Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thoughts on Hipster Christianity

A recent book by Brett McCracken has brought a new term onto the scene--"hipster Christianity." McCracken's book and his notions of hipster Christianity (which I should note I have not read) have gotten a lot of play in places like Christianity Today and even the Wall Street Journal. If you google the phrase now you'll find all kinds of sites noting the phenomenon from one perspective or another. There's even a quiz you can take to discover whether or not you're a hipster Christian. Turns out, I'm borderline hipster. Who knew?

Who does McCracken have in mind? Young evangelicals rebelling from the evangelical sub-culture that created them. A hipster, Christ-following leader might do the following:

    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.
So, I recognize myself a little in this list. I'm definitely a beer snob, though I doubt I would ever sponsor a church outing to a microbrewery. I've hosted Christian coffee houses where we've featured music from Arcade Fire and clips from Cohen brothers films--though Nick Hornby and recent Clint Eastwood films are more my speed. And I've never in my life voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

But I'm definitely not young, not evangelical. I would rather worship in a pew with a kneeling bench than on a sofa in a room full of sofas next to someone texting on their iphone (I don't own an iphone, but I do own a Mac). I don't have any clothes from American Apparel and still believe passionately in preaching as an indispensable aspect of a healthy worship ecology.

The biggest evidence I have that I might not be a hipster Christian is that when I'm around them, I don't feel cool. I do feel cool in most groups of ministers I encounter, but that's typically a very low standard.

I was with two of the "hipster" leaders that McCracken has in mind just a few days after the Wall Street Journal piece came out. Tony Jones was kind enough to host some of our graduate students for a week in Minneapolis to talk about Christian practices of hospitality, and part of that time we spent at Solomon's Porch with Doug Pagitt. They were having great fun with McCracken's book (at the expense of?), though neither were particularly convinced that McCracken had an argument. We spent much of the week identifying the ways we were not hipster. Hipster was the most used word during our time together.

But here's the thing. This whole discussion has me thinking about belonging in Christian community. It's so easy to think of church as a place where flourishing occurs for people like me. Tony said as much about Solomon's Porch. It's not a particularly diverse group. In some ways, they are very hospitable. But they've created a particular way of being church in which some move more easily than others. 

This is not a rant against the emerging church movement or a congregation like Solomon's Porch. I could point this critique just as easily at the congregations that I have served, or at the fairly traditional congregation with whom I now worship, or at church movements like the Vineyard. The forms we choose, the aesthetics we create through language, music, art--all of this tends to invite some and exclude others. I suppose some of this is unavoidable and we should even celebrate the fact that the Christian movement is not a mono-culture, that it can be expressed in so many ways. I'm sure, I know beyond a doubt, that there are some serious, practicing Christians at Solomon's Porch who would not be if the Porch didn't exist in its unique configuration.

But I don't want that to be the last word on this subject. I do think the measure of a congregation, its particular cultural relevance, should always be that persons who have a hard time flourishing anywhere else can flourish in Christian community. One big measure of a church should be how it functions for the least of these. Put another way, how high is the bar set for cultural competence? Can only those particularly adept at a fairly complex set of cultural practices flourish? Or more properly, can only those who can produce and appreciate certain cultural forms find a home among us?

Finally, I am concerned about the category "cool" in this regard. Cool is a very high bar in terms of cultural competence. I know that no congregation would say that its aspiration is to be cool. But congregations and their leaders are always setting cultural markers that determine what it means to really belong, and some of those markers tend to be more exclusive than others. 


Calvin said...


I got a chance to talk to the author about his title and I am fascinated by the ideas espoused. But, one thing I noticed was that this is a decidedly suburban phenomenon. Listen in if you get a chance:

Anonymous said...

I read the article about Hipster Christianity in CT - I felt somewhat hip as a result. Sara

thepriesthood said...

I'm surprised that an entire thesis was given to this phenomenon... I didn't realize it was that sweeping, or that important. You could say I often feel alone.

Admittedly I haven't read the book (only some articles) but what I wish is that McCracken gets personal and describes his faith community and their systems of acceptance and belonging. How are they engaging this cultural shift? Sociologists rarely show their cards, but as incarnate localized followers of Jesus, I think we should always bring it home. To hell with this unbiased objectivity :)

Mark, I resonate with your thoughts about about 'the least of these.' I think the cross that hipster Christians should bear (myself included?) would be to sacrifice a certain cultural elitism/consumption/positioning for the sake of the unnoticed being wholly welcomed into the community of Christ. Great challenge. Good news.

And if I hadn't lost so much membership after my Cana-esque wedding reception, I would totally organize a church fieldtrip to our local microbrewery...

happytheman said...

I caught myself checking into church last week with Foursquare. Thought how rude to be the mayor of anything. But your texting during church hit home.

One of the things I do like about Journey is that it does encompass the community of Austin. We have people from many diverse backgrounds and have probably hit on a couple of listed items. Though we haven't sponsored a outing to a microbrewery, one does share the building complex were in.

We have marched in the Gay Pride Parade and though are preacher doesn't dress in American Apparel he will be marching in his tidy whities for the Good and Fair Clothing company.

It's a community like anything else, though I do miss some of the hymns, they only show up every now and then. Were high on social justice and higher on taking care of the least of these though many of our own programs and co working with others.

It's a good church/community and it would look at itself honestly. We are spending the month of October as a time of discernment. Lunches, dinners, social networking site are all being used for discussion. So far it's been healthy. People are taking deep breaths, looking inward and trusting the Spirit. Will see how it all shakes out.