The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity

This is an article from the Wall Street Journal by Brett McCracken, shared with me by Robert Dilday who found it on John Chandler’s blog.  It’s been passed around a little, but only because it’s a provocative article that makes us think hard about the future of Christianity.  I won’t ask you to enjoy it, but maybe we can all learn something from it.  —Jim

‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.

As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn’t megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.

Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”-a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it-to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”-remains.

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?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like “Sex God” (by Rob Bell) and “Real Sex” (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called yourgreatsexlife.com to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (IveScrewedUp.com), and had a web series called MyNakedPastor.com, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church-who posts Q&A videos online, from services where he answers questions from people in church, on topics such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse.”

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes:”The born-again, 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,” he adds, “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.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. 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.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched-and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

Mr. McCracken’s book, “Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide” (Baker Books) was published this month.

8 thoughts on “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity

  1. Let me add that the 70% of young Protestants who drop out of church between 18-22 is probably nothing new. When young people go off to college they often experience that glorious freedom of being on their own for the first time, including the freedom to skip church. It was true when I was in college. But when they get married and have their first child they often come back to church, because they want their children to have the same experience they did. I’m guessing that’s the trend that’s changing these days.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Jim. It’s interesting what some church leaders are willing to do to get people in the doors, but I think we have to be careful not to get away from what church is supposed to be all about. I want to share a story.

    Just yesterday, I was going out to the car after church and met a young woman walking her dogs. She stopped me to ask about the church. She and her husband were looking for a church in the area — a Baptist church specifically.

    One of the things she asked me, which I am seeing more and more, is what type of services we have. She wanted “some praise and worship” but purposefully told me that she wanted emphasis on “learning and education,” not just praise and worship.

    We talked for about 10 minutes about the services and activities of the church, and I gave her a bulletin that listed the week’s activities. Hopefully she’ll visit and people will welcome her with open arms.

    What strikes me is that no matter the worship style, younger people are seeking the Word of God. “Church” for them is less about fellowship, back-slapping and good conversation. They seek the Truth — Christ-centered teaching and some explanation of how it’s relevant to their life.

    I think that a lot of younger people — much more than the people my age who, like me, grew up in the church — want to hear the powerful, unadulterated Word of God. They are curious what it means and how it applies to their life. They are seeking answers to today’s tough problems.

  3. I agree with what you say above that dropping out for a time, especially during college, is nothing new. When I went to Hampden-Sydney, we still had compulsory chapel once a week, on Tuesdays. But I do not recall anyone I knew voluntarily attending Church on Sundays.

    I think you are correct that many come back to Church when they have children. But I think what brings them back in many cases may be more than simply wanting that experience for their children. Often, I believe, it has to do with spiritual growth.

    Several theories exist concerning the stages one passes through as he or she grows spiritually. One such theory that makes sense to me, because I can personally relate to it, can be found in a book by Scott Peck called, “Further Along The Road Less Traveled.”

    Peck called Stage One the “Chaotic/Antisocial.” People at this level are unprincipled and antisocial. In effect, Stage One is a condition totally absent of spirituality. Such individuals may pretend to be loving, but all of their relationships are self-serving and manipulative. In short, they are almost exclusively looking out for number one. Being unprincipled, they have nothing to govern themselves except their own wills, which is why people in this stage are often found in trouble or difficulty — although it is possible for them to be self-disciplined from time to time and, in the service of their ambition, to rise to positions of prestige and power.

    The Stage One person can have a difficult time of it if he ever happens to get in touch with himself and realizes the chaos within and the hurt he has caused others. That’s often when a Stage One personality may suddenly and dramatically convert to Stage Two, which Peck has labeled the “Formal/Institutional.” Those at this stage depend on an institution to keep them on the straight and narrow. Peck says this may be a prison, the military, or a rigidly organized corporation. For many in our society it is the Church. Stage Two people think of God as an external being and may envision Him as a giant benevolent cop in the sky.

    What comes next may surprise some people. Scott Peck calls Stage Three the “Skeptical/Individual.” Members of this group are likely to have been raised in a family headed by Stage Two parents and, as a result, they internalized their parents’ religious and moral principles. By the time they reach adolescence, however, they may question the dogma, and to the horror of their parents, they often fall away from the Church and become doubters, or agnostics, or even atheists — hence Peck’s label, Skeptic/Individual. Its members are not religious, but neither are they antisocial. They can be found in large numbers teaching our children and young adults in schools and universities. They are often unwilling to consider the existence of anything they cannot see or touch. Many, however, do tend to be truth seekers, and if they seek truth deeply enough and widely enough and get enough bits and pieces to catch glimpses of the big picture, they will come to an understanding that the truth curiously resembles what they once viewed as the primitive myths and superstitions held so dear by their Stage Two parents. It’s at the point of catching these glimpses that Stage Three individuals begin to convert to Stage Four, which Peck calls the “Mystical/Communal.”

    Peck refers to Stage Four individuals as mystical because they see a kind of cohesion behind physical reality. As Scott Peck put it, “Seeing that kind of inter-connectedness beneath the surface, mystics of all cultures and religions have always spoken in terms of unity and community.” In my opinion they have realized or intuited what I experienced in an epiphany, that all is one – we are all connected by the God who dwells within us – “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One.”

    Some people come to this realization more quickly than others. It seems to me, if they are raised by Stage Four parents who freely admit they do not have all the answers, but that one should search for his/her own understanding, they may pass through it very quickly indeed. On the other hand, some stage three skeptics may spend their entire lives stuck where they are — and that’s too bad — because they are likely to spend their time and energy being fearful and chasing false gods that can bring only temporary relief from fear. But I believe most of those who move beyond Stage Three will return to the Church. And when they do, they will seek out a church whose members seem to grasp the same realization and understanding of connectedness they have come to. For me, that was Richmond’s First Baptist.

  4. While I agree with McCracken’s premise that Christo-centricity should be what makes a church “attractive,” I don’t agree with his assertion that sex is a “shock tactic.”

    You could argue that many churches have taken it too far, glamorizing their candor about sex to the extent of creating gimmicks to lure people in. In fact, I would wholeheartedly support that argument.

    However, I would argue that sex is something that the Church should never shy away from discussing. Sex is one of the myriad ways that God placed his image upon humanity, and I believe we’d be remiss if we didn’t redeem human sexuality.

    Liquid Church’s sermon series titled “Heat” took a look through King Solomon’s Song of Songs and taught an audience what a God-honoring sexual relationship looks like.

    Frankly, I’m not convinced that advertising sex-talk candor is a good thing to do, and I believe that Liquid has made a little bit of a joke of sex in their promotion of the aforementioned sermon series. But in a sex-crazed culture that has distorted this gift that God gave us, wouldn’t it behoove us to discuss it?

    McCracken mentioned Rob Bell’s book as an example of this “shock tactic” he talks about. I think he’s actually wrong in citing the book. Bell doesn’t use any shock methodology; rather, he paints a very tasteful, while candid, picture of the connections between sexuality and spirituality.

    I believe that the Church has shunned her responsibility to guard sex (think men in the church who would castrate themselves, pastors and priests who preached about the “evils of sex,” etc.), and because of this, Satan has seized the opportunity and given sex over to society. Just look at what society has done with sex.

    So the Church is left to react. Some mistakenly believe sexual openness to be a product “the world,” and thus they avoid the topic altogether. Some make the mistake of trying to employ the same type of sexual openness that society uses and promote their sexual candor through gimmicks and bizarre marketing for sermon series. Few approach sex in a biblical manner.

    Perhaps a right approach would be to simply teach from the Bible. Where scripture is open about sex, be open. Where sex remains unmentioned in scripture, keep silent on the topic.

    Think about this: the average child will be exposed to a conversation about sex by the time he/she reaches 10 years of age. Would you rather that children hear about sex in their school locker rooms or from a preacher of God’s Word?

  5. I also believe that life for people our age (I’m 25, so somewhere in that category) is extremely demanding. I went to college and didn’t stay very loyal to the church because frankly I had no time to. I had to get good grades in college because to be competitive in my field I needed to go to grad school, and then to pay for grad school I had to work and do school. So when it came to Sunday morning, it was either get up early to do work, or take advantage of the one day a week to sleep in… And church was often not even in the mix.

    This doesn’t mean I wasn’t involved in Christianity – I listen to Dr Somerville’s sermons online in the evenings during the week when I had some time for a break. I went to a Thursday night Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) meeting some weeks when I could. I took my spring break to do a mission trip with the Wesley Foundation to Honduras. I traveled twice with Cru groups to help rebuild New Orleans after Katrina. I went to weekly bible studies with friends from my freshman year hall that varied week to week based on when all the guys could get together. I did a lot more similar stuff, but the point is, by all the collected statistics, I would be one of those people “pouring” out of the church. So maybe the problem isn’t people pouring out of the church, maybe its defining what “church” is. Just an observation about the article.

    On the other side of things, I strongly agree with what the author said about the idea of many of these “cool Christianity” churches… They might attract us for a while, but what keeps us is real substance. Its one of the reasons I’ve stayed with First Baptist Richmond’s sermons, even if I don’t live in the area, because I feel like I come out of every sermon thinking, “Yea, I’ve learned something” and I commonly use what a learn to get through life and grow in my faith.

  6. I have always liked the main statement from the Tower of Power 70s funk tune “What is Hip”. The lyrics first accuse the listener of failing to become cool or “hip” after trying a myriad of things including the right friends, drugs, a personal guru, changing hairstyles, new clothes, etc. It then states that the elusive “Hipness is what it is. But sometimes hipness is what it ain’t.” Maybe I just like it because I have always been a nerd who thinks he is cool.

    While you certainly need to get someone’s attention in order to begin a persuasive conversation, it seems that if you live by coolness, you die by coolness. There will always be someone cooler.

    I do think that it helps to reach people in the way they want to be reached. For the majority, that will likely continue to be personal invitation from a friend or acquaintance. For many, it may be through TV and webcasts and website. For others, perhaps through online social networks, a magazine article, print and online advertising, and countless other ways, all hopefully imbued and inspired by Christ working through us.

    And, yes, maybe even an edgy topic could be the starting point to bring someone to Christ. It certainly doesn’t make sense to alienate your congregation or do something contrary to your beliefs, though.

    I think it all boils down to getting attention, and then moving on to help someone realize that Jesus can fill the void in their life that comes from living without God; that Jesus can heal their pain and suffering through forgiveness and unconditional love, bringing true lasting joy.

  7. I was truly blessed from baby-hood. Yes, the Cradle Role for me!! I wasn’t raised in the church. I grew to be a part of it, on to Beginners, then Primary, and up to Junior and Senior. My Dad grew to be a part of it as well, starting off at Pine Street Baptist. His best buddy was Herbert Carlton, who later bacame a Baptist Minister. Many a Sunday night at my house, they and spouses had some good old ice cream eatin’ times with laughs galore. I grew to be a part of it. It was fun. Early on, I sat through many an adult choir rehearsal waiting for Mom and Dad to finish.. By the time we got home (10 miles), I did not have to be coaxed to go to bed, but ofetn I did so with a smile while Herb and Dad and spouses were still having a good significant time of it over the “cream” downstairs in the living room. Being a Christian has always been a Joy. And you know what? That “cream” has never melted!

  8. A cousin of mine was a member of a church in St. Louis, which totally concentrated on youth, trying to be hip and cool while ignoring older people. My cousin warned them that was not a good idea before he went to another job in Indiana. He said that later he found that his former church no longer existed. Both many adults left because their spiritual needs were not being met and some young people left because they saw what would likely happen to them when they got older. Also, while the young people were full of enthusiasm and energy, they were just starting out in life and had little or no money and have also not developed the wisdom, the experience they needed to guide a church(with God’s help of course). One complaint I have heard about the so called “purpose driven churches” is that they tend to, as the saying goes, “throw the older folks under the bus”. Young people do see that and realize that could be them some day. They see enough lack of love and enough hype in the world to recognize them in a church when they are found there. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia did a study, a few years ago, and found that, west of Richmond there are over 85,000 unchurched people despite churches being all arouind them. HMMMM, looks like the fields are ripe unto harvest. Will the churches go and work in the Lord’s fields after sitting around His Table?

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