Should church be cool? “Hipster Christianity” and the quest for authenticity

Is it OK for churches to be hip?

“Hipster Christianity” has seen a lot of discussion since Brett McCracken published a scathing article about what he calls “‘wannabe cool’ Christianity”. McCracken identifies hipster Christianity as just another manifestation of the desire to “rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it ‘cool’.” What does that look like?

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

McCracken has also recently published a book on this topic, which is thoroughly reviewed at Religion Dispatches. McCracken’s book seems to present a more nuanced picture of “hipster Christianity” than his WSJ article: he distinguishes between authentic hipster churches that are born of sincere efforts to correct the Church’s course, and insincere churches that just pander to young people with a thin veneer of manufactured cool. The latter are just as phony as any stereotypical “old-school” church that turns up its nose at sinners and refuses to sing any song written after 1788.

It’s hard to know what to make of McCracken’s critiques. A lot of it is spot-on; every time I read an article about yet another provocatively-marketed sermon series about sex at yet another cooler-than-thou church, my eyes roll even farther back into my head. But at the same time, some of the criticism of hipster Christianity verges into the mean-spirited. We all recognize the danger of sacrificing genuine worshipfulness in the pursuit of cool; but it’s important to remember that the main alternative—traditional worship services “the way we’ve always done it”—carries its own risk of phoniness. Unless a hipster church’s “cool factor” actually pulls it away from orthodox Christianity and belief in Jesus Christ, I’m not inclined to criticize too harshly.

What do you think? Is “hipster Christianity” and its desire to make Christianity cool a dangerous trend that should be resisted? Is it a new generation just trying to avoid historical church pitfalls and worship Christ authentically?

Note: see also Molly Hemingway’s post on the topic at Ricochet.

22 Responses to “Should church be cool? “Hipster Christianity” and the quest for authenticity”

  • Michael says:

    It all depends…

    I’m skeptical about churches trying to be “cool”. The truth is, that mainstream media and the world we live in today is NOT cool. Our society is pulling farther away from Jesus, not closer. I truly feel in my heart that any church desperately seeking to reinovate their methodical style of teaching, or outward appearence just to fill seats, or bring in more tithes is asking for serious judgement. Remember ladies and gentlemen that God is cool-he always has been and always will be. We don’t need to change ourselves, or our churches just because the world is doomed. Remember, it’s the people that make the church, not the windows, pillars, or comfy reclining chairs. Don’t let the world change you, let Jesus change you.
    Hebrews 13:8 “I am the same yesterday, today and forever.”

  • Sue Powers says:

    As a person that has grown up Catholic and has recently joined a more “trendy Christian Church”, I am proud to say that I have never been more connected with Jesus than I am now. The traditionalism of the Catholic church is beautiful and a have a tremendous respect for it, but to be honest, I felt that my faith was just not all it could be. I was hungry to know more, understand more, feel something deeper. I needed to understand God and my purpose here and now. I wanted to know that God loves me as I am and that put aside all the traditions and rituals, God is a present God. He effects me as I am. I love the fellowship of Sunday morning mass, but I now find myself reaching out for Jesus all day long everyday. I have never been more happy. I know that God would rather me be like a child in my quest for him rather than lost in a sea of restricting rituals that I can’t relate to, just because that is the way it has always been done. I don’t think of it has “hipster” as opposed to “relavent”.

    • patty says:

      I’m glad that you feel more connected to Christ but when I hear an ex Catholic say that they felt Jesus wasn’t present in Catholicism, I ask how much more “present” can he be than in the Eucharist? Sadly the Church has failed in so many ways the last couple of decades when it comes to teaching the faith.

      Before you turn your back on Catholic Christianity completely I urge you to spend time in prayer before Christ in the Eucharist and also read about the history of Christianity. Good luck and God bless!

  • Jeffrey says:

    The most shocking thing about this article: You found a guy named Scott McCracken who has a book called “Hipster Christianity.” Amazing. Hard to believe that this would arrive at the same time as a book by the same title by a guy named *Brett* McCracken! :)

    • Chris says:

      Jeffery, nice catch! Post has been updated.

      Did you have any thoughts on Andy’s questions?

      • Jeffrey says:

        I responded to the questions. But your site may have swallowed them. When I hit “Submit Comment,” they disappeared.

        • Andy says:

          They got caught in the spam filter–sorry. Your comment should now be visible. Thanks for your patience!

      • Jeffrey says:

        Is “hipster Christianity” a dangerous trend? I think it’s as risk-prone, and trendy, as any movement to resist, avoid, or condemn the “cult of cool.”

        I think youth of every generation, in their enthusiasm and eagerness to develop their own generational community, and in their concerns about peer pressure and status and acceptance, embrace “cool” just like any other social group. The ever-changing landscape of “cool,” impossible as it is to define, is fraught with pitfalls, and full of wonderful surprises. That’s true for Christians… and the rest of the world.

        I don’t see the embrace of “cool” among Christians as an increasing trend. I don’t know how to measure such a thing. Looking back at the pop culture paraphernalia of my parents’ generation, I see that some Christians were busy making cheap ripoffs of what was cool back then, and that some were just embracing cultural trends. Some savored “the taste of new wine” in a desire for what was “real”… while others savored it because it was an excuse to indulge.

        Nothing new there.

        In the same way, some embraced the Reformation because they sensed a new opportunity for a deeper engagement with the Scriptures, while others embraced because it was an opportunity to lash out at authority. Were they all hipsters? Or just some of them? Does it matter? Is the term useful?

        As long as I’ve been in churches (since I was a kid), I’ve seen churches occasionally embarrassing themselves in attempts to market the Gospel. Since long before I became a teenager myself, I saw kids striking poses and accessorizing in a desire to be cool. And, since long before I noticed dishonest marketing techniques in Christian publishing, I’ve seen Christian communities and organizations stooping to promote themselves in trendy, superficial, “worldly” ways. How is this news?

        I haven’t had time to read it all yet, so this isn’t a review. But the “hipster” characteristics described in the excerpts of this book I’ve read so far — the music preferences, the styles, etc — are embraced by many people I know for many reasons, many of them sincere, authentic, even admirable. To slap a label on the lot of them as if they’re all alike is, I’m afraid, misleading and damaging.

        For example, I know that many churches are showing and discussing movies simply because they aren’t crippled by the societal fears and the separatist instincts that hurt so many churches I observed. They’re engaging in a meaningful discussion of the stories being told by, and about, our times, our culture, our history, our hopes. Others may, perhaps, merely show R-rated films to look “edgy”… but I haven’t encountered that yet.

        And I know that some of the titles McCracken singles out (like Lauren Winner’s book) are meaningful, thoughtful publications. To say that putting “sex” in the title is a brash attempt to achieve “cool” is quite a rash judgment, I think. (We might as well criticize those who established the Biblical canon for including The Song of Solomon, as if they were attempting to give the Scriptures street cred.)

        I must say that I’ve been a fan of McCracken’s film reviews – his own prolific work exploring the meaningfulness of art and pop culture – for quite a while. I read all of his reviews at CT Movies, and I look forward to what he writes in the future.

        But while I share his dismay over the occasionally embarrassing, fumbling attempts of some Christians leaders to appear cool, and the occasionally atrocious consumer-driven ventures Christians carry out in Christ’s name ( , anyone?)… I think that a healthy Christian community will be deeply involved in the vocabulary and art of its culture. Instead of censoring, they’ll shine bright lights on the details of their culture, exposing the truth of it: both the diseases in it, and the surprising glories. That’s not “selling out.” It’s a way of living in the belief that God is alive and involved and moving in the lives, trends, traditions, and expressions of our culture.

        I have a great dislike for labels that contribute to the ways in which we divide ourselves into camps, make gross generalizations, dismiss each other, and marginalize each other.

        A fellow I know who is continually striving to divorce himself and his community from all of the trappings of “secular culture” has embraced this new term “Christian hipsters.” He is suddenly using it a lot, with great condescension, clearly enjoying this convenient way to criticize and dismiss pretty much all Christian youth who are interested in the culture around them. (For example, he sneers at Christians who admire the music and activism of the band U2 as if they’re all idolators. According to him, if something is popular with non-Christians, than it’s a worrying sign if Christians like it too.)

        (And yet, he watches pro football.)

        While it can be helpful to recognize and consider trends, I think it’s a good idea to think about the consequences of the names we pin on people, and to consider whether our vocabulary is contributing to the divisions within an already fractured, already divided church, or if we’re presenting a vision that will encourage humility and transformation.

        We *should* think about our decisions, and whether we’re making choices for the sake of ego or the sake of Christ. And I have no doubt that there are teenagers who are too worried about “cool” and not worried enough about truth.

        But to start telling us how to recognize these folks based on what’s on their iPod? That might be very misleading. Better to deepen the discussion about motivations, fruitful cultural engagement, and lessons learned in the history of the church, than to give us checklists by which we can recognize those among us who are probably superficial.

        (Has anyone commented on the extremely “hip” style of the “Hipster Christianity” book cover and marketing plan, and how it draws attention to the author’s work by embracing and employing mainstream marketing trends? I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m asking if there is any irony in the fact that a book criticizing “hipsterdom” might appear to be presenting itself in a method that is about as hip as they come.)

        If I see an online quiz that claims to show me whether or not I am a “Christian hipster,” I’m going to ignore it. I don’t believe a checklist can tell me what I am, why I make the decisions I do, or whether or not I am selling out. It will probably only *encourage* me to look to such surveys for self-definition, to worry about what I *look* like to the culture around me.

        Personally, I love the vibrant, exciting, ever-changing landscape of art, style, and pop culture, and how it expresses the longings, heartaches, discoveries, and passions of the world around me. I love a lot of the music that’s been recently flagged with “Hipster Alert” warnings; and I love a lot of other things besides. If you want to trouble yourself with whether or not that makes me a “hipster,” that’s your deal. Frederic Buechner says that the world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language. That’s a language I want to understand, and I’m going to go on being “bilingual,” if you will, so I can love my neighbor, and so I can hear God when he speaks in that language.

        In summary, I am pleased that the subject of Christianity and “cool” is on the table for discussion. I hope it encourages all of us to think about our choices, our sincerity, and our priorities. I share McCracken’s concerns about that, and I mean to go on reading him, as I have for years. But I have concerns about the “how” and the “stuff” of this discussion. I hope it leads us to a place of greater unity, and greater apprehension of God’s work in the world around us… even the world of pop culture, art, style, and “cool.”

        I pray that, by God’s grace, these hastily offered words don’t lead to any hurt feelings or misunderstanding.

        Jeffrey Overstreet
        (who was born with a long list of characteristics that guaranteed him
        a life of un-coolness)

    • Andy says:

      Sorry for the typo–but thank you for pointing it out! :)

  • Rob says:

    I’m trying to understand contemporary music that sounds no different than its secular counterpart. My cousin is into what I term “death metal for Jesus.” Her sister (also my cousin, of course) is into Christian gangsta rap.

    All you’re doing is taking the bad from the secular, replacing it with Jesus, and telling yourself you’re cool like the sinners are.

    • CHARLES says:

      Hey Rob,

      Question, isn’t that what happend to us all? Did Jesus not take us, which was part of the world, and replace it with Himself and call us righteous? I definately do not think that Christian music should have the same verbiage as the worldly songs, however, if something has a nice beat to it does it make it secular? You see, I think we all have this standard of what Christianity should be, and if something does not exactly fit, not according to the word of God, but by our own perceptions, then we call it wordly and condemn those who partake. We must realize how finite our knowledge compared to the almighty. Do you know how many people that music has touched? Neither do I, but it is safe to say that since none of are all knowing, that we lay down that role of establishing what is good and bad away from the word of God. I mean, when we accept Christ our spirit is renewed but our minds are the same. Does that mean we are still of the world or in the process of letting the word of God transform the rest of us. God says your righteous once you accept Christ. We must be carefu. God bless Rob

  • Jerry says:

    he sneers at Christians who admire the music and activism of the band U2 as if they’re all idolators. According to him, if something is popular with non-Christians, than it’s a worrying sign if Christians like it too.)

    (And yet, he watches pro football.)
    ” While it can be helpful to recognize and consider trends, I think it’s a good idea to think about the consequences of the names we pin on people, and to consider whether our vocabulary is contributing to the divisions within an already fractured, already divided church, or if we’re presenting a vision that will encourage humility and transformation.

    We *should* think about our decisions, and whether we’re making choices for the sake of ego or the sake of Christ. And I have no doubt that there are teenagers who are too worried about “cool” and not worried enough about truth…”

    I, for one, really appreciated having read all of that, Jeff.
    Great insight.

    God’s Blessings.

  • CHARLES says:

    Good Morning to all,

    I can really appreciate all of the different view points presented here, and although, I am newly committed to Christ, my experience with the power of Christ is not that new. I grew up and have visited many churches where the love of the congragation is overflowing, unless you happen to invite yourself into one of the services. Then, it is like joining a social club where no one knows your name and the only information they recieve is for the vital role of spreading your buiness. I also agree that under no circumstancees should the word of God be massaged to ease the ear of those listnening to guarantee church attendance. However, I can understand how the line gets crossed. Not all, but alot of churches are trying to illustrate to the people who really want Christ that it is not the clothes you wear, the inner circle that you are apart of, or how much you tithe that will inevitably secure your seat in heaven. They have made attepmts to remove some of the limitations of what some would call “old school churches” in order to prevent the church from becoming a private membership organization. Tweeting while in service. Man, I could not even imagine that, but nor could I continue to deal with the holyier than thou establishments that spoke the word and did not live it. The only thing constant is the word of God, times always change. Maybe, attempts are being made to try to reach the younger generations because they seem to be falling by the way side faster than I ever can remember.I have no religion, previous churches that I found could never convince me that even though their life was no different than my own, even to the point of entertainment and every day actions, that my life was in better hands if I joined them. It was not until I heard the true word and a practical application of that word, that I learned that I did not need religion. I could have a relationship with my God through His son, and although every action was judged and condemned by those who sometimes committed the same sins as I, that in Christ, there is no condemnation and He was faithful to forgive me of my sins. This does not mean that I do not have church home. I am an active participant of my church and follow a pastor that is passionate about being a shepard over my life. However, the ” not so old school” methods of teaching God’s uncompromising word have brought me closer than I have ever been to having an one on one relationship with my lord. I apologize if this post is not grammatically correct or if it offends anyone, but I have joy in my heart for what I have found and it only happened because God came down to meet me on my level, what ever generation that may be. God bless you all.

  • Armywife67 says:

    What difference does it make if a church is “hip” or not? If one is getting the teaching they need does it matter what they are wearing? Does it matter if they think they are cool or not? All that matters is hearing, living, learning and loving the Word of God!
    That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. :)

  • Robert Tobin says:

    I have been in many cool Roman Catholic Churches, some of them extremlely cold in the winter. Some did have heating, but the Parish Priest was too mean to have it on.

  • Janice Cook says:

    I wish you were hot or cold but because you are luke warm I will spit you out of my mouth. But also it is written when in Roman do as the Romans do. The most important thing is be true to God and His word. Jesus ate with the sinner and he was rejected. Are we rejecting cool or are we rejecting God. I believe we need to get on our knees and ask the Father is this bringing someone closer to him or is it just bringing the world into the Church. Each needs to judge themselves with the Holy Spirit and the word least they, me, or you be judge by God. If we need wisdom then we must ask for it. Be careful in judging anyone if you have not first judged your own heart. Some of what we see is good and brings glory to God and then some things are just plain evil. Falling Short of his glory and what he, God is pleased with. First let us each examine our own hearts and then correct our brothers and sister in Christ, but always with love. But remember prayer is the best thing we can do before, during, and after.

  • David says:

    I’m old, old school… Book of Acts old school. I’ve been around for 53 years and it looks like we’ve all missed the mark, I’ve yet to find any Church that resembles the first Church in the book of Acts. Maybe we should follow their example by fasting & praying more and being lead of the Spirit. Eating, sleeping, and drinking the will of the Father. Loving the Lord God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving are neighbors as our self. Then the latter rain will come and God will pour out His Spirit and restore His power to His people. When the blinded eyes are being opened and the Word of truth is being preached you won’t need “things” to bring people to God. That day is upon us, God is calling out His remnant of true worshipers and believers. Read the Bible and believe it, don’t let the traditional teachings of men confuse you.

  • Deborah says:

    this is what I think, In order to appeal to those who have no church upbringing, I say yes, be cool to draw them in – Jesus went to the people where they were at to relate to them, did he not? Particularly with the young and youth, we need to reach them where society has bombarded them with advertising and the like, however, never do I say we change up the Word or the Gospel. Appeal to the culture, but never set aside God’s Word and his message. Keep the bible in the for front and I see not harm. NOTE: do not disquise the true Word or change it – the bible speaks of false teachers, etc., so do not be deceived. Do not look to the “messenger” but the message and all should be cool. :)

  • James (UK) says:

    I agree with Deborah. We do need to connect with the younger generation. So many churches are full of v old people. Much of the Church in the West is dying out. So we do need to connect in an attractive way. But the question is: what are we communicating? Have we lost the Gospel. The big question is what is in the driving seat? Is it the Bible and the Gospel or is it the gimmicks? I need to bear that in mind when we put on fun special services (eg connected with Narnia). Is it showmanship or gimmicks or is there a worthwhile spiritual message there which will bring conversions and build people up in Christ.
    Let the discussion continue. I am sure we can all learn.
    Are there PRINCIPLES by which we can assess whether we are going too far the other way? (and perhaps give some examples)

  • I think the motive behind ‘cool’ is the question. I pastor a church in Baltimore MD that is probably ‘hipper’ than most. We didn’t set out to be the next hipster church. It’s not our aim to make cool the priority in our gatherings. I think a part of the shift is the contextualization of the gospel which happens every generation (including Wesley and Surgeon). If it wasn’t important for us to engage our culture we would all be singing praise and worship in Aramaic and Greek.

    Do we seek cool? If so then we are at fault for sacrificing the gospel and truth to fit in (see Ananias and Sapphira). But if we seek GOD in authenticity, which just happens to be a metro-sexual-makeover, a pair of chucks, lady-gaga references and video clips galore then so be it. Paul used his surroundings at Mars Hill to express truth, so I’ll continue to use our surroundings here in Baltimore Maryland United States to point to Christ.

  • bridget winkler says:

    philippians 1:15Some are preaching about Christ because they are jealous and envious of us. Others are preaching because they want to help. 16They love Christ and know that I am here to defend the good news about him. 17But the ones who are jealous of us are not sincere. They just want to cause trouble for me while I am in jail. 18But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that people are telling about Christ, whether they are sincere or not. That is what makes me glad.

    this seems somewhat similiar to me and Paul quickly moves past it focusing on Christ, not the sincerety of others

  • Tre' says:

    I am a fan of Christian hardcore music. I don’t do it in any effort to be a “hipster”. I just enjoy the music. Go look at For Today’s lyrics and say that they’re fakes or “hipster” Christians. Their lead singer is probably the most devout Christian I’ve ever met. His lyrics give me chills. The fact of the matter here is that the most people in the church are absolutely terrified of change. If a certain kind of music or image doesn’t fit in with what was the thing when they were kids, it’s shunned. A song’s beat, its rhythm, its speed, these don’t make a difference. Its the content of the lyrics that matters. Ive seen lines of people led to Christ by some of the bands I listen to. I get so tired of people calling my music “unchristian” because they dont enjoy it. I’m just gonna give you guys some advice: If you dont appeal to youth in some way, you’re not going to increase the size of your youth group. “Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I will sing to the LORD, I will sing; I will make music to the LORD, the God of Israel. -Judges 5:3