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Cool Christianity Is (Still) a Bad Idea

At the beginning of the 21st century, relevance became the prevailing buzzword in Western evangelical Christianity. Sensing new urgency to make the gospel more appealing to the next generationwhich polls showed were leaving faith in greater numberspastors, church leaders, and Christian influencers tried to rebrand faith. This was the era of Relevant magazines launch, Donald Millers Blue Like Jazz, and Rob Bells ascent as a sort of evangelical Steve Jobs. It was the moment when plaid, skinny jeans, beards, and tattoos became the pastors unofficial uniform. It was a public-relations effort to pitch a less legalistic, friendlier-to-culture, emergent faith that was far from the dusty religion of your grandparents.

I chronicled this awkward era in painstaking detail in Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, which released 10 years ago this month. In many ways the book is a quaint relic by nowa time capsule of a certain segment of evangelicalism at the turn of the millennium. But the books dated nature proves the point I was trying to makethat cool Christianity is, if not an oxymoron, at least an exercise in futility. A relevance-focused Christianity sows the seeds of its own obsolescence. Rather than rescuing or reviving Christianity, hipster faith shrinks it to the level of consumer commodity, as fickle and fleeting as the latest runway fashion. To locate Christianitys relevance in its ability to find favor among the cool kidsjust the latest in a long history of evangelical obsession with imageis seriously misguided.

Here are a few reasons why.

Chasing Relevance Is Exhausting and Unsustainable

As I write in the final chapter, its problematic to assume that true relevance means constantly keeping up with the trends and meeting the culture where its at:

This mindset assumes no one will listen to us if we arent loud and edgy; no one will take us seriously if we arent conversant with culture; and no one will find Jesus interesting unless he is made to fit the particularities of the zeitgeist. But this sort of relevance is defined chiefly and inextricably by the one thing Christianity resolutely defeats: impermanence. Things that are permanent are not faddish or fickle or trendy. They are solid. . . . True relevance lasts.

My argument centered around the inherent transience of cool that makes cool Christianity unsustainable by definition. Todays hip, cover-boy pastor is tomorrows has-been. This years fast-growing, bustling-with-20-somethings cool church is next years I used to go there old news. Near instant obsolescence is baked into the system of hipster Christianity (or hipster anything). Its telling that the majority of the hip Christian figureheads I profiled in the book are now far off the radar of evangelical influence. Donald Miller is a marketing consultant. Mark Driscolls Seattle megahurch dissolved. Rob Bell is a new-age guru endorsed by Oprahand Elizabeth Gilbert. And so forth. That many of the names and trends highlighted in Hipster Christianity a mere decade ago are now nearly forgotten (and would be replaced with a whole new set of personalities and trends today) proves the books point.

Relevance-focused Christianity sows the seeds of its own obsolescence.

I know a few people who have stayed in hip churches for most of the last decade, but many more have moved on to another (usually liturgical and refreshingly boring) church. Others have left Christianity entirely. Turns out a church that seemed super cool to your 23-year-old self may not be appealing to your 33-year-old, professional-with-kids self. Turns out a church preaching sermons about God in the movies! more than the doctrine of the atonement doesnt serve you well in the long run. Turns out a pastor you can drink with, smoke with, and watch Breaking Bad with is not as important as a pastor whose uncool holiness mightjust mightpush you to grow in Christlikeness yourself.

David Wells has it right, in The Courage to Be Protestant, when he says:

[The] marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

For pastors and churches, chasing cool is a fools errand. Its investing energy in places that will only fail youboth because its utterly exhausting (who can keep up with the pace of trends?) and because it sucks energy from the more important, albeit less sexy, tasks of teaching sound doctrine and making true disciples.

Were Often Changed By the Culture Were Trying to Reach

Overemphasis on cultural acceptabilityin whatever culture youre ininevitably leads to theological compromise. This is where evangelicalisms pragmatism-driven image obsession has been its undoing. Seeker-friendliness almost always means softening difficult doctrines or ignoring them altogether. Preaching for applause, clicks, and street cred with a particular tribe almost always leads to theological distortion. Its time to bring Christianity into the 21st century is usually code for lets stop harping about sex, cussing, holiness, inerrancy, and all that unpopular fundamentalist stuff. Attempts to square Christianity with the politics of whatever audience you want to impress (and this happens across the spectrum) eventually leads to a faith shaped by politics rather than a politics shaped by faith.

Preaching for applause, clicks, and street cred with a particular tribe almost always leads to theological distortion.

In the decade since Hipster Christianity, Ive noticed a pattern. A theologically conservative 20-something seminary grad is amped about planting a church in some post-Christian place with killer coffee (Portland, Brooklyn, San Francisco). He moves there and starts a church with good intentions to transform the highly secular culture for Jesus. But over time, the highly secular culture transforms him instead. Ostensibly missional immersion in the libertine morality, woke politics, and craft-beer scene of the citys gentrifying neighborhood forms him in its image. Instead of changing the culture, hes changed by it. An initially earnest attempt at relevant Christianity gave way to cynicism, a compromised witness, and maybe even abandoning the faith. Mark Sayers talks about this dynamic insightfully in his 2016 book, Disappearing Church. Its a big reason why hipster Christianity has failed to energize the sputtering evangelical movement.

To be sure, engaging the culture is vital: understanding it, diagnosing it, appreciating aspects of it. But dont be naive about its risks (I speak from much experience here). The formative power of our increasingly post-Christian, digitally mediated world is not to be underestimated.

We Are Inheritors, Not Inventors, of Christianity

Ultimately, the evangelical churchs relevance obsessionof which hipster Christianity is just one manifestationstems from one of its biggest vulnerabilities: ahistorical presentism. Your average evangelical has woefully little grasp of Christian history and church tradition (because how are long-dead dudes like Augustine relevant to the totally unique needs of millennials?!). But ignorance of the past makes evangelicals susceptible to all manner of theological and ecclesiological confusion. Instead of continuity with the churchs past, building on the foundations of Christian history and joyfully stewarding received doctrine and praxis, many are more interested in constant reinvention. The assumption is that every new generation must do church in a fresh way.

Ignorance of the past makes evangelicals susceptible to all manner of theological and ecclesiological confusion.

Certainly contextualization is important, and adapting to the times is necessary to some extent. Certainly not everything handed down from previous generations is worth preserving. But secular observers are right to be suspicious when they notice the large number of churches pitching themselves as new, different, and out-of-the-box (We meet in an abandoned J. C. Penney! Our worship band sounds like Pink Floyd-meets-Sigur Rs! Were charismatic Calvinists with an in-house coffee roaster!). It cant help but feel like churches are just consumer products seeking to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplaceentrepreneurial schemes and gimmicks to sell some spiritual experience.

Thats what trendy church! invariably communicates: just another thing being sold to you. This is a problem for many reasons, as I wrote in Hipster Christianity:

If I primarily choose Christianity because it is slickly marketed, like I might choose an iPhone, the risk is high that I wont stay loyal to that brand forever. I never was attracted to the thing itself, after alljust the attractive marketing, which can easily be one-upped in the future by competitors. Attempting to sell the gospel as cool, then, is a dangerous proposition, because it bases the attractiveness of the gospel on an external definition of marketability and cool that will appeal to people but has very little to do with the actual content of the message. Converts to this gospel will likely be like the seeds on rocky soil in Matthew 13rootless.

Selling ‘Cool Christianity’ Doesnt Work

It can be tempting for pastors and church leaders these days to get desperate, resorting to outrageous novelties and gimmicks to break through the noise and get people in pews. But remember that if the faith we draw people to doesn’t accurately reflect the faith given to us by Jesusif our attractional church downplays the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:2533), for exampleit will not be a sustainable or transformative faith.

All the cool churches, well-coiffed pastors, and sleek new ways to be Christian pitched in the last two decades havent reversed the downward trend of Christian affiliation in America. The Christianity 2.0 strategy of reimagined, relevant faith didnt work. Maybe a back-to-basics embrace of Christianity 1.0 is what we actually need.

Better than the awkward desperation of cool Christianity is the quiet confidence of faithful Christianity. More compelling than any celebrity pastor or bespoke packaging is a churchs steady, committed, hand-to-the-plow presence that creates lasting change for the better in lives and communities. If theres anything Ive come to see in the decade since I wrote Hipster Christianity, its this: a faith received is more trustworthy and transformative than a faith reconceived.

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