith both fun and attractive has always seemed a tangible goal. Today that goal drives a large number of progressive-minded evangelical congregations, longing to re-energize a stagnant base and attract the hoardes of attention-deficient Generation Y-ers. A curious result is the Christian hipster—cool, cultured, open-minded and into secular stuff. They are growing in number—I am probably one of them—and taking the Church in a new direction. My concern is that the direction is not as helpful as some may think.
Of course, rebelling against stiff-establishment religion and assimilating spirituality to “happening” culture has been a part of the Church since the Jesus People hippified faith back in the ’70s. Then with the extravagance of ’80s televangelism, a new generation of young Christians desired to break the stigma of moneyed, political Christianity. Enter the age of Christian rock music. Throughout the ’90s a new counterculture developed—the rock-gospel youth group—and to scores of young Jesus freaks, faith became something comparable to all the best things about worldly culture. We had music festivals, T-shirts, books, bracelets and movies of our own—perfectly sanitized alternatives to the trendiest things in the devil’s domain.
But something started happening as the ’90s lunged forward to the 21st century—Christians started recognizing that being in a “semi-cool Christian subculture” was not really all that cool at all. It became increasingly obvious that anything “new” that pop-Christianity came up with was at least three years after its secular counterpart. dc Talk tapped grunge (Jesus Freak) several years after Nirvana and Pearl Jam introduced it. Plus One wooed teen girls four years after *NSYNC relit the boy band fire. Case after case, Christian attempts to make their culture cool have flubbed in awkward imitation.
The new generation of “cool” Christians recognize that copycat subculture is a backward step for the Church, but unfortunately the alternative requires a creative trailblazing for which most are far too tepid. Thus, we’ve settled for a reactionary relevance—a state of “cool” that is less about forging ahead with the new than distancing ourselves from the old. We know we do not want to be the stodgy, bigoted, bad-taste Christians from the pages of Left Behind. We are certain we do not want to propagate Christianity through catch phrases and kitsch, and we are dead set against preaching a white, middle-class Gospel to the red-state choir. Perhaps most of all we are tired of burning records, boycotting Disney and shunning Hollywood. We know exactly what the relevant new Christianity must not be—boring, whitewashed, schmaltzy—but we feign to understand just what we should be instead.
The problem with the Christian hipster phenomenon is not as superficial as the clothes we wear, the music we download or the artistic movies we see, nor is it that we exist largely as a reaction against something else. No. The problem is that our identity as people of Christ is still skin-deep. That our image and thinking as progressives does not make up for the fact that we still do not think about things as deeply as we should. The Christian hipster pretends to be more thoughtful or intellectual than the Podunk fundamentalist, but are we really? We accept secular art and (gasp!) sometimes vote for a liberal candidate, but do we really think harder because we are “hip”?
No. The Christian hipster is all well and good, but not good enough. Christians are called to a higher level of critical thought and discernment. We must consider everything, critique it and diffuse the good, true and beautiful. Whereas the combative fundamentalist focuses on critiquing the secular milieu, the Christian hipster embraces it. While the former closes off from much that is good, the latter forgets what is “good” by accepting all notions of it. Both groups are missing something.
Throughout history the movements and revivals of the Church have been rooted in theology. Now it seems we’ve become more concerned with image. What does a Christian look like to the outside world? How can we be more palatable to the hedonist seeker? We’ve jazzed up our worship repertoire, modernized our wardrobe and opened our arms to the masses. All good, except for the fact that we’ve thrown theology to the wind.
Many hipsters have veered to the liturgical side of things in recent years, avoiding the warehouse-worship style of exploding nondenominational congregations. One would think such a change would require deep thinking about theology and Christian identity, but I fear a majority of newly liturgical hipsters are so because it—dare I say—is the cool new thing, or at least less corny than the alternative. How tradition, liturgy and hymns have become a fad baffles me, but I think the Christian hipster is partly to blame.
Then there are the hipsters who have embraced a thing called “postmodern ministry,” which might as well be called “trying to keep people entertained at church.” They’ve fueled the fire of the worship industry, introduced the world to the non-church church name (“The River,” “The Foundation,” “Mosaic,” etc.) and achingly tried to catch up to the pop-culture literate. Once again, though, it is all about image: “Yes, we can be as cool as anything you see on MTV!” We scream down the throats of disillusioned youngsters who might never know the difference between Calvinist and Arminian.
OK, so I concede this: Evangelical culture needed to be rebelled against, and the result is at least a step in the right direction. But our generation must be careful to remember that we were never called to be a cool subset of the larger culture. We are to be a counterculture—in and not of the world, accepting yet not acquiescent, flexible but not compromising, progressive though not by the world’s standards. True relevance is not about making faith fit into a hipster sphere as opposed to a fundamentalist box. True relevance is seeking the true faith that transcends all boxes and labels. Our goal, as Os Guinness states in his profound 2003 book, Prophetic Untimeliness, should be “to become truly relevant without ever ending up as trendy, trivial and unfaithful.”