I am writing a book about Christian hipsters and “Cool Christianity.” It’s a book I’ve been thinking about for years, planning in my head, and “researching” by every means necessary. I signed the contract with Baker Books in September, and since then I’ve been visiting churches throughout the country, seeking to understand “cool Christianity” in all of its skinny-jean, big-haired glory.
Over Christmas break, I picked up the new Welcome Wagon album. For those who don’t know, Welcome Wagon is a Brooklyn duo made up of an admitted hipster Presbyterian minister and his wife. The album is produced by Sufjan “Christian hipster icon” Stevens, and it is super nerdy and ironic and earnest and cool. The album came out on December 9 and promptly made my top ten of the year.
On December 28, I visited Jacob’s Well church in Kansas City, one of the hippest congregations in America. On the way to the church, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how the worship band would probably eventually start playing Welcome Wagon songs. Sure enough, one of the first songs we sang that night at Jacob’s Well was the Welcome Wagon version of the nineteenth century hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” I was giddy. Was the pipeline of Christian hipster subculture really this efficient? A mere two weeks after the album is released, and it’s already showing up in the repertoire of hipster churches in the Midwest? What does that mean?
It’s the kind of thing that makes me happy I’m writing a book about all this.
In 2009, as I’m writing and researching this study of cool Christianity, and talking with pastors and visiting churches all over the country, I will be sharing bits and pieces of it with you on this blog. I’ll start by sharing an excerpt from the article that started it all in September 2005–“A New Kind of Hipster”—which I wrote for Relevantmagazine.com.
The new generation of “cool” Christians recognize that copycat subculture is a backward step for the Church, but unfortunately the alternative requires a creative trailblazing for which most are far too tepid. Thus, we’ve settled for a reactionary relevance—a state of “cool” that is less about forging ahead with the new than distancing ourselves from the old. We know we do not want to be the stodgy, bigoted, bad-taste Christians from the pages of Left Behind. We are certain we do not want to propagate Christianity through catch phrases and kitsch, and we are dead set against preaching a white, middle-class Gospel to the red-state choir. Perhaps most of all we are tired of burning records, boycotting Disney and shunning Hollywood. We know exactly what the relevant new Christianity must not be—boring, whitewashed, schmaltzy—but we feign to understand just what we should be instead.
The problem with the Christian hipster phenomenon is not as superficial as the clothes we wear, the music we download or the artistic movies we see, nor is it that we exist largely as a reaction against something else. No. The problem is that our identity as people of Christ is still skin-deep, that our image and thinking as progressives does not make up for the fact that we still do not think about things as deeply as we should. The Christian hipster pretends to be more thoughtful or intellectual than the Podunk fundamentalist, but are we really? We accept secular art and (gasp!) sometimes vote for a liberal candidate, but do we really think harder because we are “hip”? I don’t think so.
OK, so I concede this: Evangelical culture needed to be rebelled against, and the result is at least a step in the right direction. But our generation must be careful to remember that we were never called to be a cool subset of the larger culture. We are to be a counterculture—in and not of the world, accepting yet not acquiescent, flexible but not compromising, progressive though not by the world’s standards. True relevance is not about making faith fit into a hipster sphere as opposed to a fundamentalist box. True relevance is seeking the true faith that transcends all boxes and labels.