Why ‘Cool Christianity’ Can’t Save the Church From Decline


by Brett McCracken

Do people want Christianity to be cool? What happens when churches become too driven by the desire to be trend-savvy and culturally relevant? Can a church balance hipster credibility within an orthodox tradition?

These were questions at the heart of my book “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide,” which released five years ago. The book seemed to fascinate reporters, with outlets like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and NPR covering what they saw as a deliciously paradoxical story.

“If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that ‘cool Christianity’ is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken,” I wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity. “As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.”

Five years later, has the cool-church movement done anything to reverse trends of declining church attendance, particularly among young people?

Most evidence suggests the answer is no. Recent Pew Research data showed across-the-board declines in Americans who identify as Christian and dramatic increases in those who are “unaffiliated” with religion, particularly among younger adults.

Research also indicates that millennials do prefer “real” churches over “cool” ones. Contrary to the belief that churches must downplay their churchiness and meet in breweries or warehouses in order to appeal to millennials, a 2014 Barna study showed that millennials actually prefer church spaces that are straightforward and overtly Christian. The same study reported that when millennials described their “ideal church,” they preferred “classic” (67 percent) over “trendy” (33 percent).

More evidence for the unsustainability of hipster Christianity comes by reflecting on what happened to some of the key figureheads and churches I profiled for the book.

Rob Bell was one of seven “Hip Christian Figureheads” featured in the book, and I also wrote about his then-church Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. In the early 2000s, Bell was an evangelical luminary and the poster boy for cool Christianity (“he puts the hip in discipleship,” wrote Andy Crouch).

Since then, Bell has quit pastoring, moved to California, palled around with Oprah Winfrey and become anathematized by many evangelicals on account of his evolving views on hell, gay marriage and “zimzum” theology. In the last five years, Bell went from megachurch pastor to no longer attending organized church at all.

Then there is Mark Driscoll, who was also once a pastor of a hip megachurch named Mars Hill (Seattle). Driscoll was the shock jock of the cool-church pastors and his brazen penchant for controversy eventually (perhaps unsurprisingly) led to his undoing.

After scandals mounted — plagiarism, manipulating book bestseller listsvulgar online rants — Driscoll eventually resigned from his church in 2014. His resignation was quickly followed by the disbanding of the 15 campuses of Mars Hill Church, a church that in the span of two years went from being the third-fastest growing large church in the country to being dissolved.

Of course, for all the stories of the flameouts of fashionable churches and hip pastors, there are counterexamples that suggest a staying power for some forms of cool Christianity.

The Hillsong movement is perhaps the best example. Founded in Australia in 1983, Hillsong Church now has congregations in most of the world’s hippest cities, including London, Paris, Stockholm, Barcelona, Cape Town and Buenos Aires.

Hillsong also spawned a chart-topping music enterprise and a soon-to-be-released film. The church’s popular New York City location, and particularly its tattooed, adored-by-Bieber pastor Carl Lentz, have become the media’s new face of hipster Christianity.

A profile in Details described Hillsong NYC as “a destination for the in crowd,” and said Lentz “conveys a hip, iconoclastic image: religion in a designer wrapper.” Vice described the church as “the BuzzFeed of Christianity,” noting Lentz’s “PR-friendly” message and avoidance of the parts of the Bible that might offend people.

But is avoidance of potentially offensive topics (refusing to publicly comment on the church’s stance on same-sex marriage, for example) really a sustainable path forward for churches like Hillsong? Putting on a fashionable face may bring in energetic crowds in the short term, but in my experience a church’s honesty about the cost of discipleship is what grows people in the long term. I’m convinced that as culture changes and the values of Christianity become more marginalized, the church’s relevance becomes even more prominent as she provides a refreshing alternative to, rather than uncritical affirmation of, society’s prevailing values.

Christianity’s true relevance lies not in the gospel’s comfortable trendiness but in its uncomfortable transcendence, as a truth with the power to rebuff, renew and restore wayward humanity as every epoch in history.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post

Brett McCracken is the author of “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide” (2010) and “Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty” (2013).

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