Here's a riddle: A young man walks into a building. From the outside, it looks like a nondescript, run-down, abandoned warehouse. Inside he finds mood lighting, music with throbbing bass, and young people wearing skinny jeans and superfluous scarves. A bar off to the side offers drinks of some sort, and a frenetically lit stage is shrouded in fog. Jumbo screens display what appear to be music videos. Everywhere people text on their iPhones.
A young woman with a nose ring and a vaguely Middle Eastern tattoo comes up andintroduces herself. She makes awkward (but refreshingly earnest) small talk about her passion for community gardens and food co-ops. She asks him if he has heard Arcade Fire's new album, and compliments him on his bushy beard and lumberjack look. Beards like that are cool, she says. Eventually she asks him for his contact information.
Question: Is the man in a bar? Or is he in a church?
It could go either way.
Welcome to the world of hipster Christianity. It's a world where things like the Left Behind book and film series, Jesus fish bumper stickers, and door-to-door evangelism are relevant only as a source of irony or nostalgia. It's a world where Braveheart youth-pastor analogies are anathema, where everyone agrees that they wish Pat Robertson "weren't one of us" and shares a collective distaste for the art of Thomas Kinkade.
The latest incarnation of a decades-long collision of "cool" and "Christianity," hipster Christianity is in large part a rebellion against the very subculture that birthed it. It's a rebellion against old-school evangelicalism and its fuddy-duddy legalism, apathy about the arts, and pitiful lack of concern for social justice. It's also a rebellion against George W. Bush—style Christianity: American flags in churches, the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and evangelical leaders who get too involved in conservative politics, such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell.
The new subculture of young evangelicals—I call them "Christian hipsters"—grew up on Contemporary Christian music (CCM), Focus on the Family's Adventures in Odyssey, flannel graphs, vacation Bible school, and hysteria about the end times. Now all of that is laughable to them, as they attempt to burn away the kitschy dross of the megachurch Christianity of their youth—with its emphasis on "soul-winning" at the expense of everything else—and trade it for something with real-world gravitas.
They prefer to call themselves "Christ-followers" rather than "Christians." They cringe at the thought of an altar call, and the prospect of passing out tracts gives them nightmares.
Christian hipsters alarm some church leaders and mystify others. But for many observers, hipster Christianity is an exciting development. It reassures them that not all young people are abandoning the church. They are just rehabilitating its image, making it their own.
In order to remain relevant in this new landscape, many evangelical pastors and church leaders are following the lead of the hipster trendsetters, making sure their churches can check off all the important items on the hipster checklist:
- Get the church involved in social justice and creation care.
- Show clips from R-rated Coen Brothers films (e.g., No Country for Old Men, Fargo) during services.
- Sponsor church outings to microbreweries.
- Put a worship pastor onstage decked in clothes from American Apparel.
- Be okay with cussing.
- Print bulletins only on recycled cardstock.
- Use Helvetica fonts as much as possible.